Tightening our focus- and increasing our chances for success!

It seems as though not a day goes by 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 in the hobby seem mired in the past, with a more complicated must be better philosophy. I mean, think about it for a second. Not only do we typically attempt to recreate the entire river or lake 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 a "shotgun approach", I wonder if it would be 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? Don't get me wrong here- as a student of the aquatic environment, I find the whole thing wonderful and fascinating, and equipping and managing systems to maintain the widest variety of organisms certainly has its merits to some extent.

However, in my ripe old age, I find myself turning to a more disciplined and specific approach to fish  keeping. For example, my love of biotope aquariums is directly attributed to learning about and desiring to replicate a specific part of the river system, 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 tank, in my opinion. At my saltwater company, Unique Corals, although we have a wide variety of animals, we tend to place them in systems designed for their specific needs. However, this doesn't mean that we made them complicated and exotic. Rather, we kept them simple and functional. It's worked well for us.

Do you ever wonder why, as fish geeks, we collectively seem to like to make things so darned complicated? Well, after a lifetime in the hobby, I suppose that I'm as qualified as anyone to take a guess. 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. I mean, if you're keeping a huge array of organisms from all different parts of an aquatic environment, multi-stage reactors, 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, really.

2) We like to buy stuff and impress each other. Hey, who can argue with THAT? It feels good to show off that sexy "Matten Filter" 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 reef keeping 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 blogs, 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 undergravel filters, or to actually fertilize our plant 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! No where is this more apparent than in the reef keeping side of things...Blasting your reef with tons of mis-applied lighting, massive amounts of "chaotic" flow, 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. If you don't have the skill or dedication to properly maintain an aquarium system, all of the technology in the world won't make you successful.

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 aquarium 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 re-think 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 that 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.

 Intelligent flow, if you will, can far exceed the benefits derived by the "over-application" of numerous water movement devices. Yet, for some reason, we hobbyists LOVE to make things more complicated, more expensive, and more challenging by stubbornly clinging to the unnecessary practice of deploying tons of powerheads into one tank, when a mere few applied intelligently will do the job. Let's keep it simple here, for our own sanity- and budgets!

I think that we often make things quite intimidating for the new hobbyists with some approaches. This was again, more prevalent for years in the marine. side of the hobby. Advising the newbie to equip his or her small tank with every conceivable technological prop for success perpetuates the myth that marine systems are more complicated than any other aquarium that you can maintain. Yes, there are some minimum equipment requirements that you have in order to outfit a reef tank. However, in my opinion, I can't help but wonder if equipping the neophyte reefer with one more bag of salt mix 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 in the aquarium hobby. 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. Simplified equipment choices and focused husbandry techniques to get a specific job done in the most efficient and cost-effective manner. 

Such focused approaches are used everyday by the enterprising hobbyists that are breeding fishes and propagating corals. Their systems, husbandry techniques, and approaches are based upon a specific need- fish and coral reproduction, and the results of this focused approach is 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 state of the art.

In summary, I'm not admonishing you to abandon the fun of the community tank or the diverse "community tank." 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 aquatic organisms may be severely restricted, or even non-existent, so developing focused approaches to keeping and propagating fishes, plants and corals may be absolutely critical to the survival of the hobby.

Until next time...

Stay Focused- and Stay Wet

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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