Taking a more focused approach to aquarium keeping..a better way?

It seems as though not a day goes by in the aquarium world when you don’t hear about some new product, animal or technique that will help change the hobby forever. New things that promise to simplify and improve our hobby experience. Yet, for some reason, many of us in the hobby seem mired in the past, with a “more complicated must be better” philosophy. Not only do we typically attempt to recreate the entire aquatic ecosystem in our systems with many layers of biological complexity, we equip our systems with tons of gadgetry to mimic this environment. Our equipment choices and husbandry techniques need to be broadly focused to match the goal of being all things to all creatures.


Rather than the shotgun approach, it would seem logical to design, equip, and manage our systems with a more precise focus. Why not zero in on the specific needs of the animals that we are keeping? Why not take a more focused approach to husbandry, emphasizing some degree of simplicity to get the job done? Equipping and managing systems to maintain the widest variety of organisms certainly has its merits – to some extent.

However, I find myself turning to a more disciplined and specific approach to aquarium keeping. For example, my love of biotope aquariums is directly attributed to learning about and desiring to replicate a specific part of an ecological niche— not the whole darned thing! With equipment, husbandry technique and aquascaping to match the biotope I’m attempting to replicate, it’s a great approach to manage a reef tank in my opinion. Do you ever wonder why we collectively seem to like to make things so darned complicated? I attribute this “complication syndrome” to a few possible factors:

  1. We just don’t like to make things easy on ourselves. The “community tank” philosophy has never left our collective psyche in the hobby. If you’re keeping a huge array of organisms from all different parts of the river environment, multi-stage CO2 systems, additive dosing regimens,  automatic top-off/water change systems, and eight-way water return devices all have their place, right? We use the broadest brush to cover the most canvas — all the possible scenarios. Technologically complex systems and approaches seem to have become a necessity.
  2. We like to buy stuff and impress each other. Hey, who can argue with THAT? It feels good to show off that sexy, expensive protein skimmer or uber-high end LED lighting system…doesn’t it? In all seriousness, I’m sure few hobbyists really set up a system costing thousands of dollars simply to “one up” their buddies, but after reading some tank build threads on hobby forums, I just can’t help but wonder about this sometimes. I think we’re deeper than this, but it warrants consideration.
  3. Because that’s how it has always been done! Okay, there is some merit to this one. We tend to follow the tried and true. As we’ve discussed in previous posts, discoveries of the past help influence the breakthroughs of the future. If something works, we tend to stick with it perhaps tweaking a few things here and there as we go. Yet, think of how heretical it was back in the day to get rid of our plastic filter media from wet-dry filters, or to actually feed our reef tanks! Paradigm shifts involve a certain degree of risk, and perhaps we’ve become adverse to risk or criticism in this modern online era.
  4. If something is more complicated, it MUST be better and safer! Blasting your planted with tons of misapplied lighting (no- I’m NOT bashing halides here- just generalizing about our use of lighting in general….so back away from the keyboard haters), massive amounts of fertilizers, and banks of water purification technology perhaps gives us the security that we’re doing all that we can to keep our animals healthy. The end goal is noble, but the approach seems to me to be costly, inefficient, needlessly complicated, and often unnecessary.

I am not bashing everyone with a complex aquarium system with tons of cool gadgets and exotic husbandry protocols. What I am doing is questioning the need for such complexity. Sure, I’ll be the first to tell you that water quality management is paramount to success in the hobby. However, I’ll also be the first guy to tell you that picking up a siphon house weekly or more frequently is the ultimate expression of water quality management. All of the technology in the world is not going to save your system if you don’t have the fundamentals down.

Thank goodness we are collectively starting to rethink some long-held hobby beliefs and simplifying our approaches — to the benefit of both our animals and our pocketbooks! A great example of this is the wonderful way we have traditionally applied water movement in our systems. If you need to create intense flow patterns, it’s long been held that you need an armada of pumps, baffles, closed loops, powerheads, and other flow-enhancing devices to do the job. While all of these devices have their places, the truth is that you can create outstanding water movement with the logical application of a few very modest powerheads directed in a thoughtful manner.

I think we make things awfully intimidating for the new hobbyists with some approaches. Advising the newbie to equip his or her small tank with every conceivable technological prop for success perpetuates the myth that aquariums are tough to keep. Yes, there are some minimum equipment requirements that you have in order to outfit a tank. However, I can’t help but wonder if equipping the neophyte hobbyist with some extra food and a siphon hose and the admonition to use both regularly and frequently would benefit him/her far more than any electronic controller would.

Again, don’t get me wrong. All of the cool technology and equipment has its place. However, in this new era of the hobby, I think that it’s important to step back once in a while and re-evaluate what we’re trying to accomplish, why we are doing what we’re doing, and what really works. I’ll hazard a guess that we can simplify things and still enjoy great success. 

Focused approaches are used every day by the enterprising hobbyists that are breeding fishes and propagating plants. Their systems, husbandry techniques, and approaches are based upon a specific need — fish and plant reproduction, and the results of this focused approach are demonstrating daily its virtues. The bigger picture here is that the application of a more focused approach can — and has been — leading to huge advancements in the hobby. In summary, I’m not admonishing you to abandon the fun of the community tank or the diverse aquatic garden. I am encouraging you to step back now and then and channel your energies to a specific purpose, and to share your technique and philosophies with the hobby. One day in the not-too-distant future, importation of wild fishes and plants may be severely restricted, or even non-existent, so developing focused approaches to keeping and breeding aquatic organisms may be absolutely critical to the survival of the hobby.

Until next time…Stay Focused — and Stay Wet

Scott Fellman


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


Leave a comment