The aquarium hobby is exploding with talent, ideas, and progress. Yet, it still has some dark areas which can hold back the progression.

One of the more annoying things to me in the hobby is hearing other hobbyists- or so-called "experts"- telling you stuff like, "No. You can't do that!" Or, "It won't work!" with almost no explanation-or perhaps a "regurgitated" answer...You know, one of those "second or third-hand" answers, with perhaps little (or worse) NO personal experience behind them.

Absolutes which can be frightfully damaging to the hobby, because they discourage executing new ideas.

Now, look, personal opinions/warnings/recommendations based upon your experience, and that of a number of others are very helpful. However, what I'm concerned with here is the stuff you see a lot out there: People out on the hobby forums, websites, conferences, and blogs, passing on “wisdom” that might be of dubious accuracy and origin- or, at the very least, information that may be overly-generalized and passed on without experience in the given area.

That's just nuts, IMHO. 

Classic examples of this are "absolutes" like, “You can’t keep_______ alive in an aquarium!”, or “If you use that product, you’ll have this major algae problem in your tank”, etc. Often, the advice is dispensed with such authority and confidence that a typical hobbyist will not even question it. Some of it is really negative. Some of it is simply based on one bad personal experience, and context is not given, giving everyone the impression that if you do "X", then"Y" will absolutely happen.

I heard this a lot in the context of botanical-focused aquariums when Tannin was first starting out. A lot of hobbyists felt that the ideas that I was sharing and philosophies which I was espousing were a radical departure from the comfort zone which has been established in the hobby for decades. And I think that angered some people, and possibly even scared others. 

Now, it's not like I go out of my way to try to counter every single piece of solid aquarium doctrine snd wisdom that's been metered out over the years "just because." Much of it IS quite good. It's just that I've explored ways of doing things differently...and that there are other ways todo stuff successfully. I am open to looking at the function of wild habitats and how we might be able to interpret their function in the aquarium.

Re-examining some of what we do is important. Other practices are justifiably followed without much disagreement.

If you’ve been “around the block” a few times in this hobby, you’ll hear fellow hobbyists dispensing words of aquatic wisdom to anyone who needs it. You know, the usual stuff, like, “You need to quarantine new animal purchases”, “Use common sense when stocking tanks”, "Perform regular water changes”, etc.

This stuff forms the “religion" of our hobby: Core beliefs -or unshakable truths- which we pass on to all those who join our ranks. Fundamental, knowledge which we all feel that you need to have at least a working knowledge of to attain success in the hobby. It’s beautiful that most hobbyists are so willing to help out their fellow fish geeks by sharing this acquired wisdom- a true testimony to the quality of people in the aquatic world.

It's all good. It can evolve over time, too.

However, the scary stuff is that some “advice” on very specific topics is dispensed by a casual hobbyist with limited-or even no- experience in the given area. Sure, the intent might be to "pass along" information that is helpful in some way; however, without that personal experience with which to provide context it's just problematic.


Advice based on third-party experiences without all of the details (“Don’t keep that cichlid. This guy up in New York had one of those and said that it nuked his tank with ich." ), sweeping generalizations (“You can't run aquariums at a low pH-it will crash your tank”),  dogmatic human-imposed "rules" (You need to balance that rock formation with 3 smaller groupings or it's not the authentic _____ style."), anecdotal evidence ("Garlic 'cures' ich in saltwater fish"), and outright absurdity, ("You can’t keep plants alive long term in blackwater aquariums”) are just a few examples that we've heard over the years, and they can really do harm to the hobby, in my opinion, discouraging progression and the desire to try new things.

I've written about this negativity stuff before a few years back, and still bring it up in in my lectures, because it's an issue that doesn't seem to go away. It's like there are some people who simply feel compelled to "sabotage" the well-intentioned, yet progressive efforts of others. It's like they're afraid to see others succeed or change what's comfortable to them.


I have a distinct dislike for "them"- those people in the aquarium world who feel it necessary to discourage others from breaking new ground and doing things that are a bit different; those who love to preach and regurgitate the rhetoric of "because this is how it's done." I hate "keyboard warriors" who foment the criticism of anyone who dares to try something others have dismissed without ever even trying for themselves. There is a certain dogma to discouraging others that I find repulsive.

This discouragement from trying new ideas is a problem, IMHO. Sometimes, we just have to be brave and forge ahead with our seemingly "wacky" idea, because it's our truth. You need to have the courage of your convictions. You might have to be the person out on "point", who has to whip out the machete, hack down the vines, and be first to see what's in that seemingly impenetrable forest.

