I sometimes find that my blogs open up or expose an idea or issue that I hadn't really considered before. Other times, they reinvigorate older ideas I've held. Yesterday's piece on sumps in the freshwater aquarium (or general lack thereof, really) was one of those which reignited an ongoing "thesis" that I've had about the state of the freshwater hobby.
Okay, well, let's start it off by me pointing out that this is my opinion...based on personal observations and those of others I know. It's not the last word, or even the first word on the subject. You might find it a bit annoying. Perhaps even insulting a bit. Please don't take it that way. ("Good, Fellman, because who really gives a f---- what YOU think about it, anyways!")
In general, I think we're doing really well, and the "art and science" of maintaining all sorts of rare and unusual fishes, and breeding them, has never been better. The body of knowledge surrounding aquatic plants and their culture is growing rapidly. Aquascaping, although stuck (IMHO) in sort of an endless, "Groundhog Day" type of "loop" of derivations of one style, has progressed over the years (Well, if you can call 14,000 variations of the same idea "progression", of course- sorry snobby 'scape crowd...). Yet, for all of this advancement in the freshwater world, as a group, we seem a bit, well- stuck in our ways, or at least, reluctant to embrace different ways of approaching stuff.
It's not the first time I've seen this, nor the first time I've heard it discussed. While I often rail on my friends in the reef-keeping world for the laughable attitudes of "trend chasing" and hype that seem to be pervasive in that segment, there is one thing that's obvious in reef keeping that isn't in freshwater- an overall desire to embrace "new" without fear. As a reefer, you tend to want to try the latest and greatest stuff to get the edge that you perceive you need to keep your corals and fishes happy and healthy, and if new stuff drops in, you try it with little hesitation. Yes, that's an extreme, too...but it's progressive.
However, the freshwater hobby seems to be in a different sort of mode, if you examine it honestly. We are, in my opinion, willing to try new fishes, plants, inverts, etc. We're willing to look at some new techniques, if they seem to not deviate too far from what "everyone" says is okay. Yeah, it seems that for some reason, when it comes to some stuff, there is a complete lack of desire to deviate from established ways of doing things. It's like we compartmentalize it as "not for us" and that's that.
For example, going back to the sump thing...I can't even begin to tell you how many p.m.'s and emails I received from members of our community who expressed interest in the idea of using one, but were prefaced by stuff like "I had no idea this could be done" or "I always thought it was too complicated", or "It seemed to expensive or impractical.." and my favorite, "I thought it wasn't for use in freshwater.." Stuff like that.
Where the hell is that coming from?
I think it's an attitude. A sort of collective mind set. We seldom, if ever, hear it discussed. No authors seem to want to touch it. Okay, I will. There is no real "nice" way to present it. I have a theory, and you may not like it:
The FW world, although progressive in terms of animal and plant husbandry and propagation, is slow and reluctant to adapt to new technology or different approaches to things. I mean, you are seeing adaptation of some reactors and controllers for "high tech" planted tanks, which is cool. You're seeing fertilization regimens embraced by a lot of these hobbyists. Cool. And you're finally seeing greater employment of advanced LED lighting systems. More (mass-market-available) foods that are comprised of organisms actually found in the natural environments of our fishes are coming into the freshwater market.
Why does it take so long? Why the stubbornness?
It's glaringly obvious to "outsiders." (there should be no "outsiders", BTW- different topic for a different time!)
I get a lot of good-natured teasing from my fellow reefers that going to freshwater is like some groovy retro trip to the 1970's. Seriously. Look at the sump thing again. I mean, the sump idea has been around since the 1980's in reefkeeping, and some 30 years on, we see just a handful of them in freshwater, even though the benefits and potential breakthroughs that could be achieved by utilizing one are pretty obvious. Yet, we cling to our canisters and outside filters as if there is no better way to do stuff. We come up with a lot of excuses: "Well, most freshwater hobbyists have multiple aquariums..." or "Brine shrimp is more economical than the new preserved flies." Okay, so a $300 canister system is cheaper than a $300 sump system? Not sure...I'm not attacking canister filters or frozen brine shrimp. Yes, they are great and they work well...but there are other ways to approach it. There can be some new stuff. We just seem so reluctant to give up the way we've always done things...the way everyone does it. The way "everyone" SAYS we should do it. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it..."
Don't like this? Don't believe me?
Look into Tannin's own history. When we first presented our approach to the blackwater/botanical-style system, the amount of pushback was significant. We were called "irresponsible" by many for proffering what they perceived as some reckless, casual foray into a "dangerous" and "unstable" world, with unproven ideas and methods. Stuff that few really played with. Or, some "old timers" told me "this is nothing new" (Which I agreed with), but told me it doesn't work without so much as steeping a catappa leaf. And the idea of seriously elevating blackwater aquariums floundered in obscurity or "novelty sideshow" status for years.
Is it some desire to cling to the gentle ways of a bygone era, following the same well-worn path without some much as questioning why?
Not sure. But it keeps coming up. I know I sound like a jerk for even discussing it like this, but it's my opinion, supported by numerous observations. Seems like it's almost a...fear. Or at least, a disdain. And I think it's really important that we just look at it and move forward.
Still with me? Good.
I know that many of you might not agree with me here. That's why I prefaced this piece with the disclaimer that it's my opinion.
And don't get me wrong. This rant is not targeted at everyone who keeps a freshwater tank. There is a lot of forward thinking in freshwater, but so much seems to get confined to a few categories, or held tightly in small circles. Not getting through the "noise" of the greater hobby narrative. I mean, look at shrimp fanciers, Rift Lake cichlid people, or Betta breeders. They're doing crazy shit. Why no generalized hobby progression or large-scale acceptance of some different approaches?
Are we so compartmentalized/specilized/obsessed with our own specialties that we won't look outside the box? I have a hard time swallowing that. If for no other reason, I'd think manufacturers would want to integrate some new things into the mix. Pull over some of the sexy reef stuff and reconfigure/remarket to the freshwater world, who, once they overcome their initial reluctance to change will blow away anything that's previously been done with them in the reef category! Yes, it's great that we have more high-tech versions of the old stuff, but it sure is nice to apply totally new thinking "at scale" to our hobby, right? Besides, the FW world has a lot more buying power!
