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Skinny tanks can be a squeeze

They look cool, but do the new wall-mounted aquariums have enough room for the fish? It depends, experts say.

March 15, 2007|Jake Townsend | Special to The Times

WHEN it comes to TVs, cellphones, fashion models -- and now home aquariums -- slim is in. Skinny, wall-mounted aquariums barely thicker than most plasma TVs are popping up everywhere: on restaurant walls, in store displays, even at mall kiosks, where they are sold as novel home decor.

These aquariums make amusing, if not striking, additions to a room, but are they safe for the fish? And is it fair to confine a pet, however tiny, to a place that's often less than 5 inches thick?

According to marine biologists and aquarium experts, the answer depends on a fish's turning radius. Like cars, fish need a certain amount of space to flip around. The larger the fish, the larger the turning radius.

"To be safe, you would have to be very specific in the types of fish you choose," says Andy Case, an exhibit biologist who worked at the Monterey Bay Aquarium for 17 years and helped to design that facility's tanks, and who now runs the aquarium consulting company Tenji. "Perhaps crevice fishes like ribbon eels or a creature whose natural environment mimics the dimensions of the tank would be more comfortable. Fish with smaller turning radii -- for instance, small schooling fish like freshwater tetras or guppies -- would be suitable."

One rule of thumb when stocking these narrow tanks is to keep fish less than 1 inch in length. Larger goldfish, angelfish or even the clown fish (made popular by "Finding Nemo") might be too large for these tanks, experts say.

"As I see it, there are two possible issues: size and maintenance," says Brent Scheiwe, a marine biologist and head aquarist at the SEA Lab, an education center run by the Los Angeles Conservation Corps in Redondo Beach. "Fish that grow larger than an inch might become restricted in their movement, so invertebrates like small shrimp or small schooling fish would be more suited to a small space. And secondly, a narrow aquarium might be difficult to clean."

Fernando Nosratpour, assistant curator at the Birch Aquarium, part of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, said hard-to-maintain tanks often lead to poor conditions for the fish. Owners simply don't clean.

He added that the best tanks should mimic a fish's natural environment as much as possible. Most fish kept in home aquariums are tropical reef fish, he says, and they tend to stay low in the water column, settling in among simulated reef decorations placed at the bottom of the tank. If too many fish congregate in that narrow space, problems could arise, he says.

"Many smaller fish people buy are damsel fish, which are pretty aggressive and territorial," he says. "When you only have 4 or 5 inches of width, there will be more chances of fish running into each other.

"Me personally? I wouldn't put even small fish in that kind of tank. I just don't think it's appropriate."

Representatives for ultra-slim aquarium company AquaVista (, based in Menlo Park, Calif., say their tanks provide a good environment. The AquaVista 500 tank is 26 inches long, 26 inches wide and 4 1/2 inches thick. The company gives no specific fish recommendations on its website, but President Scott Yen says that the user manual suggests tetras and other fish "that do not grow to extraordinarily large sizes." An LCD control panel lets users control temperature, lighting, oxygen and a highly advanced filtration system, he says.

"We took all of those things into consideration when we put these together," Yen says. "It all goes to optimize the fish's environment and health."

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