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The Black-banded Sunfish, Fragile Jewel of the East

by Bob Bock

Imagine a fish that looks like a cross between an angel fish and a tiger barb, but with a gentler nature than either species. This fish really does exist, and can be found, among other places, in New Jersey. The black-banded sunfish, Enneacanthus chaetodon, has a compact body with a striking array of black bands on a white body, its ventral fins etched with orange. In their haste to posses this fragile jewel, many beginners often set themselves up for failure and end up killing the delicate creatures they coveted.

To survive, Black-bandeds need soft, acid water with no discernible hardness. They will also steadfastly refuse flakes, pellets, and other prepared foods until they starve to death. These demure little sunfish also are extremely susceptible to ammonia waste and will soon sicken in the absence good filtration and regular water changes. Unless you can consistently meet these conditions, you are predestined to fail with these marvelous animals. But anyone who has successfully kept and bred discus probably also will succeed with these charming little fish. The Black-banded sunfish I’ve kept have done best in very soft water with a pH no higher than the mid-6’s. My friend, Pierre Gagne, keeps them in brightly-lit tanks, which are injected with carbon dioxide and planted with Vallisneria spiralis. With CO2 and intense lights the Vallisneria grow like weeds and, in the process, soak up the fish’s nitrogen wastes and absorb calcium carbonate from the water.

At first, wild caught Black-bandeds will eat only blackworms and other moving live foods. However, if you first pour frozen offerings through the filter stream to simulate movement, Black-bandeds will greedily accept frozen brine shrimp, bloodworms, glass worms, and finely chopped cooked shrimp. Pierre keeps his Black-bandeds with guppies. With a continuous supply of newborn guppies, the Black-bandeds remain well fed. If you don’t have naturally soft, acid water coming from your tap, it will probably be best to either buy a distillation apparatus or begin collecting rainwater. I’ve had no luck with those ion exchange pillows. They merely exchange calcium carbonate and other dissolved solids for sodium chloride, which Black-bandeds can’t tolerate either.

Black-bandeds breed like other sunfish, with the male staking out a nest site among plants or other cover. Females lay their eggs in the site, and then the males will drive them off. Like other sunfish, Black-bandeds males will guard their eggs until hatching and perhaps for a week after until the fry are free swimming. After absorbing their yolk sacs, the fry can take newly hatched brine shrimp. Some hobbyists maintain that, before they will spawn, Black-bandeds need to be kept at low temperatures for two or three months, to simulate winter. I’ve kept three or four in a picnic cooler in my back yard over the winter months. At about 40 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit, Black-bandeds don’t need to eat much, and I’ve found that four or five blackworms per fish will keep them healthy.

Many states do not allow Black-banded sunfish to be collected. Before you collect Black-banded sunfish, or any other species, it ’s a good idea to check the regulations with local natural resource or fish and wildlife offices. Black-banded sunfish occur in New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, the Carolinas, and parts of Florida. Although I’ve collected them in the past under the terms of a scientific collection permit, I no longer remove these fish from the wild. Populations often are fragmented, and removing a few individuals can sometimes negatively affect them. Larger aquarium stores sometimes carry Black-banded sunfish, often bred from captive stock overseas. They are sometimes available on the Internet.

It may also be a good idea to prepare for Black-bandeds by keeping a similar species. The banded sunfish, Enneacanthus obeseus, and the blue-spotted sunfish, Enneacanthus gloriosus, are both easier for beginners. Both are more numerous in their East Coast ranges and are slightly hardier than the black banded sunfish. With striking green or gold spots, both species are beautiful in their own right and allow you to try your hand with a fairly demanding fish without first risking failure with the rarer Black-bandeds.

Bob Bock is past president of the North American Native Fishes Association,

Another group with an interest in U.S. native fishes is the Native Fish Conservancy,

This article first appeared in PVAS’s Delta Tale, Vol 33, # 2

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