But it's not just about "stuff."
I think that some big-time freshwater hobby thought leaders need to do more to push progression which incorporates ideas from outside the boxes that we're comfortable in. I mean, look at the talent pool out there in the freshwater world! It's insane. We're breeding fishes that were once thought impossible to even keep alive! We're tissue-culturing and propagating rare plants that were once unobtainable in the hobby, and shipping them around the world like they're Water Sprite. We have a collective patience that the reef keeping world seems to have only in tiny quantities at best. We can share that. The freshwater world has an amazingly talented group of lifetime, hardcore hobbyists who possess specialty knowledge and experience that is almost mind-boggling.
Yet we seem close-minded in a lot of ways as a whole, IMHO.
Do we want to change this? I know that I do.
So, how do we change this? (Assuming any of us want to..)
We simply look outside of our boxes, peer over our fences, and think about how what's going on in other categories that can help us. You always see me talking about wanting to see more planted tank people get into botanical/blackwater systems because of their extensive knowledge of water chemistry, substrate management, and fertilization, for example. You hear me calling out my nay-saying reefer friends to try a blackwater or brackish tank and apply some of that "testosterone-fueled" thinking to freshwater. Because it works both ways.
We need to "cross-pollinate" a bit. We need to look at what aquarists are doing in other hobby "disciplines" and share and borrow and try out new ideas. And give them some of ours. Some won't work. Others will require lots of modification or adaptation. But the potential for breakthroughs is huge. Can't we all do this? I think so. Or is it just easier to reach for the outside power filter and call it a day?
I hope not.
I'd like to think that this 100+ year-old hobby simply needs a kick in the ass from time to time. We are like a bloated, arthritic giant that needs a wakeup call, a cup of coffee, and a hot shower. Once you wake up this amazing juggernaut and get it firing on all cylinders, the hobby as a whole will grow, with more kids getting into it, and more and more breakthroughs and progress than ever before.
Again, many of you already get this. For those who don't agree, just contemplate before you trash me.
Don't hate on some new stuff from "the outside." We're all fish geeks, and we can learn from each other, utilize our experience, talent, equipment, techniques...Don't hate on change.
Time to wake up.
Rant over. Don't hate me. Think about it. Dismiss fear. Accept this easy challenge. Blow up the hobby even more. Achieve more great things. Grow.
Stay driven. Stay thoughtful. Stay innovative. Stay motivated.
And Stay Wet.
I am a big believer in sumps.
I know, you have visions of an absurdly-complicated reef system, with every possible gadget attached to the tank, costing thousands of dollars/euro/pounds, etc., while yielding only marginal performance benefits over more "conventional" freshwater filtration systems, right? Well, first off, don't think of a sump as a "filter" in the conventional sense. Think of it as a sort of "water management system" for your display. To call it a "filter" is way too simplistic, IMHO. And it doesn't need to be a byzantine maze of complexity, either.
Although it can accomplish a lot of complex tasks, a sump need NOT be complex. In our context, a sump could be defined as virtually any type of container used beneath or behind an aquarium. It holds water and provides a location to place various pieces of equipment that our systems need (Yeah, even a setup consisting of a simple spare 10-gallon aquarium set up below your 50 gallon display tank to receive and process water is a "sump" by this definition).
Now, coming from a reef aquarium background, where sumps are simply the way 99% of reef systems are set up, this probably doesn't surprise you that I like them. The need to accommodate ancillary support gear like protein skimmers, reactors, etc. is just one reason why sumps have evolved into the "nexus" of most reef aquarium systems.
Yet, the more I play with exotic ideas in my freshwater and brackish water systems, the more I'm realizing the value of the sump, and how they can benefit freshwater hobbyists as well. I'm always surprised to see high-end setups with canister filters and reactors and such instead of sumps. Seems sort of..well, "clunky" to me. We see them in some Discus tanks, African Cichlid systems, and occasionally a planted tank, yet they are the exception, rather than the rule. I'd love to see their use more widespread in the general freshwater world. Now, I realize that the breeder who keeps a hundred 5 and 10 US-gallon aquariums is unlikely to want set up a sump for each one, and the idea of a central filtration system (wether incorporating a sump or some other system) is fraught with potential issues, such as transmission of disease, etc.
However, I think sumps would be a good idea for most freshwater display aquariums. I think that even modest-sized aquariums (like 40 US gallons and up) could benefit from sumps. Now, yes, there is the issue of expense and additional design considerations...You're essentially adding another little aquarium. And of course, you need to have an overflow weir, which means a "reef ready" tank (unless you want to do some retrofitting and install an overflow). And a reliable submerged or external return pump, sized properly for the system. Yeah, a bit more work, perhaps, than simply hooking up the old Eheim...
Then again- dealing with glassware sort of sucks, IMHO!
For advanced concept or speciality display tanks (like our blackwater and brackish-water systems), sumps offer extraordinary flexibility and advantages over more traditional systems, like canister filters, sponges, and outside filters. I mean, the aesthetics alone are reason to consider such an arrangement...no hardware visible in the aquarium is always a plus in my book. A sump allows you to place the heater, reactors, or other tech equipment conveniently out of view, yet easily accessible for access and maintenance.
That's all well and good from an aesthetic standpoint, but what other reasons would there be to use a sump in one of our systems? What are some tangible benefits? Well, to start with, I like them because they add water volume to your overall system, A typical sump (in the reef aquarium world) is anywhere from 20% to 50% or more of the volume of the display itself. And of course, this adds volume to your overall system; volume means additional stability and biological capacity for your display. And a built-in "hedge" for evaporation. Sumps also facilitate Increased oxygenation. As water drains into the sump, air mixes with it, allowing for beneficial gas exchange, releasing CO2 and adding fresh O2.
(My friend Marc Levanson builds awesome custom sumps and has a great website filled with info on them..check it out)
Sumps allow you the flexibility to utilize different types of (filter) media, like botanicals/and leaves in our case, than for whatever reason, you might not want in the display tank.
