White Spots On Clownfish! Copper-Free Treatment?

Feb 18, 2022

White Spots On Clownfish

Not my proudest moments, but I have successfully treated freshwater ich on my cichlids many times. Fairly new to the saltwater fishkeeping hobby, I was caught off guard when I saw white spots peppered all over my poor little clownfish one sunny day. 

It didn’t take long for me to realize it was marine ich. I hurriedly typed into google ‘white spots on clownfish’ and was bombarded with a jillion articles dedicated to this baneful parasite – from in-depth scientific researches to never-ending Reddit threads. 

Unlike many other diseases, marine ich (Cryptocaryon irritans) has been studied and documented on a large scale due to its prevalence and risk to the aquaculture industry. 

The causes, life cycle, and treatment options have been thoroughly tried and tested. 

Thanks to Google and a decade-old discussion on a certain forum, I was able to kick ich out of my tank for good. 

In this blog, I will touch on everything you need to know about this parasite and how to get rid of it once and for all. 

It’s going to be a long ride. Buckle up. 

White Spots On Clownfish? What Do They Mean?

9 out of 10 times, white spots on clownfish mean one thing: marine ich (Cryptocaryon irritans) – a common saltwater fish disease caused by an external parasite. Once the clownfish is infested, it will develop white cysts like salt grains on the skin, gins, and even inside the gills. 

The most apparent signs of marine ich in clownfish are labored breathing and frequent rubbing of the body against different objects. 

And that’s because the parasite clogs the fish’s gills and inhibits respiration, and burrows deep into the flesh and gills to cause an itchy sensation. 

Frankly, the parasite is pretty tricky to treat inside an aquarium once it makes itself comfortable in there. It goes through many different life cycles, and recurrent infections are within the bounds of possibility. 

To banish ich, it’s crucial to get acquainted with its life cycle first. Otherwise, any treatment you introduce would just amount to a shot in the dark. 

But before I brief you about the different life stages, let’s look at the most common signs of white spots on clownfish. 

How Do I Know If My Clownfish Has Ich?

The universal sign of ich in clownfish or any other fish is the appearance of tiny white dots across the body – tail, fins, gills, everywhere. And here’s the sad part: your clownfish will probably look okay and not act sickly until the parasite has completed a few lifecycles. 

It can take several days or even weeks, depending on the water temperature. 

And sometimes, by the time you’re aware of what’s brewing, it might be a day late and a dollar short. 

Therefore, it’s important to watch closely for any signs of an anomaly if your fish isn’t acting like itself lately. 

Here’s a quick look at the symptoms of marine ich in clownfish:

  • Tiny white spots peppered across the body 
  • Flashing – frequently scratching body against rocks and decors 
  • Bruises and loss of scales 
  • Labored breathing 
  • Lethargy 
  • Loss of appetite 
  • Erratic swimming patterns 
  • Change in skin or scale colors 
  • Increased mucus production 
  • Staying still at the surface or bottom

It might sound fishy, but the parasites that cause ich are almost always present in the tank. The thing is that healthy fish can stave off its effects without batting an eye.

However, once the fish is stressed and its immune system is compromised, the parasites quickly make their way into its flesh. 

If your fish is showing any of the aforementioned signs alongside white spots, it’s best to err on the side of caution. 

That being said, sometimes, we mistake other illnesses for ich as well. 

Fractures to the fin’s cartilage often appear the same way as ich but are far less dangerous. 

Likewise, a viral disease called lymphocytes can cause the fish to develop tiny white bumps. 

And sometimes, it’s something as harmless as an anemone’s sting. 

Now, let’s have a quick look at marine ich’s life cycle. 

The Life Cycle Of Marine Ich 

A marine ich’s life cycle consists of 4 different stages in which the parasite takes on 5 unique forms!

The five forms are: 

  • Trophont 
  • Protomont 
  • Tomont 
  • Tomite 
  • Theront 

And the four stages are:

  • Infection 
  • Feeding 
  • Drop-off
  • Reproduction

Because of their rather complex life cycle, getting rid of them can be dicey. Note that these parasites are only vulnerable to treatment when they’re in the free-swimming stage. 

Naturally, if the parasite doesn’t reach this stage before the end of the treatment, the treatment will go to waste, and they will reinfect the fish yet again. 

And in a closed system like a tank, the parasites can quickly reach overwhelming and disastrous numbers if not diagnosed and treated on time. 

Trophont 

This is the stage where the parasite manifests as tiny white dots on the infected fish. The trophonts will burrow deep into the fish’s skin and consume the flesh until it has fed enough to move on to the next stage of the lifecycle. 

Protomont 

After around 2-10 days of feeding off your fish, the trophont will fall off and sit on the tank’s base as it prepares for its next stage. At this point, the parasite is known as protomont. 

