For The Mess To Be Cleaned Up

Hairy algae

I can’t begin to comprehend the work being done to try to keep up with the spewing oil in the Gulf of Mexico.  News reports, blogs and first person stories can only help me guess at the devastation to beaches, reefs, sea life, and eventually to people and their livelihood.

So what I undertook at home this week is minuscule by comparison but gives me some sense of the effort it takes to clean up a big mess.

I love housing fish–in a tank in the house and in a pond in the yard.  I’ve always had an aquarium for tropical fish as long as I can remember.  During a particular phase of my girlhood, I had at least five fish tanks in my bedroom alone, coordinating a breeding operation of various species, in the hope of someday becoming a preteen tropical fish wholesaler.  Sleeping in my bed felt much like a Sea Hunt underwater experience with water bubbling, filters siphoning and fishes flopping in various corners of the room.

What is not enjoyable in any way is the clean up required to maintain housed fish.  Good maintenance is regularly scheduled, trading out old water for fresh, cleaning filter pads, testing pH and making sure all the water components are right.  I’m less than stellar at this job.  In fact, my current house tank had gone an unmentionable period of time without cleaning and the fish pond had gone much longer.  I felt more and more guilty as the Gulf clean up dwarfed my personal responsibility to clean up my own miniature aquatic ecosystems, so I could ignore it no longer.

I had an overwhelming growth of hairy algae in the tank.  It is quite an elegant plant when it covers everything, waving its long hairy fingers with the flow of the water.  My marine biologist friend Karen was very impressed at my successful algae grow operation, as if I really intended it to be there.  Ummm, no.  It adheres so tightly to surfaces it has to be scrubbed off with steel wool.  This is not algae for the faint of heart.  It took hours to manually de-algae the tank (no chemicals here!) after carefully placing all my ancient fish (some over ten years old) in a bucket.

The tank now looks 100% better.  Not all the ancient fish survived the trauma of the clean up operation, but those that did seem to be adjusting to a brighter environment.  And now I don’t just guiltily scoot past the tank, but linger and admire my little aquatic world, now visible and sparkling.

The fish pond was another matter.  The koi and goldfish housed there had long ago been gulped down by a blue heron who I found standing in the middle of the pond one early morning as I went out to get the newspaper.  He was obviously very pleased with himself to have found breakfast, lunch and dinner all in one convenient fast food stop.   It was so disheartening, I left the pond unstocked, too discouraged to invest in more fish or pond maintenance.  The frogs moved in very quickly with no fishy predators to disturb their eggs or young, and it became the New York City of Pacific Chorus Peepers.  They can be very noisy neighbors when their headquarters is only ten yards away from an open bedroom window.

Duck weed doing what it does best--proliferating

Between proliferation of tadpoles and a thick duckweed covering, the pond became a seething and simmering pot of primordial ooze.  It required a complete siphoning out, manually bailing out the last few hundred gallons and scooping up all the detritus, including several very large piles of accumulated frog poop (I had no idea they cooperatively create communal poop piles!).

I have to confess that I was responsible for massive pollywogicide in this clean up effort.  I am unable to testify that an animal was not harmed in the process.  This was particularly difficult as I was, as a child, a keeper and protector of pollywogs, housing them in water-filled glass jars after catching them in our farm stream, and watching their legs grow and their tail shrink to the point where they literally crawled out of the jar.  I’m sorry to say I could not possibly salvage the thousands living in my pond, if I was to restore some kind of order and health to the water.   Pollywog nightmares have been haunting my dreams ever since.

Now my pond is duck weed and tadpole free, and has 15 goldfish effectively hiding in the plants from potential kitty, raccoon and heron predators.  We’ll see how long this lasts.

Clean water and a happy ecosystem is nothing to take for granted.  It only took me most of a day.  Restoring the Gulf will take a lifetime or more, if it ever will recover.

Now that is the stuff of nightmares.

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