Leaves, in particular, with their associated decomposition, biofilms, and aesthetic considerations may be something that you simply don't want in your aquarium...but you might like the affect they have on the aquarium, in terms of environmental stability, cultivation of biological filtration, supplemental food sources, etc. Or maybe you want to play with live plants and not have botanicals "in situ"- or perhaps you want a "clinical" bare bottom Discus or other "concept" tank, but appreciate the "support" a sump could provide.
(I mean, you CAN really go crazy with all sorts of media in a sump if you WANT to..)
And of course, with a sump, you can build in sections for the cultivation of these food animals (like Daphnia or worms, etc.), creating, in effect a refugium of sorts to grow them free of predators (your fishes), feeding off of excess food and processing nutrients, with the occasional specimen getting pulled into the main display to provide the odd "treat" for your fishes.
You could even light a section of the sump (on a "reverse" schedule of the display) with an inexpensive LED light to cultivate fast-growing floating or rooted bunch plants (like Water Sprite, Rotala, Hornwort, etc.) to assist with nutrient export via harvesting them. Oh, and a great "hack" for those who love nice aquatic plants but also happen to keep disruptive fishes i the display (like digging cichlids, vegetarian fishes, etc.).
These are just some of the most prominent and beneficial reasons for considering a sump for your next display aquarium. Sure, you could adapt a canister to perform some of the functions (like holding "media"), or use a hang-on power filter as a sort of "moss reactor" or what not, but the concept of a sump, with it's spacious capacity and inherit flexibility gives you options and ease of operation that these "band aids" simply can't match. The additional expense and planning that might be required when incorporating a sump into your next freshwater display will, in my opinion, easily be compensated for by the operational effectiveness and efficiencies you'll realize. Even the "all-in-one" aquariums, which are becoming more and more prevalent in the freshwater world, offer the benefits of a sump (multiple chambers, extra water capacity, etc.).
All-in-all, sumps are a great way to give your system the "edge" it might need for long-term success and "mission flexibility" as your needs evolve or change. Are they perfect for everyone? Absolutely not, as we discussed at the beginning of this piece. However, for many of us, they could open up exciting new possibilities for adventurous hobbyists with ambitious ideas...and that's kind of what we're all about, right?
Stay open-minded. Stay creative. Stay innovative. Stay bold.
And Stay Wet.
A few years back, I was fortunate enough to have a fish geek experience that really made me sit back and think about this crazy hobby of ours in a whole new light. I attended a meeting of a local club in Duluth, MN (Yeah, in February! It was a bit colder than L.A. in February...LOL) to give a talk, and got to stay at the home of a dedicated hobbyist- My friend and prototypical all-around fish geek Matthew Pederson (of Amazonas and Coral Magazines...his blogs and articles are awesome BTW)- and his very serious fish room! I swear I spent as much time down there as I did with him. It was the first time in a lot of years that I was exposed for more than a few hours to a dedicated home fish room. I even got to scrape algae for him; epic! Felt great. The memories of that brief weekend hanging out in a serious fish room really got my wheels spinning. Something in my "programming"- in our collective "programming"- makes it feel "aspirational." Oh, what was that I wrote, a "fish room?" You got it. A room filled with dozens of aquariums of varying sizes (freshwater and saltwater!), dedicated to the study, care, breeding- and sheer joy of fish keeping.
Now, a fish room is not at all an alien concept to many of us, although we don't hear about 'em as much as we did in the past. And some of us have never had a fish "ROOM", per se- just a lot of tanks scattered around various locations throughout our residence! However, the idea of a dedicated fish room, with all of its exciting little nooks and crannies and potential- is the stuff of dreams for many of us, right?
Fish rooms used to be a lot more common in the hobby. Serious hobbyists thought nothing of filling their basements, garages, and extra bedrooms with lots and lots of aquariums. It seems that in the last few years, the fish room has gone the way of the CD- a once pervasive product that seemed to just sort of fade away. Unlike the CD, technology did not force the idea of a fishroom into retirement. Rather, technology has benefitted the hobby immensely, making it easier than ever before for a hobbyist to create his or her own little nerve center to practice the state of the art in aquarium keeping with several aquariums.
Yet, for some reason, the multiple aquarium fish room was starting to become a thing of the past. Maybe it was economics; time, or the demands of other areas of life that made the commitment to a room full of aquariums seem impractical. For a long time in recent decades, dedicated fish rooms were just the domain of the hardest of hardcore fish geeks...However, with all of the new focus on conservation and fish breeding, it seems like a resurgence is in the works on a large scale!
And for the first time, marine fish breeding is starting to move beyond just Clownfish, and it seems like we’re starting to see some serious breeders move to trying to reproduce all sorts of fishes. And even when not breeding fishes, dedicated marine hobbyists are devoting entire rooms to their obsession, and are pushing the state of the art forward every day. An interesting overall hobby change.
And of course, crazy freshwater fish breeders are popping up everywhere- and along with them, multiple tank fish rooms! Check with any club's Breeder's Award Program if you don't think that's something that's happening all the time!
And, yeah, some of us took it to far and opened up an entire warehouse full of fish stuff... All part of that weird thing of just being a round a ton of fish tanks most of my life. I think that, on some level, all of those of us in the business- whether we care to admit it or not, sort of use the "business" as a cover to play with fish tanks full-time!
For the hardcore hobbyist, it's no different. The challenge is to fit it into our lifestyle. Sure, given factors like economic uncertainty, time pressures, and other commitments, today’s home hobbyist is more pressed than ever to find time for his or her hobby, even for one aquarium, let alone a dozen or more. Yet, there is something about this hobby that makes it so hard to stop at just one aquarium, isn’t it? And we keep going...
What we only half-jokingly refer to as “Multiple Tank Syndrome”- the "addiction" to the hobby that gives us the urge to set up more aquariums-is alive, well, and very real! We have so many ideas, and a desire to try them all...and it seems the only way to do it is to set up more and more aquariums..!
Some people collect souvenir shot glasses, coins, or cats.