The transition from trophont to protomont is comparable to how a Deer Tick falls off the animal’s skin once it has drunk enough blood. 

Tomont 

Once embedded in the substrate, which has to happen within 8 hours of falling, the parasite is called tomont. In this stage, the parasite will divide itself to produce up to 1000 child cells known as tomites. 

These tomites are released as the final stage of saltwater parasite. The tomont can reproduce for around 72 days before releasing free-swimming parasites. 

This is also the stage where many hobbyists are fooled into thinking they have eliminated the ich. However, the parasite can live on your substrate discreetly for 3 to 72 days with no apparent signs of infection on your fish. 

Theront 

The released child cells become free-swimming and survive for around 8 hours in open water. During this time, it will actively look for a fish to latch on in an attempt to reignite the lifecycle. 

Studies have revealed that the ich parasite has evolved to start its infectious stage at night when fish are resting. It dramatically increases the odds of finding a host. 

Once again, the life cycle will continue until the fish can fend off the infection or die because of it. 

Since you have a better understanding of an ich’s lifecycle now, let’s look at some effective treatment techniques. 

Recommended Readings!

What’s The Ideal Clownfish Tank Size? 5, 10 Or 20 Gallons?

Are Clownfish Aggressive? Will They Bite Your Finger?

Clownfish Lifespan | How Old Is The Oldest Clownfish?

How Do You Get Rid Of Ich On Clownfish?

Treatment for marine ich has been widely documented and studied. But unfortunately, there are still many misconceptions. First things first, you should understand that there’s no reef-safe treatment for marine ich. The treatments that annihilate the parasite will also kill your corals, shrimps, snails, and other invertebrates. 

Second, unlike freshwater ich, marine ich isn’t sensitive to temperature changes. Therefore, elevating the temperature will do little to no help to speed up the parasite’s life cycle. 

Third, adding cleaner fish or shrimp will not help either. That’s because the parasite burrows deep into the skin below the mucus layer. And naturally, cleaner fish and shrimp can’t reach there. 

The two effective and proven treatments to get rid of marine ich are copper sulfate and chloroquine phosphate-based medications. 

The latter is a pharmaceutical-grade product and requires a prescription from the vet. Therefore, most hobbyists stick to using copper treatments. 

Upon research, I found that one can buy chloroquine phosphate online on eBay and some other websites. But I highly doubt they’re medical-grade products. 

Steer clear of them. 

Copper-based Ich Treatment For Ich 

Copper is poison – comparable to chemotherapy for the fish. In unregulated levels, it can be downright fatal. Therefore, you should always first get a reliable copper test kit before using any copper-based treatment on the fish. 

I recommend using the kit from Seachem as I heard on the grapevine that API copper tests are somewhat inaccurate. 

Test kits are absolutely indispensable because the copper level should be maintained at a specific concentration in the tank. Now, the concentration differs from product to product and is referred to as therapeutic level. 

It goes without saying that you should maintain the correct therapeutic copper level for the entirety of the treatment.

Underdoing it will allow the ich to emerge victorious after the treatment while overdoing it can be deadly to your fish. 

As discussed in the life cycle segment, copper is only effective to kill saltwater ich when they’re in the free-swimming stage, searching for a host. 

Since we can’t get rid of Cryptocaryon irritans during the reproduction or feeding stages, our aim here is to break the cycle directly after the Tomont stage. 

Thus, the treatment duration will differ depending on how long it will take the parasite to become free-swimming. The average duration is 30 days. But sometimes, they take as long as 72 days to reach the free-swimming stage. 

What we should do is play a game of chicken between the host fish and the parasite. Both parties will be gradually exposed to poison until one of them eventually succumbs. 

I know it sounds bleak, but it is what it is. 

Anyway, here’s a roundup of top-rated copper-based medications to treat saltwater ich. 

Seachem’s Cupramine 

Seachem is a household name when it comes to anything related to fish. This copper-based treatment works effectively against both saltwater and freshwater ich. 

It’s an ionic copper medication. It’s also non-acidic and does not damage the biofilter bacteria. However, you’d still need to remove the invertebrates first before treating the tank. 

To dose Cupramine, first, turn off UV filters and ozone filters, and remove chemical filtration like activated carbon. 

As instructed, for every 10.5 gallons of water, use 1 ml of treatment. Next, wait for 48 hours, repeat the treatment, and leave the concentration for 14 days. 

Don’t forget to test the water for copper levels before redosing the tank. 

Fritz Aquatics’ Mardel Coppersafe 

Like Cupramine, Fritz Aquatics’ Mardel Coppersafe is used to treat both saltwater and freshwater ich, as well as Velvet and other parasites. 

