Recognizing the signs of...failure.

Okay, at the bit of sounding just a bit negative today, I'm pondering on a few things that have been on my mind lately about the aquarium hobby.

There are a lot of articles, blogs, and tips on how to succeed at this-or-that aspect of the hobby, which is awesome. But those of us who have been in the hobby and industry for a while have seen a lot of, for want of a better term- the "dark side" of the aquarium hobby. We've seen all kinds of hobbyists, businesses, and ideas come and go. And after a while, you get a distinct feeling that you know what works and what doesn't. You can see when the train is headed for the washed-out bridge, or the ship is steering into the rocks, if you will.

Today, in the hope that we can all learn about what does NOT work, I give you ____ ways to fail in the aquarium hobby. (This is really less geared towards YOU- the more advanced aquarist, or the LFS person- and geared more towards creating a discussion track for you to run with when dealing with someone who is completely new to the hobby, and perhaps...a bit misled.)

It's kind of our job, as advanced hobbyists, industry types, and good stewards of the aquarium world to look at the absurdity of some of this stuff, so that we can prevent others from making these horrible mistakes! Here are my top 5. No doubt you have more, but it's a start!

1) Jump in without doing research. Yeah, seriously. The aquarium hobby as we know it has only been around for like 100 years or so. The tenants of basic aquarium husbandry are still wide open to dismiss. Examples? Well, don't worry about mixing fishes from different environmental conditions together. Calling your an aquarium a "community tank" somehow negates all of the potential downsides of mixing incompatible fishes! Or, how  about this one: Fishes will "grow to the size of their aquarium" and "adapt' just fine to smaller tanks! "I'll get a larger tank down the line." (If I had a dollar for every time I heard THAT one...)


2) Believing that this or that product will relieve you of the need to obey basic aquarium husbandry principles. Yeah, really! If you use this additive or employ this filter media, there is no need for water changes. Ever! Feeding this food will prevent fish disease. Or, using this electronic controller means you'll never have to monitor water chemistry again! Just spending the money on ____________ automatically grants you an exemption from the "aquarium gods" and gives you special status whereby you can dismiss all of the "rules" and achieve success with minimal attention and effort. "I read on internet about this guy who..." Ughh.

3) Accelerating the timeline when establishing a new aquarium. Hey, the kids want to see fish in by tonight for the party. "I'll start with just a few fish: Like, a dozen Neons, six Tiger Barbs, a few "Algae Eaters" (gotta have those)..." We've all seen and heard the various claims out there: Todays modern filters, additives, and gadgets will help you succeed despite having any knowledge of what you're doing! The nitrogen cycle is "instantly established" and your aquarium can achieve biological balance in a day with this stuff!" Regrettably, marketing hyperbole when taken out of context can give a newbie the completely wrong impression of the capabilities and applications for a product.

4) Continuing at full speed even when stuff is going wrong and animals are dying. I've seen this a lot on the "reef" side of the trade: A customer will buy a bunch of livestock, experience horrific losses (generally due to a complete disregard-intentional or otherwise- for the lack of an established nitrogen cycle), conclude without real research that the losses were due to "bad fish", and then continue to the next LFS, online vendor, breeder, etc. and grab another bunch of animals to replace the ones that died. After the second inevitable disaster ensues, some call "uncle" and either quit or make the effort to figure out why. Those who persist, continue to kill fish, buy and misapply products and equipment to solve the "problem", and typically leave the hobby soon after, concluding that "quality control" in the industry makes it impossible to succeed.

5) Don't share your experiences. Really. There is nothing anyone else can learn from you. Or, you've figured out this information after years of triumph and tragedy, so you're not just gonna give it away! It's "proprietary" in nature, and others should learn the way you did. Be grumpy, and lock yourself and your secrets in your fish room, away from the "unworthy" denizens of the larger aquarium world.

Okay, I've just scratched the surface here. There are probably thousands of ways to fail in the aquarium hobby, and I've touched on just a few. The real important takeaway here is for those of us in a position to help to see the signs, and know what to do.

I think it's imperative that we encourage anyone who enters this hobby to do the research before they leap into things. Honestly, even someone coming into your shop completely green, but eager to drop money, should leave with little more than information, or a book at least, before they purchase anything. Really. 

A half hour of indoctrination in the LFS is just that- a half hour of indoctrination. It takes much more for the beginner to grasp what's really going on. And yeah, it seems "fantasy land" to take on this attitude when the internet beckons and competition is fierce, but I ask you: Wouldn't you rather send someone home with information first, and gain a long-term customer, than to just grab the quick and easy sale? Don't you think that someone who is successful in the hobby because you took the time to work with them will refer their friends to you? I do.

Don't always solve problems with "products." I think that many aquarium problems are created by very basic mistakes, and that simply throwing money on the problem isn't really a solution. Rather, it's a "band aid." Take the time to explain to the newbie just what it was that caused the issue in the first place, and how to prevent it. Knowing the cause, effects, and preventative/corrective measures to take is far better than simply buying this-or-that product as a "solution."

Preach patience to any new hobbyist. Get them to understand just how things work in an aquarium, and why things are done a certain way. Explain to them that aquariums, being natural systems, are affected by the same laws of nature as occur in the wild, and that grasping stuff like the nitrogen cycle, fish compatibility, environmental requirements, etc. will give them a greater understanding of what's going on, and how to recognize for themselves in the future when something is going wrong- or right! It's a better long term strategy, IMHO.

Above all, encourage sharing of information at all levels in the hobby. With the internet, there has never been a better time to learn about the hobby. To keep information that can help others accomplish things and solve problems in the hobby isn't just uncool- it's a tragedy that can have far-reaching consequences, especially in this era where the hobby and industry face mounting external pressures from ill-informed "environmentalists" and other "nature advocates", who would just assume lump aquarists in with loggers, oil producers, and blast fishermen. The hobby is ours to share, protect, preserve, and to pass on to our children.

So in conclusion, we should all learn to recognize the signs of a hobbyist who's headed in the wrong direction- not just because it's the honorable thing to do for them, but because of the greater good in the hobby that is served when we take the time to prevent them from failing.

Until next time, I leave you with that thought.

Stay focused. Stay concerned.

And stay wet!

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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