We collect aquariums. And fish. And plants. And all of the "junk" that goes with 'em.
It seems that with every dedicated hobbyist, there is the desire to expand or horizons, to try new things, learn about one more fish, plant, coral, ecological niche, etc. And that requires "just one more" aquarium... or perhaps a few more! It requires the need to expand, explore, and experiment.
To this I say- Go for it! Don’t fight the urge to get that next aquarium. Not only are you giving yourself something that you will enjoy immensely, you might just be able to try something altogether new, break new ground, or better yet-inspire others to persue their aquatic dreams. Maybe you don’t have the space or finances for a true "fish room", but satiating your desire with another aquarium somewhere in the house is a good start!
As a child growing up in a fish-geek household, seeing my dad’s many tanks virtually cemented my destiny that someday I’d be deeply involved in the aquarium field. I always had more than one bowl, plastic container, or aquarium in my bedroom...and all over the house, eventually.
I was inspired, man! Couldn't fight it off...Who knows what kid might be inspired to entire the science field as a result of a visit to your fish room? Or just your fish tank? Or tanks? I mean, virtually every household has more than one car, so why not more than one aquarium? It's a good thing...Well, at the very least, it’s good for the aquarium industry! (Sorry, couldn't resist that one...LOL)
l’ll say it again: "Fish room." A place of magic. A place of wonder. A place of awe. A laboratory. A retreat. A launch pad for dreams. I dedicate this post to all of you out there who practice the art of aquarium keeping each and every day, regardless of if you have one fish bowl or 200 tanks in your basement. You are the very essence of the hobby- the living, breathing soul of our passion. I say it again: If the muse strikes, don’t fight it. Why stop at one?
Who has a "fish room" going? Who's contemplating setting up one? Or at least, who admits to having "Multiple Tank Syndrome?"
My advice to you if you?
Set up another aquarium!
Oh, and I know this website where you can get really cool botanicals if you're feeling the urge to try blackwater... (heh, heh, heh...)
Until next time,
If things were perfect...
Your LFS would be open 24/7/365!
Plants would never have snails, Hydra, and other pests.
Die, scum! You've been banned.
My plumbing connections would never leak; in fact, never even "sweat!"
Pods would sink to the bottomon the first try.
The expression “Limited Edition” would be banned from the coral industry.
Activated carbon wouldn’t need rinsing before use!
Acrylic would never scratch!
All Knifefish would max out at 4". (Can you imagine a "DWARF BLACK GHOST KINFEFISH!")
Flexible tubing would be easier to straighten out!
Discus wouldn’t be so darned fussy.
All salt mixes would mix up instantly to 1.025. Or 1.003!
Hatchetfishes would be incapable of jumping!
I wouldn’t keep gluing my fingers together when I play with coral frags!
“Wireless” pumps would actually have NO WIRES!
Shipping services would never mess up a delivery.
Aquatic putty would actually stick to stuff.
Frozen foods wouldn’t get freezer burn.
"Silent" overflow weirs would be completely silent.
Aquarium heaters would never fail.
A "reef safe" marine angelfish would be 100% "reef safe."
Live Black Worms would need no rinsing or refrigeration!
LED controllers would make it impossible to set your color to “Windex Blue.” (sorry reef world)
“Tank Of The Month” contests would be banned forever.
Driftwood would need no rinsing or soaking before use…ever.
Wild Apistos would eat frozen foods right out of the bag.
All coral vendors would use the same color settings and standards for their photography.
Pipefish would be super easy to keep and breed, and eat flake food!
"Eats TetraMin right from your fingers! Drops babies every 2 weeks....!"
I’d have an endless supply of complimentary Turkish towels! (800 thread count or better, of course)
Some Tetra would come in a deep, metallic purple color!
Frag saw blades would never get dull.
You'd never have to clean algae from glassware in your planted tank!
Fish would swim INTO the net on the first try, and be totally calm...
Those are like my first couple of dozen or so…let’s hear yours…
Stay hopeful. Stay relaxed. Stay calm. Stay creative.
And of course, if things were perfect...everyone would...
I have a friend who has the opinion that every time you sneeze, cough, or have a headache, or display any overt "symptom" which could somehow be tied to a cold- that you've acquired some illness, and that you're headed for a week of bed rest, chicken soup, and Netflix.
Super paranoid. Drives me crazy.
Yet, I see this mindset in other areas of our lives....
Like our aquarium hobby!
I sometimes wonder if we as hobbyists tend to become just a little more paranoid than we need to be?
Like, have you noticed that, when you're looking at your aquarium, any sound, any behavioral change in your fishes, any minor appearance difference- can send you into a veritable frenzy of cross-checking, water testing, examination, etc? Oh, you may not admit to it; you might think that you're immune to the concerns, etc.
But you're not.
Let's face it, we are all sort of paranoid- and I mean that in the nicest way possible. We're damn concerned about the well-being of our fishes, the safe operation of our aquariums, and the overall health of the system. That's a good thing, unless we take it too far.
For some of us, any little "anomaly" which deviates slightly from what we know and are comfortable with makes us at the very least, cautious and alert...Perhaps, uncomfortable, and at the worst- panicked. That's too far, IMHO.
Don't panic. Don't be uncomfortable.
Just be concerned. Check it out. See what's really going on. Correct only if needed, and get on with your day. Maybe you'll catch a problem. More likely, you'll have just suddenly realized that the weird humming sound coming from your canister filter is simply the normal sound it makes during operation.
Don't make this hobby more difficult than it is by "connecting the dots" and inventing problems that aren't there.
Because every sneeze doesn't mean you're sick.
Todays ultra simple, yet hopefully useful thought.
Stay alert. Stay Active. Stay calm.
And Stay Wet.
Like all of you, I spend a fair amount of time interacting and exploring on online forums.
Although I'm not anything close to a serious planted aquarium keeper, I do enjoy reading up on the techniques, ideas, and evolutions within that hobby niche. In my personal opinion, it's perhaps one of the most rapidly-evolving sectors within the aquarium hobby. Seems like every week there is some new development, some new idea, some adaptation of a new piece of hardware (like from reef keeping, which is kind of cool), etc.
