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Basics of Shipping Fish
By Carl Strohmeyer-PAMR 35+ years experience
This article is intended for shipping by bag, not moving an Aquarium.
For aquarium and containers shipping, please this Aquarium Answers article:
Aquarium Answers; Tank Moving
The primary purpose of this article is not to point out a right or wrong way to ship fish, rather to outline what the primary problems are and ways to avoid them.
As well, to provide different options as to products that may help in shipping of fish (such as from sales of fish on eBay or AquaBid).
- Make sure that you are shipping fish via USPS Priority, Fedex or similar. Also try and ship early in the week to ensure that the fish will not be held up over a weekend. If you can afford the higher fees of Fedex 2 Day or even overnight, I recommend the service in that you get real world tracking.
I should note that FedEx technically does not allow shipping of live fish, but I know of many who simply do not declare the package as "live fish" and then ship FedEx for more reliable results
- Be aware of temperatures along your route of shipping (especially if “Ground” is used and NOT all Priority Mail is Air!!!).
For air destinations it is a concern due to time in the truck prior to delivery.
Consider cold packs for fish such as Goldfish consider heat packs for tropical fish in colder climate winter months.
Whether heat or cold packs are used, they should be wrapped in newspaper and not placed directly by the shipping bag. I also recommend choosing shorter duration shipping services during times of extreme temperatures (hot/cold)
- Pack with as much air, water, and insulation as possible.
If standard shipping bags are used I recommend at least a 3 to 1 air over water ration.
If possible inject pure oxygen into the fish bag.
For the Kordon Breathing Bags, little air is necessary, so this saves on space and more water can possibly be used.
These bags have gotten popular among some circles of aquarists, as these are a unique idea, however they are not without their flaws and in fact more major shippers I know do NOT recommend them. HOWEVER for individual fish shipments by private parties is where these bags have their best attributes, but in larger bulk shipments the negatives generally out weigh the positives.
From the Article:
“Aquarium Disease Prevention” here is more about Kordon “breathing” shipping bags
Here are a few points +, –, or N (neutral) about this bag:
- (+) The bags allow oxygen and CO2 exchange which also lowers pH shock upon arrival (the major benefit in my opinion).
- (+) Lowers size of shipping container as NO air needs to be added to the bag.
- (-) The bags rupture easily; many shippers have told me that bag ruptures are triple normal.
- (N) They still do not aid with ammonia/nitrites (although this is not truly a negative, more to just be aware of)
- (N) These bags CANNOT be double bagged, otherwise they will NOT properly “breath”
- (-) If bags come in contact with each other, they do not work well and packing them for the inevitable rough handling of shipping is nearly impossible or at least very time consuming.
- (-) The bags do poorly with multiple fish per bag, in part because the bags are designed to hold small amounts of water so that fish can come close to the sides of the bags which multiple fish per bags usually does not allow.
- (-) Higher cost.
- (-) The bottom line is that the shippers I asked reported HIGHER losses with these bags.
Don't get me wrong, I think these are a unique idea, especially for smaller individual shipments, however based on my discussions with real world shippers, they do not work well for larger shipments.
- First is ammonia/nitrite poisoning; this is major killer in shipping and is best avoided by a few or combined methods.
- Avoid feeding fish for 48 hours prior to shipping to lower wastes into the shipping bag.
- Shorten the duration of shipping as much as possible (I recommend to keep it under 3 days)
- I recommend the use of Products containing Methylene Blue as this product improves the Hemoglobin transfer and lowers ammonia/nitrite toxicity. Products such as Wonder Shells can also absorb some Ammonia/nitrites as can Zeolite (Ammonia Sorb), although the later is FW only.
Further Information: Aquarium Medications Part 3; Methylene Blue
Product Resource: Methylene Blue from American Aquarium
- Oxygen depletion; adding pure oxygen or ample plain air can help here as can length of time in transit.
Again Methylene Blue shines here again with its Hemoglobin Transfer abilities in the blood it allows for more oxygen.
The use of the Kordon Breather Bags can help considerably with this problem as well.
- pH Shock; this is often the forgotten killer of shipped fish and in my opinion often the number one killer at that.
This happens from CO2 buildup in the bag, which will then result in very low pH upon arrival.
I have had fish shipped in water with a pH of 8.0 arrive and when the bag is opened, the water pH is under 6.5.
It is not the actual pH that is primary concern, rather the fact that many well intentioned aquarists will dump these fish into a tank with pH similar to what these fish are generally kept at (say 8.0), but here in lies the problem: the pH scale is logarithmic and a change of 1 point in pH represents a tenfold increase in acidity or alkalinity.
So in the example sited these fish would be shocked by a 50 times increase in alkalinity (from !
To address this, the shipping bag should only be opened just enough to allow a drip tube so as to slowly drip water from the display (or whatever aquarium will be receiving the new fish) at a rate of a drop every few seconds.
