A botanical crossroads...

As you might imagine, we receive a lot of inquiries and questions from hobbyists about how to start a blackwater aquarium. Some range from the most basic ("What exactly is "blackwater?") to the obscure ("Is the Icana River blackwater?"), to the "tactical" ("In what order should I add the leaves into my tank?"). 

The specific questions we receive are really interesting, because I'd say that a smaller and smaller percentage of the questions we receive are of the "What is blackwater?" type, and a far, far greater percentage are "How do I do...?" 

That's pretty incredible to me. It's a benchmark, really. A sign of progress. A tangible result of the community of hobbyists that we have attracted, doing all sorts of work in this unique segment of the hobby. It's a testimony to YOU- our "Tint Nation"- and your energy, enthusiasm, and spirit.

All of that energy and enthusiasm- a huge amount of it, I might add- has bound us- and made our community even more enjoyable to be a part of!


Now, a lot of people do ask about getting started with blackwater tanks, or shifting an existing aquarium to blackwater. And I think this is something that we, as "practicing" blackwater enthusiasts have sort of already developed- to a certain degree- "best practices" for- techniques or a "cadence" to create such systems.

I think this is important.

With more and more hobbyists wanting to try their hand at these aquariums, we owe it to them to develop some generalized "guide' to our best techniques, and we'll be working on that over the next few months- with your help! It will be great for ourselves, our community, and the hobby as a whole. Sharing what we've learned as a community about this formerly obscure specialty will be a tangible demonstration to the hobby of the power of community and open-source sharing.

Use of natural materials for blackwater, clearwater, and brackish-style botanical systems is on the rise, with increased awareness and interest from multiple areas of the hobby.

Today, however, I'm in one of those "postulating moods", where I'm thinking about those more obscure things we could do within the context of more natural aquarium keeping in general, to facilitate more successful keeping and breeding of some species. We do some interesting things already, as many of you know!

As aquarists, we have worked out "ways of doing stuff" that emulate, in some manner, the processes which occur in nature to achieve the results we are looking for. This has been a continual process since the hobby began...but we're getting better and better at it!

One of the older practices in breeding of some fish- for example, Corydoras, Brochis, and Aspidorus catfish- is to gradually drop the temperature in their aquariums some 10 degrees Fahrenheit (6.5 degrees Celsius) via a single water change or perhaps multiple water changes over the course of a short span of time. This practice serves to simulates the influx of cooler water via rain during the wet season in their natural habitats, which is typically winter in the Northern Hemisphere.

Now, the idea of lowering temperatures slightly via water changes during a specific period of time might be just what it takes to stimulate spawning in fishes like Corys, which is a very interesting practice. However, I can't help but wonder if "stepped up" water changes in general (with water at your usual "working temperature")  and perhaps variations in lighting and water level/movement with in the tank, to simulate the wet or dry seasons experienced by our fishes in their wild habitats can bring some sort of additional health/well being benefit to all sorts of fishes, besides just triggering spawning behavior.

I've even though about the idea of increasing the number of leave and other botanicals during certain times of the year to correspond with the seasonal influx of these materials into the waterways where the fishes live, wondering if the possible resulting pH reductions, microorganism blooms, etc. could yield any benefits to our fishes. We do hear a lot from customers who have reported that fishes like cichlids, characins, and some Anabantoids spawned shortly after the introduction of a set of aquatic botanicals. 


Now, none of these concepts are revolutionary, which will result in some epic breakthroughs...but I cannot help buy wonder if employing some of the practices usually reserved for spawning fishes- and practices of environmental manipulation in general- simply for the purpose of attempting to more closely replicate the conditions in the natural habitats of our fishes-would be of any benefit? Small, incremental variations and changes to our typical practices, which, over time, add to the "set of tools" we have at our disposal to successfully maintain the west variety of fishes for the longest periods of time in our aquaria.

I mean, I suppose it could be argued that environmental manipulations are essentially "stressors", which trigger fishes to spawn or whatever as a result of genetic programming which says. "Uh- oh- stuff is changing real fast around here...this could be bad! Time to reproduce while we still can!"

So, by the same token, you could probably make the case that seasonally varying your tank conditions just to simulate what goes on in nature IS sort of an "induced stress"- yet one which the fishes are genetically adapted to over eons, and can yield positive benefits in the context of what we do.

Interesting stuff...

We're at a unique time in the history of aquarium-keeping, right?

We have access to amazing fishes. We have equipment which gives us precision control over water movement, temperature, lighting, with an accuracy never before seen. We have all of these amazing foods. We have excellent filters, filter media, etc. And, if we apply a bit more creativity and utilize the advanced equipment we have at our disposal to accomplish some cool stuff via simple environmental manipulations (Hey, let's increase the flow out of the internal pump to simulate the greater water velocities of those streams during the wet season!"), there's no telling what the long-term, incremental benefits to our fishes might be. Not everything will be a "Eureka!" moment, but there will be plenty of "Hmm...thought so" moments along the way- all of which can gradually add to the "state of the art" of "best practices" within our hobby.

Looking to nature seems to have rarely done us wrong. Most of the best practices we've developed to take care of our fishes have resulted from these interpretations of what goes on in nature, and applying them to our aquariums.

The whole idea of playing with botanicals in our aquariums is not just to create a pretty look- it is to impart some of the same compounds- tannins and humic substances- into the water in our aquariums that we see in nature. It's resulted in a number of benefits for our fishes-such as  arguably more vigorous health/appetite/behavior, better coloration, and even (anecdotally?) induced  spawnings. 

The thing I love the most about where we are in the blackwater/botanical "movement" at the moment is that we've sort of penetrated the "WTF?" phase, where the hobby at large viewed these aquariums as more of a "side show" oddity, and now we're in a dynamic, creative, and expansive mode where the idea of incorporating natural materials into the aquarium environment is seen as a logical addition to our skill set.

Every aquarium that is set up, every fish that spawns, every lesson that is learned, every idea that is shared, opens our minds to the possibilities that are out there. Everything counts -because the impact of seemingly small things can be incredible.

Keep deploying your creativity, dedication, determination, enthusiasm, and above all...patience- to all that you do in this hobby, and the rewards will be many.

Stay bold. Stay creative. Stay relentless. Stay undeterred. Stay dedicated...

And Stay Wet.

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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