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Can I Get Live Sand From The Ocean?

By December 28, 2018 Articles

Can I Collect Live Sand From the Ocean?

Technically, you can get live sand from the ocean, but you shouldn’t.  There are many reasons to avoid doing this and concerns with pollution, bio-diversity and legality.  The complete answer is a little complicated and long, but I will do my best to lay out the important bits of info for you.

What is Live Sand?

Live sand contains different types of bacteria that are commonly found in the ocean.  The most typical reason for adding live sand to your aquarium is to increase the biodiversity and overall health of your tank.  It was originally thought that adding live sand would introduce ammonia eating beneficial bacteria and speed up the cycling process of a new aquarium, but that has been largely disproved.

How is Commercial Live Sand Different From Beach Sand?

The bacteria and any microscopic creatures living in the sand are what makes it “live”, but how do they survive sitting on a shelf at your LFS?

The various live sand companies each use different processes to preserve the organisms inside their sand. The collection, shipping and packaging method will determine the quality and price of the live sand.

Some live sand is treated with a preservative that causes certain strains of bacteria to go dormant for shipping and storage purposes.  This sand is usually shipped fairly wet and contains the least amount of quality bacteria for your aquarium.  The bacteria will become active again after you add it to a suitable environment, like your reef tank.

The more recently available and higher quality live sand is packaged within a breathable plastic bag that allows for limited gas exchange.  This technology makes it possible for almost all the beneficial bacteria from the sand to survive the shipping process and replicate in your aquarium without the use of preservatives.

So, if commercial live sand is just beach sand that a company bagged to sell at the pet store, why not collect your own and cut out the middleman?

Depending on where you live, you may be able to collect your own sand. This would let you remove the middleman from the picture, but there are a few things you need to consider before heading to the beach with a shovel and bucket.

Is Collecting Live Sand Legal?

It’s very important to understand the legal ramifications of collecting live sand.  There are laws in place all over the world that apply to the collection of resources from our oceans.  Many of these laws will vary wildly depending on where you are located.

In one state it might be perfectly legal to take home live sand, but it may be a felony level crime in the next neighboring state.  Always read up on the laws in your area to stay out of trouble.  You should never assume that you can freely collect anything from the ocean.

Is Locally Collected Live Sand Safe and Clean?

Another often overlooked issue when hobbyists think about collecting live sand from their local beaches is pollution.  Most of the commercially available live sand is collected from a clean source that is free of chemical contamination.  However, local sand at your beach is often exposed to fuel spillages, fertilizer and even sewage runoff.  All of these contaminants can work their way into your aquarium and set you on the path to ruin.

Is Locally Collected Live Sand The Same As Commercial Live Sand?

We think of sand as its own entity, like we see a fish as a unique animal.  You need to understand that all the sand we use in our aquariums or at the beach started off in another form before it was sand.

Most sand is created by the grinding down of rocks faces near the waterline.  The weather and waves will slowly chip away at the local rocks and turn them into grains of sand over the course of thousands of years.  This means that the composition and even color of sand will differ greatly depending on the rocks and minerals in your area.

What about the classic tan color that most people instantly think of as the default color of sand? Well, that type of tan sand comes from beaches with concentrations of iron oxide, or rust.  The rust actually stains the rocks that are ground down into that tan color live sand.

Those less common black sand beaches are created by the breakdown and erosion of darker volcanic rocks.  That’s why black sand is only found at locations that have experienced a lot of volcanic activity.

These rock based types of sand are largely silica-based because the most common rocks in the area are usually made of quartz. This can be a huge problem inside the tight space of your fish tank.

Silica is like jet fuel for brown diatoms and other nuisance algae in our aquariums.  Silica is the main reason we use RO filtration on water before adding it to the salt mixes that fill our tanks.  Why in the world would we want to purposefully add silica to our aquarium after working so hard to keep it out?

Commercially available live sand is normally of the aggregate, calcium-carbonate verity.  This means that sand was mostly created from coral skeletons or the even the skeletons and shells of long-dead ocean creatures.

What to learn something that is interesting, but a little gross at the same time?

Ever visited or seen pictures of the beautiful white sand beaches in Hawaii?  If black sand comes from volcanic rock and tan sand comes from rust deposits, where does white sand come from?  Parrotfish poop! I am not even joking!

Parrotfish - photo by Derek Keats

Parrotfish – That beak was made for chomping!

Parrotfish can weigh as much as 100 pounds and have strong beaks, like a parrot.  The parrotfish uses its beak to break off pieces of dead coral and rock to eat the algae growing on it.  The parrotfish will process these broken pieces of coral through their digestive system and poop out what will become beautiful white sand.  We truly live on an amazing planet!

Does My Local Live Sand Have The Right Bacteria?

We live on a large planet, which has many beaches in drastically different environments.  The average saltwater aquarium is trying to replicate the tropical conditions of water in places like the Caribbean.  This means warmer water temperatures and keeping animals that thrive in those types of conditions.

The waters of Jamaica are home to a completely different collection of fish and coral than New England.  This also means that the micro-fauna and bacteria found in live sand from New England waters will have adapted to the colder water temperatures of the area.

The live sand from New England contains some strains of bacteria that may not survive the warmer waters of somewhere as close as Florida.  This is why live sand that is collected from a location with similar conditions to your reef tank is always preferable.  Having the bacteria die off because it is not fit for the temperature of your aquarium would just create more pollution and severe algae blooms to deal with.

Collecting Live Sand Conclusion

Do you have access to beach sand that is made of calcium-carbonate? Because, if your sand was created from rocks and loaded with silica, it will cause you nothing but trouble.

Assuming you live in the place with the correct type of sand, is it safe and free of contamination?  Your local environmental agency will have information about the pollution level of local beaches and waterways.  But, unless you live in a very remote area, it’s likely that you will need to travel a few miles into the open ocean to collect your live sand.  However, the live sand will be deep in that ocean at this distance from shore and that creates a whole new set of problems.

So, you live on a remote island with sparkling white sand beaches. The sand is the perfect quality calcium-carbonate and was freshly “created” by some local parrotfish… Will you be going to jail for collecting some?

Collecting something as simple as live sand from the wrong location may be treated as harshly as poaching.  There are many cases of people paying hefty fines and facing jail time for collecting reef rocks and live sand in Florida as well as other countries throughout the globe.

After learning all these facts about the live sand at your local beach, do you still think collecting some for your aquarium is a good idea? Hopefully not!

It was a common practice in the early days of keeping saltwater aquariums, but we have learned a lot about the hobby and the oceans since then.  The days of swapping cups of wild live sands between reefers at conventions and other gatherings should be long over. The quality, convenience and price of commercially available live sand makes it a no-brainer.  You can even save a buck by purchasing dry or dead sand, but that is another article.

Phil Beauregard

Author Phil Beauregard

A man with a beard, that you can trust! Phil Beauregard has been addicted to fish keeping since childhood. He grew with stories of his grandfather’s exploits during the early days of reef aquariums and African Cichlid breeding. Phil brings a flair for high tech DIY projects and his love of teaching others to the reefing community.

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