End the Toil and Trouble of Bubble Algae

A whole mess of bubble algae.

A whole mess of bubble algae.

“Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble” could be the lament of any marine aquarium hobbyist battling a stubborn outbreak of green bubble algae. (Okay, “Double, double toil and trouble,” is the actual incantation from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, but I digress.)

Green bubble algae appear as rounded or tubular green bladders ranging from about the size of a small pea to approximately quarter-sized or even larger. Contrary to popular misconception, there isn’t just one species of bubble alga; rather, several species representing various genera (Ventricaria and Valonia among others) are known to appear in aquaria.

Pretty, but…

Bubble algae present hobbyists with something of a dilemma. On the one hand, the shiny green vesicles can actually be quite attractive and interesting to look at, thus tempting the hobbyist to leave them in place. Indeed, in a balanced system with dissolved nutrients kept well under control, the presence of a few vesicles here and there is no cause for panic and merely adds to the biodiversity.

On the other hand, if conditions are—or ever become—conducive to explosive growth, the bubbles can rapidly reproduce to plague proportions. When this happens, rocks, coral skeletons, and other hard surfaces can become coated; vesicles attached at the base of coral specimens can actually displace them from their attachment site; and loose, drifting bubbles can clog powerhead intakes, substrate vacuums, overflow tubes, etc.

Thus, it’s generally wise to prevent bubble algae from arriving in your tank in the first place and to take steps to eliminate the algae early on if it does appear. Here’s how:

Look over live rock

Bubble algae very commonly make their way into aquariums attached to live rock. Check newly acquired rocks carefully for vesicles and remove any that are discovered before placing the rocks in your system. This is one of the reasons it’s highly recommended to quarantine new live rocks just as you would a fish or invertebrate specimen. Also, be sure to closely examine the rocks/plugs/disks to which coral specimens are attached, as bubble algae often hitchhike their way into aquaria aboard these materials as well.

Get plucking!

A hermit crab climbs amongst bubble algae.

A hermit crab climbs amongst bubble algae.

Manual removal of vesicles (coupled with dissolved nutrient control) is the most effective means of eliminating bubble algae. The vesicles will often detach very easily with just a gentle wiggle, though some varieties are more stubborn and may need to be dislodged with a sharp flathead screwdriver or chisel. Heavily coated rocks can be removed from the tank and plucked/brushed/chiseled clean in a separate bucket filled with salt water.

When manually removing the bubbles in your aquarium, take care to avoid rupturing them if possible, as doing so will release the spores contained within, potentially aggravating your problem. The larger the bubbles get, the easier they are to rupture.

Also keep in mind that the vesicles can grow in some surprisingly shady areas, so you’ll need to check underneath rocks and carefully feel around behind rock stacks (preferably while wearing protective gloves) to make sure they aren’t happily growing and reproducing somewhere out of sight.

Possibly enlist some herbivores

Herbivorous species, such as tangs and rabbitfishes as well as the popular emerald crab (Mithraculus sculptus) can assist in controlling an outbreak of bubble algae. However, don’t expect these animals to work miracles. From my experience, herbivores do a much better job of preventing bubble algae from regrowing after manual removal than they do of actually eating the vesicles that are actively growing.

What’s more, no organisms should ever be introduced to an aquarium system for utility purposes unless the tank is large enough to sustain it, the specimen is compatible with all your current livestock, and you can satisfy its dietary and other care requirements once the target algae/organism has been eradicated.

With respect to M. sculptus, do be aware that these crabs aren’t as strictly herbivorous as some hobby literature might lead you to believe. If sufficiently hungry, these opportunistic omnivores may decide to start nibbling on sessile invertebrates and may even go after small fish.

I once had to remove four emerald crabs from my reef tank because it turned out they were nibbling on zoanthids and attacking my clownfish. They actually cut off most of the clownfish’s anal fin and sliced a big notch out of its tail. Oh, and they never really made a dent in the bubble algae that they were introduced to control in the first place.