I usually place the bag in a tub of aquarium water so as to slowly temperature adjust and allow for gravity dripping of the water (I use an airline valve to adjust the drip).
I will also add a dose of Methylene Blue as per water volume for ammonia/nitrite toxicity (brown blood syndrome) to the water during this slow acclimation time. This process may need to take a few hours.
Product Resource: Lees Air Line Control Valve
To lower this problem (nothing fully eliminates this problem), the use of Wonder Shell fragments aids pH and mineral control in shipping water.
Also this is another benefit of properly used Kordon Breather Bags (please do not forget the negatives as well from earlier in the article).
Product Resource: Wonder Shells; Premium Version ONLY from AAP
- Stress and loss of slime coat; Stress is obviously hard to prevent, but good handling and the use of stress lowering products can help.
Large fish generally do not ship as well as they tend to get more “crazy” in the bag, this is where sedative products such as Tranquil shine and where Breather Bags generally fail miserably (they cannot be doubled and break easier).
Back to smaller fish (generally under 4-5 inches); products such as Jungle Bag Buddies help here with mild sedatives (not as strong as Tranquil) can help as well as Kordon’s Fish Protector and again even Wonder Shell fragments as these naturally add important minerals necessary for slime coat generation and are a natural Redox Reducer too.
- Methylene Blue
Used for transportation (shipping) of fish as it prevents disease spread and is a hemoglobin transfer agent allowing more oxygen in crowded environments. MB also treats ammonia and nitrite poisoning which is a common in shipping.
- Wonder Shells;
Not commonly thought of as a shipping product, HOWEVER I have found excellent results in the use of Wonder Shell Fragments in a shipping bag as Wonder Shells compliment Methylene Blue and Fish Calmers by addressing a major cause of fish death from shipping and the pH shock and mineral depletion
Product Resource: Wonder Shells; Premium Version ONLY from AAP
- Weco Aqua-Derm & Kordon Fish Protector
Either are an excellent compliment to Methylene Blue and Wonder Shells; Fish Protector helps in shipping by forming a multi-layered protective slime coating on fishes' skin, protecting the fish during handling and minimizing infection. The coating works as an effective healing aid for fish with bruises, missing scales, or frayed fins.
Aqua-Derm is a scientifically-formulated concentrate to provide a synthetic slime coat that will help protect fish from stress and injury due to netting, handling, or transporting fish.
If skin abrasions are present, Aqua-Derm creates a protective bandage over the affected areas that will help resist opportunistic disease organisms, aid the natural healing process and reduce loss of electrolytes from the wound site.
Although Aqua-Derm & Kordon Fish Protector also removes heavy metals such as lead, copper, and arsenic, these do NOT remove necessary elements such as Calcium and magnesium found in Wonder Shells
- Bag Buddies
This fish calmer comes in tablets and protects fish by reducing stress, promoting slime coat, removing chlorine and chloramine, neutralizing harmful metals and adding beneficial electrolytes.
Plus, with the added fish calmer, fish stress is further reduced. Just one tablet in fish bag water also releases oxygen into the fish bag and ensures fish arrive home safely, in quality condition and better overall health.
- AquaCalm (Metomidate hydrochloride) by Syndel Laboratories LTD
AquaClam is a Sedative and acts on the central nervous system, other compounds work only on the peripheral nervous system. This product blocks the stress response, other compounds either have no effect on stress or increase stress
Reference: AquaCalm, Metomidate hydrochloride
Once your Fish Arrive:
Please read this article section for "A Healthy Aquarium; Disease Prevention" as to the best way to acclimate your fish once they arrive:
As I hope the reader gathered from this article (which I will surely update as I gather more information, new products/methods), or simply for better clarity; I have not necessarily recommended any one method as there are many options.
Shipping larger volumes of fish involves different practices than single or a few fish (which is why Breather Bags can be a good or bad choice).
Also a large crazy fish such as some Arowana can require different handling and products to add or use.
I will comment on the method that has worked best for me for shipping via bags (it also works for containers in tank moving as well).
That is Methylene Blue along with Wonder Shell fragments and of course following the other tips as well such as withholding feedings, slow drip, etc. Use of these products addresses some of the most dangerous and important aspects of shipping.
You can also combine Methylene Blue and Wonder Shells with products such as “Aqua-Derm” or “Fish Protector” for even more potential benefits, although “Bag Buddies” should not be combined with Aqua-Derm, Fish Protector, AquaCalm, or Methylene Blue as they overlap too much in what they do to the fish.
I do disagree with one sided statements/opinions that I have heard that AquaDerm or similar products are best. This is quite bluntly comparing apples to oranges and leaves out the dangers of ammonia poisoning or pH shock that other products do address.
Unfortunately these persons that state this are not only ignoring the major killers of shipped fish, but by such bold statements are ignoring the many variables that go into shipping.
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