It's a pretty happening sector within the hobby, and I think we can learn a little bit from our planted aquarium fantastic friends which might work with our blackwater/botanical-style and now, brackish water-botanical-style tanks.
One of the things I find fascinating is the concept of "low tech versus high tech" planted tanks, and where what we do dovetails with this line of thinking/practice. I have found this to be a most interesting dichotomy, one in which I think we may not only operate, but actually be positioned to contribute to the body of knowledge within the hobby.
I suppose a good working definition of "high tech" yields some clues: A high tech planted tank could be defined as one which utilizes intense light, injection of nutrients into the water column, a "nutritious" substrate, and CO2 injection (typically administered via a controller). It seems to favor high growth rate and the ability to effectively grow the widest variety of aquatic plants at a good growth clip.
A "low-tech" planted tank, on the other hand, as its name implies, tends to eschew many of the more complex equipment (like CO2 injection systems/controllers, cable heating, high-intensity lighting) in favor of operational simplicity, and relies on more "natural" processes to some extent (like the CO2 being provided by fish respiration and the bulk of the "fertilizers" coming from their waste), but seems to embrace the use of supplemental liquid fertilizers and may occasionally employ an enriched substrate. The lower light intensities utilized are an obvious "limiting factor" to "low tech" systems (although just because you cannot grow high light/high fertilization-requiring plants doesn't seem to me to be a reason for the "low tech" moniker).
Now, those are rough "definitions" that I've come up with based on my understanding of both. Your interpretation may vary and be significantly different from mine, but I think I'm sort of "in the ballpark" with them.
Now, how do these concepts "sync" with what we do? Well, first off, with blackwater/botanical-style tanks, the primary focus seems to be on the overall aquatic environment, and typical natural blackwater systems have few true aquatic plants, so, although more and more hobbyists are experimenting with plants in these tanks, to attempt to categorize them one way or another seems superfluous, in my opinion. Our systems sort of "are what they are", right? Light penetration and nutrient-poor substrates characterize many blackwater systems in nature.
Of course, there are streams and bogs and such with plants like Cryptocoryne, or Anubias, which do well in these environments, but these are exceptions typically. Floating plants seem to dominate many of the South American blackwater habitats in which true aquatic plants are found.
However, we also do embrace elements that could be considered sort of "high tech", like "enriched" substrates, advanced lighting systems (a lot of us use LED's for aesthetic effects), and controlled water movement. Although we're typically emphasizing plant growth as a secondary part of the aquarium, we do create an environment that is conducive to the growth of some species, don't we? I mean, with a lot of decomposing botanical materials and nutrient sources provided courtesy of leaves, and substrate materials, we have some of the elements to do the job nicely.
Yet, our substrates are, in my opinion, "configured" with the intention of providing overall environmental conditions (like tinted, lower pH water) and fostering fungal/bacterial food chains and maybe, just maybe some denitrification/fermentation of organics.
So, where does this leave us as practitioners of the blackwater/botanaical-style aquarium? I think we're sort of "niche habitat replicators" as opposed to strict "fish-dominated systems" or "high/low-tech planted tanks", etc. Yet, we are utilizing many of the concepts and ideas from both regularly, wether we consciously think about it or not, right? I think employing some aspects of planted tanks in our systems is not only interesting- I think it can be very beneficial to both "disciplines" within the hobby. This very superficial, yet (I hope) though-provoking discussion sort of demonstrates that many different aquarium concepts rely on some of the same "operating systems", yet might employ different hardware/technique to get to their destinations. Some require the application of higher technology- others, a greater reliance on nature.
Although one might say that the blackwater/botanical-style aquarium falls somewhere squarely in between, suffice it to say we can definitely contribute to the ongoing evolution of many aspects within the aquarium hobby universe. "High Tech/Low Tech"- doesn't matter. What DOES matter is that we are learning, experimenting, and hopefully- unlocking a few secrets along the way about recreating, maintaining, and perhaps even protecting- these compelling natural systems.
Keep doing what you're doing. Keep contributing to the growing global body of work and advancing the state of the art not only of this sector- but of the overall aquarium hobby!
Stay bold. Stay Adventurous. Stay open-minded. Stay experimental. Stay diligent.
And Stay Wet.
I received a nice email today- one of many we receive weekly, from a hobbyist who just received his shipment from us and was so excited to get started with aquatic botanicals...
It got me thinking about things that get us excited in the hobby! I posed this question to some of my fishy friends, and they had a wide range of interesting answers. The biggest and most exciting events in the hobby, based on this very un-scientific sampling, seem to be when you set up a new tank, and when you acquire/receive/purchase a new aquarium, gadget, aquascaping item, plant or fish....especially one you've been trying to acquire for some time...And I'm inclined to agree... And being in the business of helping fellow fish geeks do cool stuff with their tanks every day, I'd have to say that I won't argue with that one.
I love when I help a fellow hobbyist create a cool selection of botanicals and I get that email or text or PM and they say, "Man I can't wait to get the package...!"
Few things in this hobby or business thrill me like hearing the sheer joy of a fellow hobbyist, stoked as hell about getting something that he or she loves so much.
However, I think there are other exciting things...
Like seeing your favorite pair of fish spawn, and the appearance of the first fry. Few feelings in the hobby can match that!
Or, like going to conferences and having your head explode from all of the fishes, plants, gadgets, and fish geeks you encounter under one roof, or nailing the perfect aquascape, seeing your fave fish just thriving in your tank, securing that moss to a killer piece of driftwood just the way you wanted it...dozens and dozens of tiny little moments that provide us that little "rush" which keeps the hobby so addictive.
I don't know about you, but I still get that little ping of excitement every time I enter into my LFS! "Will THIS be the time I find that crazy weird dwarf cichlid I've been looking for? Will the store have that awesome new coral food I've read about but haven't yet tried? Will I end up walking out with a new nano tank?"