Increase nutrient export

As with any algae outbreak, measures to increase nutrient export should also be implemented when battling bubble algae. This includes using reverse-osmosis-purified fresh water for top-offs and for mixing clean salt water, vigorous protein skimming, and frequent partial water changes. A desirable macroalgae, such as Chaetomorpha (“Chaeto”), growing in a lighted refugium will also help combat the problem by taking up dissolved nutrients that would otherwise fuel the growth of the bubble algae.

How have you beaten bubble algae?
If you’ve ever done battle with bubble algae and won, please share your successful strategy with your fellow salties in the comment section below!

Photo Credit: sarsifa, blahness71

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About Jeff Kurtz

Jeff Kurtz is the Co-founder/Editor of Saltwater Smarts, former Senior Consulting Editor for Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine, and the aquarist formerly known as “The Salt Creep.” He has been an aquarium hobbyist for over 30 years and is an avid scuba diver.

Comments

  1. Nualgi Aquarium says:

    Jeff,
    Enjoyed reading your post about green bubble algae. Would love to have you try out Nualgi to address this problem..let me know if I can send you a sample.

    Best
    Anil

  2. I had a rock full of red bubble algae. When I introduced a yellow tang to my tank, it took him a couple of hours to finish it off.

    • Jeff Kurtz says:

      You gotta love it when those little yellow guys chow down on irksome algae like that. I’ve had sort of mixed results in that regard with yellow tangs over the years–some going right to town but others not so much. Thanks for sharing, Jimi!

  3. Had a bad outbreak of bubble algae. Bought 16 green emeralds all my algae problems are gone.

  4. I have a small outburst of bubble algae and currently scouring the bet for solutions before it overrun my tank.. Aby new or good advice on how i can do this because manual removal is hard when i have three large coral pillars covered in corals and taking these out will make a complete disaster.. So please if there is another solution for me that works..

    • Jeff Kurtz says:

      Hi Thomas! The best advice I can give is to keep picking the vesicles whenever/wherever you can reasonably reach them, be very diligent about water changes (ideally using RO/DI-purified tap water), and provide vigorous protein skimming. Small bubble algae outbreaks don’t necessarily turn into big ones when water quality is optimal. As I mentioned in the post, in a balanced system with very low dissolved nutrients, finding a few vesicles here and there isn’t necessarily cause for alarm.

      I wish I could tell you that adding a certain product or herbivorous organism will eliminate the problem with certainty, but I’m afraid there’s no “magic bullet.” With continued excellent water quality and proper maintenance, the outbreak should eventually come under control or at least remain at a manageable level.

  5. I’ve got a tank full of bubble algae on my rock and have never found emeralds that would touch that stuff. I just know I need to find something that’ll get rid of it and get rid of it soon if possible.

    • Jeff Kurtz says:

      That was my experience with emeralds as well, Larry. When I was battling an outbreak in my 75-gallon, they didn’t make any discernible impact. The only thing that ultimately worked for me in that situation was persistent manual removal, aggressive protein skimming, frequent water changes (using RO/DI water), and minimal nutrient input (very judicious feeding and stocking). Still, it took several months to reverse course on the outbreak. At the height of it, I would sometimes pull out about a cup full of vesicles in a single pass around the tank. Today, the problem has pretty much been tamed, though I’ll still find (and promptly pluck) the occasional bubble.

      As I mentioned to Thomas above, I wish I could offer you a surefire solution (add this product or that herbivore) that would eliminate your problem quickly, but unfortunately, I’m not aware of any such “magic bullet.”

  6. Oh yeah, I have had my water checked and yes it’s always in great shape.

  7. Paul Baldassano says:

    Bubble algae is actually rather common in the sea, In the Caribbean I have seen loads of them about an inch or more in diameter. If you like, you can add one of these. It won’t eat the algae but it will eat everything else in the tank giving you something else to talk about than bubble algae.
    http://i258.photobucket.com/albums/hh270/urchsearch/2013-07-30151000_zps646bfac1.jpg

  8. Jonathan Guntert says:

    I have a 75 gallon tank and a 45 gallon frag tank which are both connected to a 25 gallon refugium and a 25 gallon sump with active Skimmer. I have a huge amount of Zoas and a few chalices… my 75 gallon tank is covered in bubble algae. I am disabled and I can barely keep water changes up but my tanks are what I watch when I fall in a deep depression. I have tried fish and crabs but nothing is helping… any ideas?

