It's really cool that there is more and more discussion about blackwater, botanical-influenced aquariums. There has never been more discussion on more levels about this stuff than we're seeing now. And, I'm stoked to see this evolution! Not just for what you'd think would be the obvious reasons- Oh, you know, I sell botanicals to accomplish this stuff...
Rather, I'm stoked for the reason that we as a hobby are studying and learning and perfecting methodologies and practices for creating blackwater environments in our aquariums, which is helping to unlock the secrets about caring for and breeding some challenging fishes. We're questioning the "prevailing mindset" that we've held regarding the way we approach things in our aquariums. We're questioning the "status quo", and sometimes just thinking why we do things the way we do?
It's an interesting mindset shift that has been constantly evolving.
One of the topics that has come up more and more frequently in discussion of late is how we approach pH management and other environmental parameters in blackwater aquariums. Or, more specifically, how we adapt our animals to the parameters that we have created for them in our aquariums, and if there is a better approach to this.
I recall a conversation with our friend, Ted Judy, not long ago. Ted had travelled to Colombia, where he visited both wild habitats of characins, dwarf cichlids, and other fishes, and the facilities of local wholesalers who traded in them. Ted took some extensive environmental measurements at both the wild sites and facilities, and was able to garner some very interesting information. His results seemed to indicate that we as a hobby seem to be approaching the care of some species incorrectly.
We've talked about this stuff before here in "The Tint", but it's a conversation that I find fascinating:
The idea that just, because your fishes from soft, acidic habitats are looking pretty good and have "adapted" to your hard, alkaline tapwater, and maybe even breed-doesn't mean that they can do well over time, or over generations, while kept under these conditions...Or, quite simply, It doesn't mean that these are perhaps the best conditions for them.
It may indeed make more sense in the "big picture" to more realistically replicate the environmental parameters (I'm specifically emphasizing pH, alkalinity/conductivity here) of the environments where our fishes come from. And that may involve venturing into heretofore "forbidden" waters- pun intended.
We're perplexed, because in the past we were told that more natural, soft, low pH "blackwater" parameters are somehow "dangerous"...difficult to recreate, and even more difficult to manage. With ammonia less toxic at lower pH levels, I've gotta think there is an advantage there somewhere...Yet, these conditions classified as "dangerous" or "unmanageable?" Honestly, as we've discussed before,I don't think that this is the case...They are simply not immediately obvious or easy to figure out. We haven't fully studied it yet. Like in many other endeavors, "difficult", tedious, and time consuming weeds out a lot of people who want to keep those tough fishes in their tanks.
I'll say it one more time. This is not impossible stuff. It's just going to require some continued work on our part to figure it out. Oh, and some courage, as you'll be challenged, scrutinized, and criticized- because it's sort of "taboo" in the mainstream to challenge some long-held assertions...
Conceptually, it's not "new" to do this.
African Rift Lake cichlid fanciers and marine aquarists/reefers have been providing more natural habitat-specific water parameters for their animals for decades with much success.
Providing them with more environmentally correct conditions to help them thrive and reproduce in captivity for extended periods of time has made the successful maintenance and propagation of corals just that much more accessible to more and more hobbyists. You can't "adapt" corals to radically different environmental parameters than those which they have evolved under. It's a case of accommodating their needs, not ours!
In a broad sense, however, much of the hobby has relied on what I like to call the "adaptation approach" of getting the fishes to "comply" with the environmental parameters we can most easily supply for them. It's worked for a lot of fishes and aquatic life forms, at least in the short run. Yet, wouldn't there be some more lasting benefit to more accurately accommodating their needs versus adapting them to ours?
Doesn't it seem obvious that our fishes would be able to live longer lifespans, enjoy greater health, and reproduce more easily (not to mention, display better colors) if provided with conditions in the aquarium that more accurately replicate the wild habitats from which they evolved? Again, I ask if we have truly "bred out" their evolutionary adaptations to these environments after only a few decades in captivity, or if the fishes simply "adapted" to what we've provided them to some extent.
And of course, I'm NOT trying to diminish the skill of any breeder or hobbyist has bred say, Discus or whatever under "tapwater" conditions...I'm just curious what the best long term approach is.
