Aquatic "cross training", breaking the "salinity line"- and the benefits of "aquatic multiculturalism"

As you know (or maybe you don't!), I spent a good part of the last couple of decades in my hobby and business careers "embedded" in the reef aquarium world. Although I kept freshwater fish during that time, my main focus was everything "reef": Corals, inverts, fishes, systems, etc. I never took my feet out of the freshwater side, but it wasn't until I started Tannin in 2015 that I fell back in, full time, with my first love- freshwater!

And, like many of you who have "crossover" experience and skills, I realized that the decades honed in the rapidly evolving reef world gave me the "tools" I needed to "play" in the area of specialized freshwater aquariums. And, as you may or may not have surmised, my lifelong freshwater experience helped me find my way in the frenetic pace of the reef world. 

I have "aquatic cross training."

It's not that unusual. The more our customer base at Tannin grows and evolves, the more I see we're pulling in aquatic hobbyists from other disciplines, including reef tanks, frogs and herps, and planted tank people. I like to see Tannin's community as a sort of "melting pot", where ideas and influences from throughout the aquatic hobby-and around the world- are studied, considered, interpreted, and incorporated into our practice of blackwater, botanical-style aquarium , and soon, brackish.

However, it wasn't always this way...It wasn't all that long ago that you could sense a real palpable division between freshwater and saltwater "culture" and practice. There was, in the words of many, a strange sort of elitism emanating from the saltwater side (particularly in the reef keeping world), where freshwater was absurdly looked at by some snobs as "a beginner's world", filled with brown fishes, outdated thinking, and lack of progression. I'd hear it at conferences and clubs all over the world, when I'd come to speak and get to visit the home of an accomplished reefer and see his aquarium, only to fin out that he/she "used to keep Discus"- or whatever- and then they'd sheepishly show me their freshwater  tank, as if it were somehow a mark against their skill and honor or something. Weird. I hated that.

And of course, the freshwater world, at least the people I was in contact with, had an equal amount of skepticism about the snobby reefers. It was weird. And somehow, the myth was perpetuated that, in order to run a successful reef aquarium, you required some incredible skill set and mysterious knowledge in order to succeed. It was ridiculous, really. Having long been a "straddler" of both freshwater and reef tanks, I would often challenge snobby reef types to set up and manage a full-on planted aquarium, Discus tank, African Rift Lake cichlid tank...or my fave...blackwater!

Fast forward few years...

Things are evolving rapidly on both sides of the "salinity line", new ideas are being expressed, and information exchange is coming at a rapid pace. More and more aquarists are doing both.

And an interesting thing that I've observed...and talked about at the last couple of reef clubs I spoke at": The reef world seems to be more stagnant at the moment, from a "technique" standpoint, with the exception of marine fish breeding (which is happening at an amazing rate). On a popular, mainstream level, in the reef world, the emphasis seems to be on collection of corals and playing with new toys (tech), and- impressing each other. Vapidity has sunk in.  That's the way I see it, and that won't make me popular in all areas of the reef world, but I believe that on a "macro level", it's true. Very few reefers seem to be trying "new" stuff that doesn't involve a trendy "named coral" or expensive high-tech gadget. Technique seems to be on the back burner in many areas of that world (at least, those that come across the loudest to the overall aquarium hobby), in favor of gadgetry and trend-chasing...sad.

Look, I get it. Who am I to judge how YOU enjoy your hobby? 

However, when I see the "hobby" being affected by close-mindedness and tainted by hype and consumerism over technique and progression, I open my big mouth. Love your crazy corals. I do. But learn about them in ways you haven't before. Understand that there is more to a hobby than just acquiring stuff and trying to impress people with your material wealth. "Bling" is not talent, and doesn't help the hobby progress. Think about how much more we would all benefit if you'd emphasize technique, and share just how you keep these amazing animals alive long-term. It's being done in many areas already- but that's not what the aquarium world sees. This is just my opinion, of course...and this is MY blog. (lol)

Yet, among progressive and talented reefers- which there are many- some are looking for new approaches. Some have confided in me that they miss the challenges of progressive work.  They need to apply this thought to reef keeping, before it simply turns into a "frag fest" of overpriced, overhyped coral selling as a hobby. Some get it. And many of them have crossed back over into freshwater,  or tried it for the first time...with the emerging popularity of niche movements like...blackwater, etc.

 I'm sort of happy to fill my role as a fish culture "ambassador" between the two sides of the "salinity line." I have a number of friends who see specialty freshwater systems (like our blackwater/botnaical-style tanks) as a sort of analog to reefs, where interactions between the fishes and the overall environment are an important part of the equation, and they're excited about trying one. If they bring the best aspects of reef keeping (rapid iterations, experimentalism, understanding the relationship between organisms), and leave out the "Super-duper named high-end coral frag" bullshit- we may just have something here.

I think we already do.  

Look at our own community- the group we half-jokingly call "Tint Nation": Not a day goes by when we don't receive a pm or email from an aquarist somewhere in the world showing us a progressive new blackwater tank, or sharing one they've had set up for years...And with the imminent launch of our brackish line, Estuary, we think we'll see even more aquarists showing an interest and elevating yet another niche in the freshwater hobby...bridging the "salinity gap" and emphasizing a collaborative, ultra inclusive mindset, way of thinking, and..."culture" that we hope will continue to set the standard for the way a global community within the aquarium world should be. No elitism. No snobbishness. No exclusivity. 

Learn from each other...

If you're a lifelong freshwater hobbyist, go for it and apply your skill set to a reef tank. You'll realize at once all of the cool stuff you bring to the table. If you're a hardcore reefer (and I know you read my stuff, because you tell me you do...), lower your guard just a bit, expand your thinking and skills and try a specialized freshwater system and bring YOUR set of talents along.

We all love to keep aquatic life in glass or acrylic boxes. What a great starting point. Reach out a (wet) hand, and bring up your colleagues on the other side of that "salinity line..."

To steal our own tagline:  blurthelines

Together, we can and will, continue to cherish nature's wonders, push the boundaries of what is possible in an aquarium, and create an inclusive culture where effort, passion, and aquaristic skill are shared, studied, revered, and...loved.

We've got this.

Something to think about.

Stay bold. Stay open minded. Stay humble. Stay collaborative.

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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