All those kinds of cool things that create excitement, and keep us engaged in the hobby. Granted, we all get excited about different things:
I hung with a bunch of guys at a reef conference (MACNA) once, who had very passionate and (to them) exciting exchanges about...testing for Vanadium in aquarium water (no, I'm serious! And they weren't really that drunk, either, and the discussion went on for hours! And to answer your next question: No, I bailed at like the 15-minute mark...)! And of course, I love "shopping" with friends for gadgets at aquarium shows; it's a thrill- (especially when they're the one spending money! Those vicarious adventures. Peer-pressuring your buddies into getting that _______ they're debating over is always fun! ("Dude! It's so cheap here! You know you'll go home and want it and it's gonna be like 25% more online...just get it NOW!" )
So many cool things.
And you know what? It even hit me this past month- after two years, I still get that twinge of excitement every time I step into the office. Because there is always something new and interesting...something to keep me excited, engaged, focused. Seeing your pics and videos of the awesome things you do with our aquatic botanicals- the sharing of your experiences and ideas with our ever-growing community...Amazing.
And then it all kind of goes back to what we mentioned at the beginning of this piece, about what is arguably one of the best moments for a fish geek: Waiting for whatever you ordered to arrive...Don't you just kind of "geek out" when you order something fish related online and it's going to be delivered today?
It doesn't matter if it's just a part for your RO/DI unit, a bunch of pelleted food, 10 pounds of activated carbon, or- on those truly special days- that breeding pair of Apistos or rare Gouramis- you still get this childlike excitement, like the night before Christmas or something, right?
If you're like me, you track your order online ("Oh, honey, Fed Ex says it's in their hub at Memphis right now! Oh, wait-it just got loaded on the plane to L.A.!!!), you watch your porch, you listen for every "delivery-truck-sounding" vehicle coming down the street (damn, just a school bus!), and look for an email from USPS, DHL, FedEx, or UPS with that beautiful subject line: "Your package is out for delivery..."
If you're at work when the shipment is due to arrive, of course, it's even more exciting, distracting, and nerve-wracking, isn't it? Your mind runs wild with every scenario: "What if it's a new delivery guy and he puts my package on the wrong porch?" Or worse, "What if the delivery person misreads the instructions and needs me to sign for the delivery? Where and when can I pick it up?"
Or even worse yet- the online status indicates that a "Delivery Exception" has occurred What does that mean? Is it a weather delay that has held up your package, or is it damaged and undeliverable, or...?
Need to call...but can't get out of that meeting...Feeling sick...
You know, stuff like that.
It's such a weird thing that many a good fish geek will simply take the day off when he or she knows that a package is set to arrive. We can't risk it being handled by ANYONE else, not even our long-suffering spouse!
Even the word, "package", brings up some visceral, child-like feeling in a fish geek like me. A "package" is a magical thing that contains cool stuff that can help you really geek out even more! I love that word.
And when the package does arrive- when it all comes together and you are there to receive it from the delivery person (who has no idea that you were stalking her while she parked the mail truck at the curb, took out your package from the back of the truck, and slowly- agonizingly slowly- walk up the driveway to your porch), your pulse quickens...
And it takes everything you have NOT to open the door half a second after the doorbell rings...No, you're too cool for that- you wait another second or two, and casually open the door to grab the goods. And of course, you are hoping- praying- that the delivery person doesn't engage in any small talk greater than the usual pleasantries or comment about the weather, because you've got to open that package!
And you casually close that door...and run to the drawer where your scissors is...Where is it?
And you finally open that package- a complete sensory experience, the feel, the sound, the smell of cardboard and packaging tape- all seared not your brain circuitry from a lifetime of waiting for and opening packages...
What a moment!
And even if it IS just a 6-pack of new filter pads, it might as well be that rare Gold Nugget Pleco you ordered from the guy in New Jersey. You admire your prize, and feel...well, content. For now.
It's the culmination of a long process. The pinnacle of an experience filled with all sorts of emotions, impulses, and rituals. You feel something. Relief, perhaps? Or the desire to go through that whole thing again next week. It's a rush of sorts.
And, later that evening, you go back online and peruse the vendors' offerings...
"Hmm, how much do I have to order to get free shipping...?
You are a fish geek. Through and through.
And all of these things-all of these experiences, acquisitions, and moments of enjoyment of the hobby with friends- are what excite me the most. All of 'em. Every single one.
We're all pretty lucky to have this, don't you think?
So, that being said...What do you consider the best moments...the most exciting things in the hobby? The most exciting moments in aquarium keeping? Let's here 'em!
Stay excited. Stay engaged. Stay geeky.
And stay wet.
If you're like most hobbyists, you spend as much time thinking about your next tank as you do about your present one. Not sure what this is...maybe it's part of our "hunter-gatherer" genetic heritage or something, lol.
One of the things that inspires me to create my next aquarium projects is looking at my current tank and seeing which "niches" within it would make a good "starring role" in my next one! For example, I am a huge fan of creating overhangs and nooks and crannies with wood pieces near the bottom of my aquarium. And I often ponder the idea of simply doing an aquarium entirely filled with wood and leaves...so very little in the way of "negative space" (areas not occupied by something) and an almost "reef-like" structure that would be perfect for all sorts of bottom-dwelling, or "near bottom-dwelling" fishes, like dwarf cichlids, loaches, Corydoras and related catfishes, Darter Tetras, wild Betta species, etc.
I've always found this an interesting configuration for an aquarium, although my "prejudice" about having lots of open water space for shoaling fishes, like characins, Danios, etc. has prevented me from trying this. Now, I've done this sort of thing in a marine tank before- I mean, this was THE WAY we did reef tanks in the 80's and well into the 90's...a "wall of rock"- because it was thought that you needed to use "x" pounds of live rock per gallon for "biofiltration"- and how else do you get 100 lbs of rock in a 50 gallon tank? Yeah. However, I've long fantasized about doing such a "stack" of wood in a freshwater aquarium!
I remember railing on such a configuration in reef tanks for years, simply because it was sort of unimaginative and a maintenance liability for a reef tank. However, for a freshwater system with a more "porous" structure of wood, I think that not only would it function fine, I know it will look cool. The idea of creating an entire community around such a niche would be really cool. There are plenty of examples of this type of structure from nature.
