Oh, it's "editorial time" again...You may or may not want to tune out now...
As an enthusiastic all-around aquarium hobbyist, I follow a lot of trends in both the freshwater and marine aquarium world (and, more recently, the vivarium, riparum, and shrimp-keeping worlds!). You might recall I used to be a co-owner of a major marine aquarium livestock vendor prior to selling my interest in the business, so I used to go to a lot of reef shows/conferences as part of my duties.
The reef hobby keeps growing and progressing at a remarkably rapid rate.
Although there have been a lot of husbandry and breeding breakthroughs in recent years, the real innovation in the reef keeping world seems to be in the equipment arena. Technological developments are happening at an accelerated pace, with all sorts of new gadgets from promising startup companies flying out into the marketplace weekly. Some of these promise to be truly innovative, others are iterations of existing products and technologies. Many are duplicative. However, the truly innovative and unique stuff really makes its mark!
It got me thinking about something, which you may or may not agree with: I think that the freshwater hobby has been, well, I won't mince words- "stagnant" to a certain extent. Slow to innovate or adapt to new equipment or ideas. Which seems crazy to me, because it's a much larger market than reef keeping, and filled with a disproportionately higher number of brilliant hobbyists "per hundred" than the reef world.
I remember when I started Tannin, my reef keeping friends and even industry people were supportive, yet almost sympathetic. They would say stuff like, "Why? What's going on there?" Or, "I had freshwater before. It was cool. But not much has changed." Or the worst line, from a manufacturer, "Freshwater people are cheap and hate change.."
Wow! Yuck! Awful. How did that perception arise?
Before you get all defensive, reflect for a second: LED lighting has only recently really started to be accepted and "trickle down" into mainstream FW practice. Most of the lights were originally developed for reef applications, and companies realized that they needed to make a "freshwater" version with lower Kelvin emitters to help capture a share of the FW market. And let's be honest with ourselves, we in the FW world were, well, a bit hesitant- slow, even, to take to some of these new technologies.
Again, I operate as a hobbyist in both worlds, and a businessman in the FW world, so you know where my "loyalties" are at the moment. However, I can't help but reflect on the FW world's relatively resistant attitude towards change. It's palpable. I witnessed this when we first launched Tannin. It's not like we're the first people ever to offer leaves and wood and such to hobbyists.
However, we were among the first to specialize in these products and to advance their application for a variety of uses, particularly aquascaping and creating biotope aquariums, as opposed to just offering Catappa leaves for breeding Bettas or what not. We wanted to provide information, and more important, inspiration for creating different types of aquariums. We decided to research, test, aggregate, and offer a variety of natural materials for this application.
And we received a predictable, tepid response from the greater FW hobby at first: People who "got" it, who had been looking for a single source for this kind of stuff, who were looking for a home, jumped on right away and have become great brand advocates, fans, and customers. Others looked at us with a mixture of skepticism (never a bad thing) and literally, an attitude of "Well, (insert name of popular hobbyist or major vendor here) doesn't use or offer this stuff, so it might not be any good. I'll wait and see how it develops..."
And the "others" were a pretty good cross section of the freshwater world.
While resistance or reluctance to embrace new, unproven stuff is not so unusual in many consumer arenas, it is far more characteristic of the FW market than the reef keeping world, in my opinion and experience. Reefers, on the whole tend to like to jump on new things quickly; to be "early adopters" to new technology, ideas, etc.
Don't believe me still? Next time you're at a major FW hobby show, look around at the vendors. Apart from a few small specialized guys like us, how many brand new, revealed-for-the-first-time-anywhere product debuts do you see? Most of the "new" stuff you see at these shows is a "freshwater" version of stuff that's been in the reef market for a while.
As I editorialized recently, even the aquascaping world has been locked into a "cultural freeze" for a decade or more, seemingly "content", or perhaps "afraid" to break out of a rigid style of doing things just because it might "irritate" a few "influential" people at the top of a very exclusive pyramid. "Fall in line or your irrelevant and wrong" is the message that delivered.
Look, there is nothing at all wrong with skepticism, and holding back a bit until something is proven or better understood. However, extreme rigidity simply because something is a bit different than what you've previously experienced impedes progress. And the manufacturers and vendors get the message: Don't rock the boat.
And that sucks.
It sucks, because there is so much more crazy stuff going on in the FW world right now than the reef keeping world can even comprehend. Sure, they have new tech and over-hyped corals and stuff, but the FW world has new fish breeds, breakthrough husbandry developments, a huge and diverse fan base, and a legacy of steady, amazing progress over a century or more.
Yes, I'm bitching a bit. And yes, I am a bit of an outsider, looking at things with a different perspective. And yes, one could argue that my view on FW "culture" is a bit biased, because I want to see more rapid progress. But I do. I read somewhere that less and less kids are getting into the tropical fish hobby than ever before. That is really sobering. Why is this? Well, there are dozens of reasons, I'm sure, including the shorter attention span of "Post Millenials". However, I'd wager that one reason is because they have dozens of more attractive diversions, many technically derived. Also, it's probably because they simply don't see enough fish stuff; have no clue. They don't see anything progressive, even though it's there.
We're doing a crappy job of "selling the sizzle", IMHO. And we're too damn locked into our specialties. I had a conversation with some hobbyists recently, asking whey there are no "general" tropical fish shows. The response was fascinating. And a little sad: "Because if you have a show with a cichlid guy or killifish hobbyist" as a speaker, the livebearer and catfish people won't be interested. And if you have a planted guy as a featured speaker, you'll lose a lot of Betta enthusiasts."
We're all...AQUARIUM HOBBYISTS! You mean, you can't learn one thing by attending a talk on Tetras that will help you with your African cichlid efforts? No crossover thinking there? Better to just not attend; wait for your specialty show and not "cross-pollenate" ideas with other branches of the hobby?
I don't want to see the tropical fish hobby go the way of stamp collecting or other hobbies that are slowly dying. We need more fresh blood, both old and young.
We do this be showcasing all that is cool about the hobby. We do this by letting manufacturers and vendors know that we want to see some new ideas hit the FW world first. It needs to be the "first stop" on the product release circuit. Because, as Frank Sinatra might say about New York, "If you can make it here, you'll make it anywhere..."
Where has innovation and progress been happening in the FW world? In the shrimp keeping world. And in the vivarium/herp world. You're seeing all sorts of new breeds, new specialized foods, equipment, etc. coming out of these specialties, which is awesome! It's happening at places like Aquarium Design Group, where the talented artist/hobbyists there, led by Jeff and Mike Senske, push the boundaries daily, not confining themselves to someone else' preset "rules" or other imposed limitations. Or George Farmer, who shares his passion over aquascaping with an enthusiastic and growing audience. You see it with dozens of cichlid breeders, Pleco breeders, and plant hobbyists.
It's out there. On the edges. And in quantity. It needs to be brought to the center stage.
We just need to let everyone know what we have, and what we want. We need to poke our head out from our super-specialities for a little bit, come together as the freshwater aquarium hobby, and shout, "We're here! Give us some innovation!"
We need to encourage, embrace, support, and love all of the cool things that the aquarium hobby stands for, and is. We need to reach across the aisle and shake hands with that weird reefer or strange Betta breeder. We need to look at our common loves, find common ground, and help the hobby progress as a whole.
So get to it. Keep those lines of communication open. Stay excited. Listen to a hobbyist who does something that you don't. Stay progressive.
And stay wet.