Updated: May 14, 2019
Altum angelfish are by far the most impressive species of angelfish. The largest of the species, their finnage and size make them beautiful fish in any aquarium. Pterophyllum altum is a difficult species to breed, with most fish in the hobby being wild-caught. If you're considering importing them directly from a supplier, here's what you need to do to ensure their survival.
A ton of variables, be prepared
When I ran a fish store in Canada, shipments from South America always came in rough. The fish were typically in the bag for nearly 72 hours, having been held up at customs for extra screening. D.O.A's were high, and the fish that survived needed 1-2 weeks being nursed back to health. Altum angelfish are especially fragile in transport. They say that for every wild-caught altum angelfish you see in the hobby, ten have died. I believe it, and this is why I suggest strongly you try to find F1 or F2 altums. These tips are for wild-caught altums coming in from South America, but can act as a reference for people receiving acclimated altums as well.
Communicate with the supplier
There are a few important things to know from the supplier when ordering altums:
How long the fish have been at the shipping facility
What are the #waterconditions that the fish are being kept in at the facility
The packing/shipping date of the fish
An altum's journey to your fish tank can be lengthy. These fish are typically captured in remote areas of the #amazon that are difficult to access and can spend 1-2 days in a bag in transport to the supplier's facility. Just making it through this part of the journey is stressful enough for the fish, and suppliers are more concerned with shipping than with care.
Find out what the water conditions are at the facility where the altum is coming from. This is what you're going to want to match. Many suppliers pull water from the river, but if these fish have been transported elsewhere for holding, you need to know the water parameters. Yes, you're going to acclimate your fish to the conditions you want to keep them, but doing that immediately after shipping will only further stress/kill your fish. The fish will likely have adjusted to the water parameters of the facility they're kept at by the time they're shipped, and this becomes a known variable. For example, if they're pulled out of the river at a pH of 5.5, but then housed for 2 weeks in tanks that are at pH 6.5, then shipped to you, dropping them down suddenly to pH 5.5 will only further damage the fish.
Fish are typically packed the day they are shipped, but if the supplier's facility is far from the airport, it may be a day's journey (or longer) before they are on a plane. What if the flight is delayed? The shipping date does not tell you how long they've been in the bag. Find out the packing date.
Get your papers in order (if required)
Your country likely has laws regulating the import of fish. There are different #rules for food fish and aquarium fish here in Canada, right down to specific species. Make sure you know your country's rules and that pteropyllum altum is not a controlled or susceptible species with special import requirements. Ensure that your invoices and packing slips are filled out properly with the information your government asks for, don't rely on your supplier to know what each country requires.
Assess the fish in the bag
Whether the fish have been in the bag for 24, 48, or 72 hours, your #acclimation process remains the same, but the speed and care at which you move increases with the longer the fish have been bagged.
There are a bunch of variables here that will determine the condition of your fish at this point:
How many fish are in the bag?
What condition was the supplier's tank in when packing the fish?
Were the fish shipped in #methyleneblue?
Were the fish fed prior to shipping?
Is the bag punctured?
Before opening the bag, take a good look at the fish and the water. These are normal characteristics from #shipping, and you should follow standard acclimation procedures.
At 24 hours, the water in the bag of properly packed fish should not be discoloured. There should be very little waste in the bag, and when you open it, there should be very little smell. The fish should be alert, or as alert as they can be having just been woken up, and reactive to being pulled out of the box.
At 48 hours, the water will be discoloured and will likely have a yellow tinge to it. If the fish have been packed with methylene blue, the water will have a green tinge. The fish should be erect in the bag, but likely resting on the bottom. It may be breathing a little heavier than normal, but not gasping. The fish should be responsive, but may be a little sluggish. The water doesn't smell very good, but it's not repulsive.
72 hours into shipping, things are getting rough. The fish will very likely be resting on the bottom of the bag, breathing heavier than normal. There's waste in the bag, the water may be murky. The fish are responsive, but at a fraction of what you would expect from them. The heat pack will likely have quit by now and the water may be cooler than ideal.
IMPORTANT: If you have D.O.A,'s in the bag, your remaining fish could be in really bad shape. If your fish is on it's side, gasping, and non-responsive to light or touch, you need to skip acclimation and place the altum directly into the aquarium. Odds are it won't survive acclimation and you need to get the fish into water that isn't poisoning it.
Drip acclimation is key with altum angelfish. The process takes about an hour, so leave yourself time and don't rush the process.
Float the sealed bag in the aquarium for 15 minutes to equalize the temperature.
Open the shipping bag and place the fish and shipping water into a fish-safe bucket. Ensure that there is enough water to cover the fish, if there isn't, support the bucket on an angle or use a smaller bucket.
Run a line of airline tubing from the aquarium into the bucket. Start a siphon from the aquarium and either tie a knot in the line, or use a reducing valve so that the water drips out of the tubing at 2-4 drips a second.
When the water in the bucket doubles (20 mins or so), remove half of the water and continue the drip.
Allow the water to double and remove it two more times, and your fish will be ready to be placed into your aquarium.