The assembly and function of such a configuration would operate much in the manner of any other botanical-oriented aquarium, with perhaps a little greater emphasis on creating structure from the wood to more closely replicate such systems as they appear in the wild, including accumulations of botanicals and decomposing leaves.
When assembled in conjunction with a nice aggregation of leaves, such an aquarium configuration could provide a remarkably interesting aquarium with a different sort of aesthetic. The idea of modeling such a tangle of wood/roots is a perfect configuration for a brackish water aquarium inspired by mangrove thickets, in which the root system is the aesthetic and functional focus of the display.
Obviously, aquariums with dense aggregations of wood/roots have husbandry considerations, such as the need to keep a good flow rate through the "matrix", and the ability to access some of the "nooks and crannies" for routine maintenance tasks, like siphoning, replacing leaves/botanicals, etc. Yet, I think with the proper equipment and husbandry practices in place, it's not really that difficult to sustain for an indefinite period of time. I mean, we did it with reef tanks for a decade!
I think another interesting aspect of a dense wood configuration is the potential to keep a number of mated pairs of fishes like Apistos or others in the same tank. Now, I'm no Apisto expert, but I do have a certain curiosity about keeping little "communities" of fishes together. I think it could work...I mean, I've done it with notroriously aggressive marien fishes, like Pseudochromis. And from the interesting videos I've seen in the wild (like Ivan Mikolji's stuff!), where you see multiple breeding pairs in dense tangles of roots and wood, I can't help but wonder if it's possible to do in the aquarium on a full-time basis without bloodshed. Of course, it would really work great with fishes like Checkerboard cichlids and the like!
So, perhaps the most interesting aspect of such an aquascaping configuration would be to foster natural behaviors and spawning activities among the resident fishes. I would imagine that for "uncontrolled" breeding of many species, the dense wood/botanical matrix would create a very good environment for this. I love the idea of a "community" aspect to such configurations. It would be interesting to see lots of young fishes emerge from the wood matrix now and then, settling in and finding their own territories within the aquarium, creating a very realistic replication of the types of behaviors and activities which occur in natural ecological niches.
In the end, the idea of "adding a lot of wood" to an aquarium is not some revolutionary concept. However, I think the idea of looking at it from the standpoint of creating/fostering an interesting and functional representation of a unique ecological niche, as opposed to just some aesthetic variation, could yield some interesting results for those willing to play with the concept.
With all of the interesting types of wood pieces available to hobbyists nowadays, and the ability to filter, administer good flow into the aquarium, and with the availability of a wide variety of fishes from speciality ecological niches, it has never been easier to play with ideas like this!
We'd love to see and hear about YOUR experiments with this configuration; I'm sure there are a fair number of you who might have played with this already!
Stay excited. Stay creative. Stay curious.
And Stay Wet.
As you know, we spend a fair amount of time snooping around the scientific literature online and in libraries, looking for tidbits of information that might fit nicely into our fascination and evolving technique with blackwater- and now, brackish- aquariums. It's a pretty fun pastime, really- and educational, too!
And one of the interesting things about sifting through scientific stuff is that can occasionally find bits and pieces of information which may not only confirm a "hunch" that you have had about something- these data can sometimes send you into an entirely new direction! (I know it does!)
As a lover of brackish water habitats, I've spent a lot time over the years researching suitable fishes and other aquatic organisms from this environment for aquarium keeping. Now, sure, many fishes can adapt to brackish water conditions, but I'm more fascinated by the fishes which are actually found naturally in these environments. And it's always interesting when you can find our that a fish which you have previously dismissed as not having typically come from this actually does come from it naturally!
One of those happy "surprises" is our good friend, the "Endler's Livebearer", Poceilia wingei.
This popular fish is widely kept under "typical livebearer conditions" in the aquarium ( higher pH and harder water). However, there are a number of wild populations form their native Venezuela which inhabit mildly brackish water coastal lagoons and estuaries, for example, Laguna de los Patos, near Cumana, which has definite ocean influence, although it is far less salty than researchers thought it may have been in the past. And the wild populations residing there might very well be considered "endangered", or at least, limited.
Now, this kind of stuff is not "revolutionary" from a hobby standpoint, as it seems like we've known this for some time. And although the fish are most adaptable, we don't hear all that much about keeping them in what we'd call "brackish" conditions (like SG of 1.003-1.005). It's just interesting to ponder and get your head around. It seems to me like the brackish water habitat for this species has not been embraced much from a hobby standpoint. And I suppose it makes sense- it's far easier to simply give fishes harder, alkaline water than to "mess with adding salt" to their tanks for a lot of hobbyists. And, wild populations of these fishes are scant, as is natural habitat data, so indeed confirming with great certainty that they are still occurring in these types of habitats is sketchy.
In general he question about adding salt to livebearer tanks has been debated for a long time, and there are many views on the subject. Obviously, the ultimate way to determine if you should or should not add salt to an Endler's or other livebearer tank would be to consider the natural habitats of the population you're working with. Easier said than done, because the vast majority of them are now commercially or hobbyist bred- especially Endler's. I think the debate will go on for a long time! Yet, with the increasing popularity of brackish water aquariums, and the debut of "Estuary", we're hoping to see more experiments along this line for many different species!
Now, you know I've always been a fan of sort of "re-adapting" even captive-bred specimens of all sorts of fishes (like "blackwater-origin" characins, etc.) to more "natural" conditions (well, "natural" from perhaps a few dozen generations back! I am of the opinion that even "domesticated" fishes can benefit from providing them with conditions more reminiscent of those from the natural habitats from which they originated. I never will buy into the thought that a few captive generations will "erase" millions of years of evolutionary adaptation to specific habitats, and that re-adapting them to these conditions is somehow "detrimental" to them.
In the end, there are a lot of variables in the equation, but I think that the Endler's discussion is just another example of fishes which could benefit from experimenting with "throwback" conditions. I'm by no means anything close to an expert on these fish, and my opinions are just that- opinions. Commercially, it may not be practical to do this, but for the hobbyist with time and the inclination, it would be interesting to see where it takes you.
