Goldfish are dirty, dirty creatures. Their lives are fragile and plagued by their own filth.
The decades-old marketing scam has lied to us. Goldfish can't live in bowls. They can't live in tiny tanks.
It's all lies.
I discovered this when I was gifted a Fluval Chi (a small 5-gallon rimless tank that was considered the new cool thing at the time).
A Goldfish was displayed prominently on the box. Which was why my Husband bought it for me. He knew I was a sucker for chonky, orange, clumsy Goldfish. I've always found their bumbling nature endearing.
My plans were shattered when I tried to buy the very fish they advertised. The pet store employee informed me that my Fluval Chi was inadequate.
"Goldfish need at least twenty gallons," she said.
Apparently, there are no rules or laws for pet marketing. I gestured at all the goldfish on the boxes and at the "Goldfish Bowls," to no avail.
Honestly, as wild and free and unregulated as pet products seem to be, I'm surprised there aren't overpriced cardboard boxes for sale as "Hamster Habitats."
The rude introduction to the aquarium hobby really set the tone for the whole hobby, and I quickly learned that aquarium keeping is not as glamorous nor as casual as it seems.
Don't get me wrong, it can be easy, but only if you're willing to accept endless deaths. Though its difficulty shouldn't come as a surprise considering that you're mimicking a literal ecosystem. Nature spent millions of years fine-tuning the balance - assuming you can do the same the weekend before your kid's birthday is maybe a bit pretentious. Any sort of rush job in aquarium set-up is a commitment to an infinite succession of toilet funerals and identical fish strategically dropped into the tank in the middle of the night.
To avoid the toilet funerals, you just need to know some basics.
There are two kinds of Aquarium keeping (in the broad sense): Saltwater and Freshwater.
I'm going to be honest here, Saltwater tanks are basically a status symbol. They are ridiculous investments of both time and money. You could purchase a car for the same price as a successful saltwater tank.
Not to mention there's an unethical side to Saltwater fishkeeping. There are a few dudes in the Philippines and Indonesia cruising the bottoms of reefs, stunning fish with sodium cyanide and scooping them up to be shipped off to other countries' living rooms, hotel lobbies, and dentist offices.
The vast majority of Saltwater fish species are wild-caught, with only an estimated ten percent bred in captivity.
Yeah… Not the most ethical situation.
With that said, I'll be focusing on Freshwater. After all, these are the fish you and I are more familiar with and there's no hairy moral dilemma attached. And let's face it, you won't be surprising your eight-year-old with a saltwater tank, and if you are, you have money to pay someone else to set it up for you.
So, barebones advice. Tanks need to be big enough, and they need to be cycled. To "cycle" a tank just means giving the ecosystem time to build the right bacteria to do most of the work for you. This means you cannot stuff a fish in a tank after just filling it with water. If you're hoping to let your kid pick a fish for their birthday you'll need to plan weeks in advance.
The basics of the nitrogen cycle go like this:
Fish waste becomes Ammonia.
Bacteria convert Ammonia to Nitrite.
More bacteria convert Nitrite to Nitrate. (Don't let that vowel change trip you up. It definitely threw me off for a while).
Nitrate can then be reduced by water changes, algae, or live plants.
It can take anywhere between four to eight weeks to get to the final stage of having nitrates in your tank. There are multiple ways to get it started. Some places sell bacteria to jumpstart the process (It will still take weeks), or a little bit of fish food without the fish can start the process. It's mostly just a waiting game.
In short, set up your tank with water and filtration, but no fish or invertebrates, and wait. Using the paper test strips you can buy, you're waiting for nitrates to appear. Nitrates are manageable. Ammonia and Nitrites are quick fish death.
The process is not unlike sourdough starter. You're making a home for bacteria to come in and do the work for you. It requires some patience.
I have found sponge filters to be the easiest to maintain, with the added bonus of being cheap. There are a lot of species that can do with a 20-gallon tank, a sponge filter or two, a heater, a thermometer, and a light.
The larger the tank, the easier it is to maintain. You have water volume on your side not only to dilute waste and stabilize the environment, but you'll have more room for larger fish to grow into it. The size of your aquarium should correlate to the size and dirtiness of the fish.
For whatever reason (likely that I'm the stubborn person that I am) I have been trying to make my 5-gallon work for years. My options for living creatures are left to only Pea Puffers, a Betta, or some invertebrates (think snails and shrimp).
Bettas are also a part of the marketing lies. Those cubes and bowls? Torturous to a Betta. Bettas are smart. They need warmer water and require a heater - something that never seems to come included in a Betta kit.
Where are the laws for this?!
Pea Puffers are my only other fish option, but they have a reputation for being tiny murder machines. Aquarium forums claim that their Pea Puffers "murk" anything in existence, chomping snail shells and terrorizing shrimp. No living thing seems to be safe around a Pea Puffer.
Also, is "murk" a term for murder specific to the aquarium community? I keep finding it there and nowhere else.
If you want to dig deeper, there are excellent resources out there. Aquarium Co-op makes some great videos and guides. Dustin's Fishtanks is a great place to buy live plants with the added bonus of hilarity. Dustin once created voting brackets to determine which fish is indeed the worst fish.
For the adults in your life, your newfound aquarium knowledge might spur a less suspicious conversation and get them to tell you where they buy their equipment, plants, or fish. Every Aquarist has a favorite LFS (Local Fish Store) or online shop that likely offers gift cards. Or your conversation might be so successful that they'll tell you what they actually need and you can learn even more about the fish-keeping experience.
Aquarium keeping is not for the faint of heart. It isn't the passive hobby it appears to be, but more importantly, saltwater tanks are worthy of judgment.