2. Use "perfect" water.
3. Use appropriate bags.
4. Use good shipping containers.
5. Send by the right carrier.
6. Be sure they will be received promptly.
Healthy starved fish.
Starvation is important, because the one deadly chemical enemy of fish in shipping is ammonia. Fish secrete much of the nitrogen in their food via their skin and gills as ammonia/ammonium. At least 24 hours, and better 48, should pass between the last feeding and the final bagging for shipping. For some vegetarian fish, that may mean moving them to a bare holding tank for a day or two.
Otocinclus species and many pupfish are notorious for not taking shipping well. I strongly suspect that one reason is that they eat greens right up to the point of capture, and then secrete ammonia throughout the journey
That water must be exactly the same tds (total dissolved solids) as their previous water, so there will be zero osmotic shock. It needs about three times the normal dose of a good dechloraminator, guaranteed to sequester any additional ammonia during the trip. Brands I have used include "Amquel," "Prime," and "Ammo Lock 2." Some kind of ammonia sponge is critical, and should never be ignored.
The water gets rid of excess CO2 and takes up oxygen through the air interface. The air gets it through diffusion through the plastic in the region with air on both sides.* [*This is the opposite of the "breather bags" that must be filled, with no air, and get diffusion directly from plastic to water. I still do not care for the latter and rarely use them for shipping fish.]
For young schools of fish, I use one 6" bag inside another. This also works for larger fish.
Tie the top of the bag but don't make it drum tight. Aircraft pressurized to a typical 4000-ft elevation will cause the bag to swell and burst if it is too full. Soft is nice, in this situation. Rubber bands can break and, if you must use them, always double with one right over the other. Slide the bag into an outer bag, or two 4" bags into a 6" bag, and tie it. That second bag provides leak insurance and collapses all corners so no fish will get stuck in one and die. Done with the right degree of tension, this permits shipping of very tiny babies in safety.
Don't use oxygen with small bags. Shippers get good mileage out of it with huge shipments over short transportation times. It can imbalance the fish's gas exchange process if the CO2 is too low. You want atmospheric levels at all times, of both those gases.
Never put plants in with fish. In darkness, plants switch from photosynthesis to "respiration," where they use oxygen and release carbon dioxide.
Packing the box
I place several sections of newsprint flat in the bottom (most of the Sunday paper?), particularly for polar flights to Europe. I label the box in big letters "DO NOT DECK LOAD," for a heated compartment can't overcome the cold skin of a plane at 40,000 feet in the arctic.
Any empty space can be filled with crushed newspaper, plastic popcorn, etc. outside the garbage bag, to prevent the fish bags from slamming around loose.
I bring the garbage bag together above the fish bags, and loosely twist it to be held down by the lid.
The boxes should be labeled with "Live Tropical Fish, Please Keep At Room Temperature."
[Written before Sept. 11, 2001, this advice may no longer pay. The USPS has discontinued sending anything labeled "live" by air, so Priority and Express mail do not work as intended. Ed.]
"Perishable" is also a good trigger word for the folks at the USPS. If you don't have labels, they will stamp it for you at the Post Office.
Good Shipping Containers
Where do we find smaller boxes and what should we look for? In the SF Bay area, we can buy medical and wine shippers from places like The Packaging Store in San Francisco 415 558-8100 or Santa Clara 408 727-1363. They do mail order, too.
Veterinarians receive many injectibles in cardboard boxes with Styrofoam liners. Oncology and pathology departments in hospitals always have a surplus they are delighted to see reused.
The requirements are that they be light, to reduce shipping cost, and sturdy enough to withstand the mail-mangling equipment they must go through.
Avoid shipping in any bare Styro box. Without the outer cardboard it is cheaper, but I have received them with totally collapsed or punctured sides, too. That's false economy unless you are shipping feeder guppies.
It helps if you have a Post Office in a nearby International Airport. It often saves a full day and can mean shipping Priority earlier in spring and later in fall than otherwise is safe. I generally watch the weather pattern via the Internet, and don't ship much after early to mid October and until about the first of May. The season can be much longer along the Pacific Coast and to some southern destinations. You may have to guess which "hub" Emery is using. The Minneapolis one is a real fish killer during the colder six months. I think they have one serving New England that is just about as bad.
UPS and Fed Ex both usually refuse to ship live fish for walk-in customers. They never seem to refuse them from company shipping departments, so you may find them usable from work. They both have excellent (if pricey) overnight services.
International shipments are easiest as hand luggage, for the alternative is commercial airfreight. The latter involves paperwork and inspections that can be quite expensive.
The USPS, in general, is as brainless as any huge bureaucracy ever gets. The people actually handling your shipment, on the other hand, aren't into hurting small creatures. They appreciate whatever labeling you can give them to make it work out for the fish. Don't make the job fail for them, by trying to be too cryptic with your labels.
I contact the recipient a few days ahead and predict when I will ship and guess the arrival days. When that is confirmed as OK, I ship and immediately send an e-mail that they have gone. If something holds it up, that, too, gets a note. I appreciate the fact that those with e-mail always let me know the arrival time and condition.
I print labels in huge type on an ink-jet printer, and cover the mailing addresses with the same clear packing tape I use to seal the box. Most ink-jet ink will run if wet, so be sure the labels are sealed. Include the phone numbers at both ends. I have had many problems quickly solved because the postal worker could reach the receiver or me.
Eggs as a special
Most mop-spawner eggs can be picked and placed on damp peat for transit. The wet mop can often just be dropped into a bag, tied and shipped like that. Let the receiver know your water's tds, though, so he doesn't shock them with too hard or too soft water.
I've had bad results using vials and sealed bottles, for the eggs seem to die of anoxia. Use bags and then wrap the tied bag in protective bubble pack.
For a few eggs, the above, particularly mops or peat, can be sent easily in videocassette boxes (during milder weather).
Never send eggs in a soft envelope without a stiff protector. Cardboard boxes and bubble-pack insulation have worked best for me.
Feb. 22, 2001
Reproduced with kind permission
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