I look forward to many more such experiments- bringing natural conditions to "domesticated" fishes, and perhaps unlocking some more secrets...or perhaps simply acknowledging what we all know: That there truly is "no place like home!"
Stay adventurous. Stay experimental. Stay Bold.
And Stay Wet.
One of the best things about this blog is that I can test my bizarre theories, my philosophical inclinations, and just confirm if my ideas about the aquarium-keeping world hold any merit. Many of my discussions with you, my fellow fish geeks, give me the chance to pause and reflect, and confirm a theory that I hold near and dear:
There is a common (unwritten) “language” or set of “rules” by which our fish-keeping culture operates. I’ve touched on it before, here, but it’s time for a bit more depth..To this end, I decided to expand further in my test of this theory. I believe, much like the “certainties” about things you shouldn’t do, that there are things that you shouldn’t say to aquarists, as they will affect our onboard neural “programming”, compelling us to respond in ways that are common to all of us who hold the title of “fish geek.”
To that end, I support my theory with an analysis of several things that you can say to fish geeks that are sure to evoke specific responses. These are just a few- I’m relying on you to expand upon this theory by adding some of your own:
“That’s a very hardy, non-aggressive fish.. for a cichlid.” - That’s fish-geek-speak for, “Dude, you should take this fish off of my hands, because it’s taking over my tank.” And let’s be perfectly honest, in aquarium keeping parlance, the phrase “taking over my tank” is always a bad thing, unless it’s proceeded with the words, “These incredibly brightly colored Mbuna” or “This super fast-growing Aerioculon" (things you’re not likely to hear). Usually, it’s in the context of a fish that the offerer is “done with” because their “interests have changed” (again, fish-geek-speak for “I finally got the initiative to get this brute out of my tank before he takes over everything!”). Unless you enjoy aggressive, modest colored fishes that dig in your substrate, beware!
“That ____________ is easy to install. Took me less than an hour.” - This phrase is generally delivered by your aquarium buddy who either: a) has a background in contracting, computer science, or engineering, b) is simply a beginner who is blessed with being able to charm other hobbyists into doing stuff for him/her, or c) had a stroke of dumb luck and is suddenly confident. This phrase generally comes into play after you were convinced to buy the same lighting system, CO2 system, reactor, or controller as your friend, because it “works so well for you.” This is a virtual guarantee that the “some assembly required” gremlin will pay you a visit over the course of the three days it will actually take to understand, assemble, install, uninstall, reinstall, and troubleshoot said device on your tank.
“Whoa! Was that fish picking at your Madagascar Lace Plant?” - Of course, it will be the fish that you were told was “plant safe” (whatever THAT means)- the one that spends most of it’s days hiding deep in your extensive, newly re-done (at great economic, time, and spousal relationship cost) rock and wood work. It’s generally the fish that you maybe see a few times a week, and the friend’s assertion usually comes after you might- MIGHT- have noticed a slight decline in that favorite uber-pricy, crazy rare plant of late, so you’re especially sensitive and attuned to trying to resolve this emergent problem. I don’t have to tell you what that means After you’re done going over the problem every night and losing sleep, guess what you’ll be doing at some point? Yup.
“Your wife doesn’t expect you at your mother-in-law’s for two hours. You and I can easily plumb this tank with time to spare.”- Although it sounds like a great offer of help, which it is- there are a few things you need to consider regarding the source of the offer: Typically it means that your friend is single, just got out of a relationship with plenty of time on his or her hands, or just bought his/her spouse a big-ticket gift that hey/she has been wanting for some time. His/her relationship “account” is full, and just about anything he or she would do will not elicit a negative response for months. YOU, on the other hand, are walking that fine line between relationship bliss and being straight-up asked to give up your aquarium-keeping habit. You need to get this right, and you can’t ruffle any feathers doing it. Do you really need to tackle this tank project this afternoon, or is it best on some other day? Or will you tempt fate and forge ahead?
“Want some fry?” - Sort of the fish-keeping equivalent of the old cliche about drug dealers telling you that “The first one is free..” It doesn’t matter if your tank is full, and if the fish being offered is the wrong one for your type of system. You’re a fish geek for goodness sake! You know never to say no to a free fish, right? Um, right? Very little needs to be said here.
“That sale is too good to pass up.”- Usually proffered by your buddy who is: a) making way more than you and always seems to be able to afford cool stuff, b) in total financial free-fall and hides it well , or c) has a brand new credit card with a nice, juicy limit (doesn’t matter that his/her other cards are maxed out and in arrears). My unsolicited financial advice: just go for it. Oh, wait a second- that’s not particularly responsible from a financial perspective, is it? Then again, you’re a fish geek, and “financial responsibility” has a different meaning altogether, right?
“You are so lucky to have all of those cool little snails in your plant tank!”- Typically said by a newbie visitor who has no idea that he just tipped you off to the fact that you have one of the most aggravating scourges in planted tank-keeping: Snails! It’s that indication of the “ah ha” moment when you realize that the problem that you thought was so small is now super apparent to even a non-fish person. That means it’s time for drastic action, right? A classic example of how a seemingly innocuous comment (to the the person making the observation, anyways) can radically alter your tank plans!
“Man, you really have a knack for breeding _______. You should do it for a living!”- Scary. This is another one of those statements typically made by someone outside of the hobby, which may either spur you on to greatness or total failure, depending on your capability, determination, and fortitude. Often times, the decision to turn your passion into a career comes from internal motivation and dialogue, not outside observations. This doesn’t mean that it’s not a good idea, just because someone else suggested it. It does, however, mean that you need to think this through on your own, right? The old adage about "making a small fortune by spending a large one" comes to mind here.
So, there you have a little rundown on some of the real meanings behind commonly heard “fish-geek-speak”, which will hopefully give you a better insight into our culture. You no doubt have dozens of your own examples, and in the spirit of this blog, it’s important for you to share them with your fellow fish geeks!
Thank you for participating in our little social experiment! (willingly or not!)
Until next time…
Stay open-minded. Stay motivated. Stay creative...
And Stay Wet.