The process of cycling an aquarium has come a long way in recent years as we have learned there is so much more at play than the nitrogen cycle and its supporting nitrifying bacteria. This process of "biome cycling" goes beyond the nitrogen cycle and provides you with a complete recipe to ultimately establish a balanced and diverse biome.

You will not only create an environment that is safe for fish but also set yourself up for long-term success by reducing the chances of unsightly pests. 

What is a Biome?

A biome is a community of organisms both big and small that exist together in a particular habitat.  When it comes to cycling an aquarium, we are primarily talking about the microbiome or community of microscopic organisms that occupy various niches in the aquarium and compete for space and resources.  This includes bacteria, algae, diatoms, dinoflagellates, worms, crustaceans, and various other microorganisms and microbes. 

The ultimate goal is the create a balanced or harmonious biome where all of these organisms coexist creating stability within the aquarium. The diversity and balance in the biome create an environment where unwanted pests struggle to dominate and take over the tank.  

A diverse and healthy biome takes time to develop but there is a clear path when setting up a new aquarium to help you get there. 

The Recipe For Success - How to Biome Cycle Your Saltwater Aquarium

  1. Understanding the Nitrogen Cycle: The nitrogen cycle is a vital process in maintaining a healthy aquarium. It involves the conversion of organic matter into less toxic substances through the activity of beneficial bacteria. Fish food and waste break down into ammonia, which is toxic to fish. The first goal of cycling is to establish colonies of beneficial nitrifying bacteria that can consume ammonia and convert it into less harmful substances.

  2. Establish Beneficial Bacteria: There are various methods and products available for cycling a saltwater aquarium. In our tank build, we used Fritz TurboStart, a live bacteria product, and ammonium chloride as a food source for the bacteria. To begin the cycling process, add enough ammonium chloride to raise the ammonia concentration in the aquarium to two parts per million (ppm). Use a reliable test kit, such as the Hanna Instruments Ammonia Checker, to measure the ammonia levels. Follow the instructions for dosage and a variance of 0.5 ppm is acceptable. You can then immediately add the Fritz TurboStart Bacteria into the aquarium.

  3. Testing for Ammonia and Nitrite: Regularly test the water for ammonia and nitrite levels using appropriate test kits. As the beneficial bacteria consume ammonia, it will be converted into nitrite. Initially, ammonia levels will decrease, while nitrite levels will rise. After some time, the nitrite levels will begin to fall and nitrate will begin to show up. Once nitrate begins to show up and the nitrites have fallen back down to undetectable levels, the nitrogen cycle is complete. 

  4. The Role of Ocean Direct Sand: In a previous episode (Episode 2), we added Ocean Direct sand to our tank. This sand, sourced directly from the ocean, carries the biodiversity of the ocean and promotes immediate biodiversity in our aquarium. It supports your biome by introducing a variety of different beneficial microbes that would not otherwise be present in your aquarium. 

  5. Adding Copepods: Copepods, small invertebrates found in both saltwater and freshwater bodies, play a crucial role in maintaining a healthy aquarium. By adding copepods early in the process, we enhance the biodiversity of our tank. Copepods come in various species, each serving different purposes, such as algae consumption and detritus removal. To encourage copepod growth and establish a healthy biome, we recommend adding algae barn's Galaxy Pods which is a mix of 5 different copepod species. Different copepods will fill different niches in the aquarium and will consume detritus, algae, and diatoms. 

  6. Promote Diatom Growth: To ensure the copepods settle and thrive in the aquarium, it is time to turn on the full lighting schedule which will encourage diatom growth. Diatoms, while initially unsightly, serve as a food source for copepods and other organisms. Additionally, we feed the copepods algae barn's Ocean Magic phytoplankton on a regular basis to stimulate their growth and spread throughout the tank.

  7. Adding Fish: After adding the pods, it is safe to start stocking the aquarium with fish.  With the addition of fish, the aquarium will experience an added level of nutrients which are important to monitor.  With a healthy biome you are much less likely to encounter severe outbreaks of algae, dinoflagellates, and cyanobacteria through the process of stocking the tank.  

  8. Managing Algae With Clean-up Crew: It is a good idea to add herbivorous fish, snails, and invertebrates to help control unsightly algae growth as the aquarium matures.  Adding the clean-up crew before algae gets out of control is the best approach. A clean-up crew should be a preventative measure, not responsive.

Learn More: Clean Up Crew All-Stars Part 1: Invertebrates
Learn More:
Clean Up Crew All-Stars Part 2: Functional Fish

Cycling a new saltwater aquarium is a crucial step in ensuring the long-term health and beauty of your tank. By understanding the nitrogen cycle, incorporating beneficial bacteria, and embracing the concept of biome cycling, you can avoid common issues and create an aquarium that looks great right out of the gate.