Best Practices | Desert Quarantine for Fish and Two Turtles

Published on December 25, 2021

Three months ago, I received a call from a previous client who said he needed to quarantine his fish and two turtles off-site for a year. This was unexpected, because he had just built his dream home — and his dream pond — in 2016. He had decided to build a new home and pond, but it would take about a year to complete. 

In the meantime, he had sold his house to Gene Simmons of KISS, who didn’t want the fish or turtles in the first place. About a month later, Simmons resold the property, because apparently his family decided that Las Vegas was too hot in the summer. Whatever their reason, the residents of the pond had to be moved. 

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My quarantine systems hadn’t been used in years, so I started looking for another place to house his fish and turtles. After about a month of no success, I volunteered my systems, even though they were probably too small for all his fish (not to mention the two turtles). 

After a couple of weeks of reconstruction, the tanks were ready to go, and we moved all the aquatic life. 

>> Best Pond Practices | This is an installment of an ongoing, multipart series around Pond Construction

Quarantine Quarters

A good rule of thumb for all koi keepers is to have some type of quarantine setup available on short notice as a place to house new fish coming into their pond or for disease control when the situation arises. In this case, on-site quarantine would have been of no use anyway, so my tanks were the best option.

350-gallon Rubbermaid tank system.

My large quarantine system is constructed using a 1,500-gallon WLim preformed tank. These are nice to have if you can get ahold of one. They are large for a preform, and shipping is an issue, but if you can get your hands on one, they are well worth it. The tank is a 4-foot-deep kidney shape with a completely rounded bottom, making cleaning and maintenance easy. Originally, I installed a 4-inch aerated bottom drain with a wye fitting, reducing the side to 3 inches. This is connected to a 55-gallon drum settlement tank with one of my static prefilters installed in the center. The straight end of the wye has a 4-inch knife valve attached and is sealed off with a rubber Fernco cap. I have used the 4-inch outlet to experiment with different prefilters and biofilters over time, but usually it’s just capped. 

The biofilter is a two-tiered, 55-gallon drum shower filter with the upper basket filled with Bacti-Twist and the lower basket filled with Cermedia MP2-C. A small skimmer is located on the left end closest to the equipment. This system is powered by a WLim Wave 1 1/15-hp pump that pulls from both the prefilter and skimmer, giving me a twice-per-hour turnover rate. For this reconstruction, I built a rear deck platform that holds the edge of the netting and gives me a place to store nets and other equipment. 

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‘Hospital Tank’

The smaller tank (my “hospital tank”) needed more work. This smaller system is constructed with a Rubbermaid 350-gallon stock tank. These work well for a small system and are quite common for use as a quarantine tank. At the time this system was originally built, I didn’t have a 3-inch aerated bottom drain for small tanks as I do now. I used a Tetra bottom drain that connects to a 55-gallon drum with one of my static prefilter baskets located in the center, just as I did for the larger tank. A small external 1,200-gph Waterway pump pushes water into a 55-gallon drum up-flow biofilter filled with Bacti-Twist. Aeration is through the lower side bulkhead using a 6-inch air stone. 

A larger 1,500-gallon system is next to the 350-gallon setup with all the equipment in the back corner.

This tank received a similar deck to secure the netting and store equipment but also required the resealing of every connection on both filters and replacement of all the knife valve seals. I have always kept the large tank running with no fish in it, but this smaller tank sat dry for several years, causing all the seals to dry out. The one change made to the filtration was the addition of an aerated Cermedia chamber located in the top center of the biofilter run by a small Whitewater V-301 air pump from Aquatic Eco-systems.

A small shelf is mounted on the back wall between the two systems. Both air pumps for each system are located there with enough room for the master test kit and a holder I made specifically for the glass test vials while testing both systems. Having this holder separate from the kit makes testing and maintenance much more convenient.

Climate Control

A heater is located in turtle tank.

I separated the fish by size, with all the larger fish going into the 1,500-gallon system and the smaller fish going into the smaller system. The turtles needed to be kept a little warmer over the winter than the exposed tanks would allow, so I built a smaller system out of a 150-gallon Rubbermaid stock tank and located it in the greenhouse. This system has a 2-inch bottom drain line that connects to a small prefilter made using a 55-gallon bucket. I built a short stand assembly to hold a couple of rounds of Matala matting above the inlet in the bucket. This pad set supports a small fountain pump with a ½-inch hose that goes up and over the edge of the tank. At the edge of the bottom of the prefilter bucket is a 1-inch bulkhead with a threaded standpipe for draining and cleaning. 

To stabilize the temperature, I placed a bucket heater in the Rubbermaid tank and constructed a stainless tubular screen that surrounds it, protecting both the turtles and the tank from the heating element. The bucket heater has no temperature control to regulate it, and leaving it on all the time would boil the tank. My solution was to find a mechanical outdoor timer with 15-minute increments and adjust them accordingly. I started out at 15 minutes every hour and a half and added additional time during the night. After a couple of days, I had the temperature regulated between 62 and 68 degrees consistently, knowing I’d have to adjust it from time to time as the weather gets colder.

Shelf for air pumps and water quality test supplies sit on a shelf for easy access.

All these systems drain into my existing landscape drainage piping, making weekly water changes and maintenance easy and less time consuming. Having to hold all these fish and the two turtles for an entire year makes ease of maintenance important. Even if there were only one tank, ease of maintenance should always be a priority, because human nature dictates that if it’s easy, it will get done — and if it’s difficult or time consuming, it won’t. 

Thankfully, none of the fish spawned when they were moved into fresh water — at least for now!

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