Living your life based on the judgement of others is the absolute recipe for unhappiness- both in life and in the aquarium hobby. 

It seems like,whenever you see something becoming an emerging "trend" (Urghhh.. I HATE that word when used in the context of an aquarium topic!), you will see hobbyists making incorrect assumptions, having general misconceptions, and occasionally, unintentionally spreading wrong information about stuff. You know, regurgitating outdated or erroneous information that's been floating around out there on line for decades...

It's often a function of the fact that some of this stuff has been either under-utilized, completely misunderstood, or simply not appreciated for so long, that we've simply not really considered the dynamics involved in this context. 

Totally understandable, really.

And there is always someone who has to be the first to accomplish something great. Someone who can overlook the negativity and "smack talk", to fly in the face of convention while taking that road less traveled. Someone with a belief so strong in their idea that they're willing to face the naysayers and the criticism and do their thing. Humility and tenacity- in equal proportions.

This is how we progress. This is how we will continue to progress in the hobby.

And more important, this is how we inspire a new generation of hobbyists to follow our lead, for the benefit of both the hobby and the animals that we enjoy. We simply can't dispense advise to fellow hobbyists with a dogmatic attitude that discourages progress and responsible experimentation any more.

It will just stagnate the progress of the hobby we all love.

Is there a downside to pushing the boundaries? 

Well, sure. Bad shit can happen. The inevitable chorus of "I told you so" form the naysayers who tried to discourage you from trying in the first place is not fun to hear for many. However, that's no reason NOT to try to progress. 

Yeah. Because the cost of not progressing might be far higher:

The loss of countless species in the wild whose habitats are being destroyed, while those of us with some skills, dreams and respect for the animals sit by idly -watching them perish, failing to even attempt captive husbandry and propagation for fear of criticism and failure from the masses. The opportunity to gain more insight about how some of these unusual aquatic habitats operate, just to name a few things.

Who knows what discoveries might be missed if we fail to persue our goals and try them in our aquariums?

We (and by “we” I mean every one of us in the hobby) should encourage fellow hobbyists who want to experiment and question conventional wisdom to follow their dreams. If someone has an idea- a theory, and some good basic hobby experience, there is certainly nothing wrong with that. Yes, there is the sad fact that some animals might be lost in the process. It sucks. It’s hard to reconcile that…and harder to stand by it when animals are dying.

I Get it. It sucks.

However, that may be the cost of progress.

And taking a position of "Absolutely not!" instead is not a good tradeoff.

Replace fear with work. 

Criticism will always be there.

You don't have to run screaming into the night and abandon your idea because a few people tell you it can't work. And remember, it doesn't make it "unwise" or  an act of "tempting fate" just because it's something no one has tried before, or if it cannot be done by a large number of hobbyists just yet.


Pushing the boundaries is hard. But doable.

It requires work. Discipline. Observation. Diligence.


And understanding.

We all know that a glass or acrylic box in our living room is not Lake Tanganyika or The Orinoco River...But the laws which govern Nature in the wild govern Nature in the aquarium, too. Those are "absolutes" which are important to embrace and understand.

You need to understand the consequences of the choices you make in building and populating your aquarium. And you need to face your ideas' vulnerabilities and potential misunderstandings that may arise, head-on. 

I know this from personal experience.

As one of the leading proponents (and arguably, one of the more visible and one of the freaking LOUDEST) of botanical-influenced natural aquarium keeping, I know that I have an obligation to the hobby community to provide correct information and clarification whenever possible, and to advise when I think something that's bandied about might be incorrect.

And, when these incorrect assumptions are becoming "fact" in our discussions, we do need to address them from time to time.

Of course, one of the best ways to "keep it real" and address this kind of stuff is simply...to tell it like it is! All the time. And if we aren't sure about something that we're working on- don't have all of the answers-we can say it. It's okay.


It's an exciting, evolving time in the hobby, breaking new ideas out of the shadows of misconception and obscurity. Going beyond just the more superficial aspects of things in the hobby. We as hobbyists need to get better and better at sharing actual experiences with this stuff, rather than simply "regurgitating" second-hand information and throwing up roadblocks, as is so common in the hobby these days.

We need to keep doing what we're doing.

Like everything else, this type of evolution takes time. It takes patience. It takes understanding...and lots of sharing of firsthand information.

Are you up for it?

I think you are.

Stay tenacious. Stay diligent. Stay bold. Stay observant. Stay original...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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