    • Jeff Kurtz says:

      Hi Jonathan! Have you been able to do any water testing to get a sense of where your parameters are? If the bubble algae is really overrunning things, chances are the dissolved nutrient level is getting pretty high and you’ll need to take steps to increase nutrient export.

      Also, I’ve found that aggressive manual removal of the vesicles is pretty much unavoidable with these outbreaks, whether herbivorous control animals are present or not. Are you able to get in there and pluck out the vesicles? Or, if not, might someone be able to assist you with that? I wish I could give you a better answer, but unfortunately, major outbreaks like yours often defy simple solutions

      Given your disability, I wonder whether it might be worth exploring the option of hiring a local aquarium maintenance company to come in on an occasional basis to help with more arduous projects like water changes. Just a thought. I’d hate to see you lose the thing that helps you weather those low times.

      Please keep us posted on your tank’s progress!

      • Bobby the coral guy says:

        Protein skimmer that skims the surface , RO water ( or distilled from grocery store 80cents a gallon) water flow and I found that running a canister filter with carbon and fluval clearmax works wonders getting rid of phosphates which is very important. I’m also running a algae scrubber that is still in the breakin period but I have noticed the bubble algae stopped multiplying so I’m not gonna bother picking them since i don’t have that much spare time on my hands. Hope this can help someone out.

  9. Larry Bloom says:

    I have this same very problem in my 75! I have only 1 fish in it right now so I feed him once a month. I’ve had my water checked at my LFS and have never been told there’s a problem. This stuff runs rampant in my tank. So should I do more frequent water changes? I’ve been tempted to just replace the rock. It would be nice to look at my tank and see a clean tank again….

    • Jonathan Guntert says:

      My tank is full to much going on to take each rock out..

    • Jeff Kurtz says:

      I’d be curious to know what measurements your LFS is actually getting, Larry. Do they give you any numbers when they perform the tests? Also, I suspect replacing rocks would just be a temporary fix. Eventually, the new ones will likely become covered as well (unless you ultimately resort to a total tank tear-down and rebuild). It’s a huge pain, but aggressive manual removal along with stepped-up nutrient export is your best bet–though it’s sort of like turning an aircraft carrier in that it can take a long time and diligence to bring the problem under control.

  10. I have a problem with this too. I have been using a siphon and sucking the bubbles out so as to try and prevent spores spreading. I have done this two weeks in a row and plan for another attack on Saturday. The bubbles are diminishing in numbers but removing twenty liters of water at a time is my limit.two bucket’s out and two bucket’s fresh seawater in. Had my water tested and all they said was the phosphates were slightly high.

    • Jeff Kurtz says:

      Hi Tracy! Yep, high phosphates and algae issues go hand-in-hand. I know it’s frustrating, but keep up the manual removal and water changes and you’ll eventually banish those bubbles!

  11. When dissolved nutrients are lowered will bubble algae shrink and go or will manual removal still be needed?

    • Jeff Kurtz says:

      Unfortunately, the established vesicles won’t disappear, so you’ll still need to remove them manually. But as you bring the dissolved nutrients under control, you should see fewer and fewer bubbles forming–though this can be a long, painstaking process.

  12. Jeff,

    My experience with bubble algae has been full of mixed feelings. I brought it in on a frag (didn’t see it), and I’ve regretted it ever since. What I regret even more is not promptly removing the dime sized growth that it turned into. I also didn’t do my research, because when I did go to remove the algae it was about the size of the bottom of a soda can…and I inadvertently popped A LOT of bubbles. My tank was overtaken. Coral growth ceased, live rock was covered. Powerheads clogged. I was so busy with work and school that I couldn’t keep up.

