Out of the aquarium, and onto the soapbox.

Before we get too far into this, I want to point out that todays piece is strictly MY OPINION. It's editorial in nature, and you may even find it offensive. For that, I actually don't apologize. I wanted to say a few things that have been on my mind of late, and some of them are highly opinionated and perhaps not pretty. I'm not trying to "pick a fight", but I am voicing a few concerns that I have about the hobby. At the very least, they are contrary to a lot of what you might read in the aquarium media, and as such, are polarizing to some. 

Well, someone has to say this stuff, and it might as well be me.

Seems to me that we are in a sort of "New Golden Age" of adventure in aquariums- do you agree?

There is this new energy, interest, and excitement that is palpable. I'm not sure exactly what it is, but I can't help but think the new energy is because a lot of long-time hobbyists have started to "get off center" and try new ideas. I'd like to think that this is because we've sort of had enough of the "status quo" that, IMHO the freshwater world has been locked in for a decade or two.

Sure, there has been remarkable progression in terms of fish breeding, and some amazing planted aquarium progress, but the vast freshwater world seems to have sort of fallen into the shadows of the louder, more brash, and undeniably smaller "competitive" aquarium world and all of it's flash and bluster. Sadly, during this time, some absolutely amazing work has been done by a lot of hobbyists, particularly in the world of biotope-type aquariums.

In my opinion, much of the reason for this apparent lack of public progression overall has been because the FW world has had itself all tied up in a lot of "rules" as to just how an aquarium should look. "Competitive" aquariums have dominated the aquascaping scene for a long time now. Well-intentioned hobbyists who have stunning aquariums find themselves almost "apologizing" to...the "demigods" of the hobby because their interpretation of how an aquarium should look is not in line with that proffered by the small, yet vocal minority of people who consider themselves "keepers of the style" of various aquatic arts.

Now, let me qualify something- and it's just my opinion: I hate, hate- absolutely hate the "biotope" competitions in those planted aquarium contests. Why? Not because of the works being submitted. They're awesome.  Not because of the difficulty involved in creating one. It's because the thinking is so closed minded, and the judging so rigid, that if you have the wrong twig in the tank, you're penalized and even chastised by the judges. People who have otherwise created amazing work are marginalized.

Competitions are one thing, of course, and a personal aquarium quite another.  Now, I get it. They have rules that they want you to follow, and the rules create a sort of barrier to entry. Based on the strict definition that has been embraced, and the rules of the competitions, the term "biotope" seems to mean 100% faithfully accurate to the real thing, with no exceptions. That makes sense in that competitive context, but to put it in simple terms, outside of the contest world, it doesn't make sense to me to "penalize" an aquarium which has materials which represent a given environment. 

Maybe we need a looser definition for the hobby in general. Perhaps, "biotope-type" or "biotope-inspired" would be best.

In my opinion, a biotope tank doesn't have to be 100% on point to be called a "biotope" aquarium. Yeah, I said it. I think that an aquarium which makes a reasonable attempt at replicating an environmental niche , while still using say, plants or other materials that might be non-specific to the biotope in question to represent those present.

Okay, I can hear you now, "Dude, really, why does it matter what we call it. A nice tank is a nice tank!"

It actually does matter because we have developed, IMHO, an overreaching "attitude" that has inhibited, and perhaps even prevented progress and inspiration, which forces progression in the hobby. Labels are not the "end all/do all" of the hobby, but in this case, they are rather important. And the double standards imposed by those who seem to have mastered the media are the problem, IMHO.

The hypocrisy, in my opinion, is obvious when we hear that term of "natural aquarium" bandied about in these contests and such, with it's trappings of strict layout guidelines, ratios, etc. That term to me is really over-used to describe many outstanding planted aquariums. As we've discussed previously, pretty much every aquarium is a "natural aquarium" in some form, as it must embrace or utilize natural processes in order to function. I think that this "label" has had an overreaching, almost nullifying affect on progress in the greater FW aquarium world, and maybe, just maybe, aquarists are starting to realize this- and even more important- starting to share the amazing work that they've been keeping to themselves for a long time.

I've seen some videos and pics of aquariums that are beautiful almost beyond description- and guess what? They don't have perfect 2:1:1 ratios of plants and wood, or rocks arranged in a perfect Asian style. They have mixed beds of substrate, algal growth, decaying leaves, tree bark, brown water, etc. In short, they look as "natural" as any "high end" competition aquarium looks, with out the sand waterfalls, sterile aesthetics, and "Lord of the Rings" fantasy elements. 

They look the way waters look in nature.

And there are more and more people "coming out" with these previously unpublicized, unheralded aquariums that look amazing. To some die-hard adherents of the sterile, overly-interpretive "natural" planted tanks, they are no doubt seen as an abomination- an aesthetic disaster; or at the very least, an amusing oddity which, in their opinion, shows lack of discipline, lax husbandry, and little in the way of thought. I know this, because I've had encounters (all non confrontational, btw) with a number of these people of late, and was simply shocked at their close-minded attitudes about what constitutes a "proper" aquarium...It's scary.

But the long period of rigid group-think seems to be breaking up a bit. Look, there will always be a place for the undeniably beautiful planted aquariums that have dominated the seen for over a decade. They are awesome, and the effort, skill and discipline it takes to envision, construct, and maintain them is amazing. If the competitions want to enforce certain rules in order to enter and compete, that is fine. No denying that.

Just don't think that you can impose these standards on the whole aquascaping world anymore.

In my opinion, it's finally time to let go of rigid definitions and attitudes about what constitutes a beautiful, successful, or even "proper" aquarium in the aquarium world. We all seem to have the same goal: That is, to see out plants and animals thrive and reproduce in a stable, healthy environment. How we choose to get there is up to the individual, not to a group who holds a virtual "headlock" on "style doctrine" in the hobby. Some of the concepts and rules have brought us to this unique crossroads. Their positive influences are undeniable. However, it's time to progress, to merge thought, and to move forward. Imagine what happens when we take elements of a multitude of styles and blend them together?


Again, this is my opinion, my thoughts. They will not make me popular in some quarters. In fact, I'd expect to be labeled a hypocrite of sorts. I get it. But I am an open-mined one! I won't allow myself or my company to get caught up in rigid thinking or definitions of what is 'right" and "wrong" in terms of style. I know that what I like- what we present as a company- is just ONE way to go- just one idea...and it may be absurd and downright ugly to many..or exactly what others have been looking for to progress towards their goals.

There's room for all of us in this hobby world. It's a new time. A new place. A new mindset.

It's time that we all put aside our preconceptions about what constitutes a "proper" aquarium design, and embrace the uniqueness and individuality that are in every hobbyist. By not having to adhere to someone else's sense of what is "correct" and "proper", we free ourselves to progress, share, and make bold journeys to places in the hobby that have previously been the exclusive domain of imagination.

Stay adventurous. Stay open-minded. Stay free.

And stay wet.

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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