Use a white nylon aqurium net, the finer mesh won't catch the angelfish's rays and the material is gentler than standard nets.
Tips and warnings:
Don't place the bucket on the floor. Keep it on a chair or table, at least a foot off the floor, so that drafts don't quickly cool the water in the bucket.
Ensure that the water is dripping into the bucket, as opposed to having the tip of the airline tubing below the water's surface. The drip is adding oxygen into the water in the bucket.
Do not add an air stone to the bucket. The shipping water is filled with waste and C02, putting an air stone in will rapidly remove the C02, quickly raising the pH level and turning the ammonium in the water into more toxic ammonia.
The first two weeks
Keep your #aquariumlights off for the first 24-48 hours, or severely limit the light entering the tank from above by blocking it with paper/cardboard. The fish are light sensitive and skittish, so you want to ensure that you're not passing between a light source and the aquarium, causing shadows to pass into the aquarium and triggering their flight response.
Keep a #ditherfish or two in the hospital tank that won't pick on the frightened altums. I used small mollies and found that their motion and lack of fear settled the altums and encouraged them to eat faster.
When it comes to #medication, my first response is typically "wait and see what happens." In this case, you want to take a more proactive approach to eliminate potential issues. Assess the fish, do you see parasites on its body or protruding from the gills? Is the fish suffering from fin damage from either rough shipping conditions or an infection? If parasites are noticeable, start with antiparasitic medication first like prazipro or paraguard. Treat for a full cycle and reassess the condition of your fish. If parasites aren't visible, start with a round of antibacterial medication first. Kanaplex or furan are both fantastic antibacterial medications. Use as directed, and then switch to the antiparasitic.
While treating your fish, ensure you're keeping commotion around the aquarium to a minimum, and you can start providing more light for your fish, removing some of the paper you used to block the light. Gauge how your fish are reacting to the change. Feed your fish frozen bloodworms to get their appetite back in line, and once they are eating, you can slowly start introducing flake food into their diet. I've found altum angelfish like #krill flakes, as well as Tetramin flakes, but it takes them some time to adjust to the food. In time, they'll take to flakes like it's candy.
Wait 3-4 days after you've removed the medication from the hospital tank to ensure that an infection doesn't flare up. If your altums are eating and happy, it's time to move them into their permanent home.
The perfect altum aquarium
Altums need to go into an established aquarium, and their surroundings and tank mates should be chosen carefully. Altums also grow quite large and tall. A minimum 24" tall tank should be used, and altums need about 20 gallons per fish. I'd only recommend 6 altums maximum in a 100-120 gallon fish tank.
First, make sure the tank you are adding them into has the glass on the back and sides covered or painted. Altum angelfish have been known to panic and smash into the glass of the aquarium, killing themselves accidently. They are wild fish that are panicking, and they don't understand what glass is. Being skittish, sharp rocks and wood with spiked edges, such as eucalyptus root, is a recipe for disaster. You don't want to go through a perfect acclimation only to have your fish damage themselves and get an infection.
Tank mates should be larger than what an altum can fit into its mouth when full grown. Avoid small armored cats like pygmy cory cats or ottocinclus. I lost an altum that opportunistically ate an otto cat it had been living with for 9 months, and I deeply regret it. Don't make the same mistake. Large bushynose plecos (3-4") or full size corys make great #bottomfeeders.
There should be an assortment of dither fish in your aquarium to create #constantmotion. Altum angelfish tend to hide and rely on the actions of other fish for safety. I watched a small cory cat spaz out over nothing, and it drove 11 adult altums into a panic. Congo tetras are a great mix for altums, providing comfort through their motion. Smaller rainbow fish can serve the same purpose. Fin nippers should be avoided at all costs. It's a terrible idea to mix fin nippers with altums, and if you have a need for barbs and gouramis to be in your tank, you're not ready for altums yet.
Altums like hanging out under #roots, so decroations that provide top cover are welcome. Try to put 2-3 decorations like this near each other, providing multiple areas for the altums to hang out. While they are a schooling fish, they do have their boundaries and can become territorial. Having a few comfortable spots will help reduce stress in the school of fish.
#Sand bottom tanks are key. Real sand, not small gravel particles. An altum's natural environment is over white sand, and they prefer it to gravel. I have a 180 gallon split with 4' of sand and 2' of gravel, and they rarely move over the gravel. When picking food off of the bottom of the tank, they sift the sand out through their gills quickly and impressively.
Give them time, check them dilligently
It takes about 2-3 weeks to clear your altum angels of disease and ease them into aquarium life. Make sure you regularly check your fish, a few times a week (if not daily), so that you can quickly catch any potential issues that arise. If the real risk of losing your fish in transport or fighting off disease seems offputing, pick up F1 or F2 angelfish from your local fish store when they become available.
Leave a comment, a question, or even a contradiction down below and we can learn together.
Andrei Vexler is an aquarist with over 20 years in the fish hobby. Having run a fish room with over 700 freshwater and saltwater aquariums, Andrei found his passion in South American cichlids, particularly altum angelfish. Growing and wholesaling angels to the GTA and surrounding area, he shares his years of experience in his blog for advanced aquarists.