    3 months ago I started my uphill battle to tame the stuff. Since it was everywhere, and my live rock is very porous, I couldn’t reach enough of it to manually remove. I actually resorted to boiling the rocks. Sounds horrible, but slowly….it worked. I loaded up the sump with a bunch of live rock I had lying around from old tanks. Waited for bacteria to grow, and then every week I would boil 1 or two rocks, scrub them off, rinse in RODI, and put back in the tank. Periodically sucking up loose bubbles. I added 4 emerald crabs to help. A LFS also suggested I use Bacter Clean-m by Continuum…which I believed helped greatly. The emeralds did nothing for old-growth, but they are VITAL for controlling new growth. One day I saw a ton of little bubbles starting to grow on a single rock. The next morning, all gone. The crab saved the day.

    Long story short here is what I’ve done. This is the most aggressive approach possible, and it’s working. I’m not out of the woods, but I’ve gained control without a doubt.
    – Emerald Crabs
    – Manual Removal: The important part here, take the rock out, and remove the bubbles in a bucket, and rinse with fresh saltwater before replacing the rock. This is key to reducing spores. I’ve never been able to remove a cluster of bubbles without popping at least 1.
    – Protein Skimmer
    – Phosphate Control (GFO)
    – Reduce Light. (I’m down to 6 hours a day of very low intensity light). I have also put cardboard up all around the glass of the DT to prevent outdoor light and lights in the room from contributing too much. It’s not pretty, but it’s starving the algae.
    – Bacter Clean M by Continuum.

    What this has done for me is reduce the bubbles in the tank to a visible count of 15. Every day I look in the tank and remove the baby growths. I find a lot of them attached to a piece of crushed coral in the sand bed, so it sucks up easy. There is one rock that seems to be the only one that keeps regrowing them, so I might remove it and replace it with a clean rock. I also intend to start using Chaeto to further starve the bubbles out.

    It’s been a ridiculous ordeal, but I’m hoping to eliminate them from the tank altogether. Some would argue that’s impossible, but I think if this approach continues then I’ll get there. Oh, and it’s a 75 gallon display with a 20 gallon sump.

    • Jeff Kurtz says:

      Thanks so much for sharing this account with us, Alex. Glad you’ve finally got the bubble algae on the ropes due to your persistence.

  13. Thanks for the great article and all the advice. I’m battling this issue as well and it’s not fun.

    Ironically I got bubble algae from introducing chaeto algae in my sump. I saw the little bubbles in the chaeto but didn’t realize what they were at the time. A few months later my tank was infested.

    • Jeff Kurtz says:

      Sorry to hear about that, Todd! How frustrating! Keep fighting the stuff diligently and it should eventually come under control. Keep us posted on your progress.

  14. ArowanaLover1902 says:

    I have beaten bubble algae, just last week. I had a huge outbreak of bubble algae and cyanobacteria, here was my process:
    1. A two day period in which the tank was covered with towels and lights were off
    2. Manual attack on bubbles and cyano and moving them into water current
    3. 25% water change immediately after
    4. 2 days later I removed every rock and rinsed in freshwater (high enough pressure to push off algae) and used my hand to pluck it off the sandbed.
    5. Another 25% water change

    The tank is almost totally better, I’m still seeing a bit of leftover cyano on the sandbed, but my snails and I are working it, but bubble algae is all gone.

  15. michael Gmoser says:

    I have done it all except Tangs. My best solution is a three foot clear 7/16″ plastic pipe used as a pipette when attached to a plastic hose to siphon to a three gallon bucket. I file sharpen the edge of the pipe to aid in removal of the bubbles. One hand to steer the pipe and the other to crimp the hose after a bubble is sucked up. This way water to buck is controlled giving more time for sighting and removal. Just start the siphon and away you go. Some bubbles may not be easily accessible, but most will be easily detached by the pipe and sucked up in the blink of an eye. I keep a supply of R/O water at perfect salinity and temperature to replace the water taken out with the bubbles. My tank is 125 gallons. First pass yielded a handful and now after three more passes in a week, I pick out about 40. Happy hunting.

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