We're doing great.
We can do better.
And over and over, if you question the current prevailing mindset on this, many hobbyists are going to tell you that it's a "slippery slope" and that you'll be unable to accomplish this.
Yet, again and again, we're seeing fishes that are considered "challenging" to keep in aquariums because they favor these specialized parameters- thrive and reproduce when provided with them in our tanks. We have to reconstruct, or "back-engineer" what works for the fishes we're trying to keep. I think I'm kind of over the attitude I used to have that you need to "acclimate the fishes to your conditions" instead of providing them with the conditions that they have evolved to live, thrive, and reproduce in for eons.
I think the latter is a better way.
It goes back to studying the natural habitats they come from, and figuring out what the best way to replicate them is.
Simple as that.
There are no shortcuts. Honestly, it's not easy to do stuff that is a bit unorthodox or requires experimentation. Figuring out how to do this isn't just as simple as reaching for a "magic potion", or arriving at the perfect combination of three different leaves and pods or whatever to "condition the water" under any and all circumstances. And that intimidates a lot of people. Every situation, every tank, every nuance is unique, and this requires "customized" solutions for every aquarium. Sure, the methodology/strategy might be something which we can more or less "standardize"- but not the "formula."
As an example, the Rio Negro and its many tributaries provide us many different fishes that we love to keep in aquariums. The Rio Negro’s water is extremely poor in mineral content, with conductivity as low as 8 micro semions, and is extremely acidic, with pH’s ranging from 2.9 to 5.2. That's pretty damn acidic by aquarium standards, isn't it? How can you replicate water like that in your aquarium? DO you want to?
Well, you'd start by utilizing RO/DI water and "conditioning it" with botanicals and such, which might only get you so far. There would likely be additional steps required, like the addition of acid solutions, different pH-reducing natural materials in your filter. And more detailed monitoring. And slightly different water-quality maintenance approaches. This stuff touches on the fringes of what a lot of us are comfortable doing.
And wouldn't it be easier to create and maintain these conditions with some compromising, like finding out the "average" of the pH and other parameters of the habitat you're trying to replicate and either going for it or perhaps, for the higher, easier-to-achieve higher limits of pH in the habitat, for example?
Even with a sort of "compromised accommodation" approach, you'd be providing your fishes with environmental conditions that are far more "realistic" than those typically provided in aquariums, right? Is there even a significant benefit to doing so? I believe so, but that's going to require some experimentation over time to prove.
That's what we need to do.
Yeah, easy for me to sit here and talk about, but it will require some work to back up this hypothesis! And again, we've accomplished many amazing things without going to crazy into trying to more accurately replicate these natural conditions. yet, I just can't help but wonder what we'd accomplish if we go just that much farther.
We are getting better at this as a hobby/industry. Think about it. We can create more habitat-specific water parameters right now, because we have the means and way more accurate and "applicable" information about the natural habitat from which our fishes come from than ever before, and ways to monitor it that simply weren't available to the hobby years ago.
Couple this with better management of lighting, thanks to LED's, more controllable current, thanks to high-tech, electronically controlled pumps, and very accurate temperature control thanks to better heater/controller tech- and we're assured a continued progression towards more nature-specific captive environments for our animals. Oh, and of course, there's the foods. Food is getting better than ever, and we're starting to see foods that contain a higher percentage of natural foods of many fishes- like aquatic insects, crustaceans, flies, etc.
And you can state it enough- today's hobbyist is talented, intuitive, creative, smart, compassionate, and communicative in a way never before possible. The work being done is amazing!
It's a really exciting time to be a hobbyist.
The "next-level" breakthroughs will require just as much courage, effort, and creativity as they did in decades past, but the means to accomplish them are now at our fingertips. And the potential payoffs- in terms of fish health, greater reproduction, and a more sustainable industry- not to mention, greater awareness of, and appreciation for the precarious nature of the wild habitats- will assure us a brighter hobby future for ourselves, our fishes, and our children.
Don't shy from the challenge. Hit it head on! Accommodate, don't adapt.
Stay bold. Stay experimental. Stay focused. Stay creative. Stay Unstoppable.
And Stay Wet.