It is a liquid-based product containing chelated copper with a therapeutic level between 1.5 – 2.0 ppm. Therefore, once again, you should remove invertebrates and plants before dosing. 

For this treatment, add 1 teaspoon of medication for every 4 gallons of water. The solution will stay active in the tank for more than one month. 

Copper-Free Treatment For Marine Ich 

If you’re not a fan of using copper-based treatments, there’s a decent copper-free treatment option available from Ruby Reef: RALLY. 

Since it is made with formalin, aminoacridine, and acriflavine, it poses no harm to corals, invertebrates, or fish.

Frankly, I can’t really vouch for this treatment’s effectiveness. 

But apparently, if you combine it with another copper-free treatment from the same brand, KICK-ICH, it’s deemed to be potent. 

To dose RALLY, first, remove carbon filtration and other absorbent media. Next, turn off protein skimmers and UV sterilizers. You need to use 1 ounce of RALLY for every 5 gallons of water each day for 3 days. 

Irrespective of whatever treatment you use, you’d still want to keep a close eye on the tank for another 30-90 days post treatment to play it safe. 

Saltwater ich is sneaky, and it’s hard to beat it. 

I know a few hobbyists who have transferred the fish from the quarantine tank to the main tank too soon and reintroduced the parasite all over again. 

Does Hyposalinity Treatment Work To Kill Saltwater Ich?

I came across a few hobbyists who swore by hyposalinity treatment instead of using harsh chemicals during my research. So if you don’t like exposing your fish to chemicals, you can give this method a go. 

What you have to do is dip the infected fish in freshwater or low-salinity water for a specific time. This will cause the parasite’s cell membranes to rupture by water absorption due to decreased salinity. 

Lessen the water’s salt level to about 0.35% salinity (one-tenth of seawater strength) in a well-aerated quarantine aquarium and add the fish. 

Ideally, remove the fish after 2 hours. But take it out sooner if it shows any sign of stress. 

Carry out the procedure once every 3 days until no white dots are present on the fish. 

Some Tips To Prevent White Spots (Ich) On Clownfish In Future 

  • Make sure to quarantine all fish, corals, and invertebrates for about 45 to 90 days. 
  • Do not ever share equipment between aquariums before sanitizing and sterilizing them. 
  • Keep hospital tanks at least 10 feet away from the community tank. 
  • Pretreat freshly purchased fish with copper if you have the right experience. 
  • Maintain water parameters and tank maintenance at all times.
  • Only purchase plants from tanks that don’t house any other creature.
  • Don’t add water from the travel pouch to your aquarium.

Frequently Asked Questions 

Black Ich On Clownfish?

Yes, there’s a black variation of ich that inflicts clownfish and other marine species like tangs. It’s caused by a parasitic worm and is a severely moderate disease that can lead to more serious secondary infections. 

Freshwater dip, Prazipro, and API general cure are common treatments used to treat black ich. 

My Clownfish Has White Spots, But It’s Not Ich. What Could They Be?

Unfortunately, white spots aren’t a symptom only exclusive to ich. Several other equally grave aquarium diseases manifest as tiny white specks on the fish’s body. Some are severe velvet disease, infections caused by lymphocystis virus, brooklynella disease, stress spots, columnaris, and flukes. 

Why Are There White Spots On My Black Clownfish?

The most likely reason behind white spots on your black clownfish is marine ich. However, as mentioned above, it could be a sign of another severe disorder like brooklynella disease and severe velvet disease. 

What Are Some Common Clownfish Diseases?

Besides marine ich, clownfish are susceptible to the following diseases :

  • Marine velvet 
  • Brooklynella 
  • Urpema marinum
  • Flukes 
  • Bacterial infection 
  • Black ich 
  • Head and lateral line erosion 
  • Swimbladder disease

Final Words: White Spots On Clownfish!

In most scenarios, white spots on clownfish are a sign of marine ich, caused by a parasite monikered Cryptocaryon irritans.

Besides the white spots, the fish will also display other signs like panting, flashing, loss of appetite, and increased mucus production. 

Copper-based treatments can successfully get rid of ich, but it can be a tricky procedure as the parasite has a complex life cycle.

That being said, ich is not always the reason behind the appearance of white spots on clownfish. It could be due to other health conditions like velvet and brooklynella. 

Related Articles!

How Often To Feed Clownfish? Risks Of Underfeeding!

5-Gallon Clownfish Tank? Is It Even Possible?

Can Clownfish Change Gender? How Many Times?

rohit gurung author at urbanfishkeeping

About Rohit Gurung

My never-ending love and fascination with Aquascaping started when I received a red-eared turtle for my 10th birthday.

Apart from researching and writing, I spend hours gazing at my 3 turtles. And yeah, I bask alongside them too.