Bending the rules?

For some reason, the aquarium hobby loves to impose "rules" on everything. Particularly about what you "can" and "cannot" do in your tanks. Now, look, I"m the first guy to tell you that some "rules" are important...

Like, Nature's rules about what can and cannot work. You know, the nitrogen cycle, stuff like that. "Universal Aquarium Constants" that, although we'd love to skirt them, cheat a bit, and work around them- we simply can't...because the Universe doesn't work that way.

Don't overstock your tank. Don't add a ton of fishes to a new tank all at once. Don't mix wildly incompatible fishes in the same tank. Don't neglect the basic tenants of aquarium husbandry. 

"Rules" that are supported by common sense, and when broken, will almost always manifest in ways that can be harmful- even devastating - for your fishes. 

Yet, in the hobby, we seem to love to fall back on "rules" or "doctrines" in order to justify things that we believe in- or which conveniently fit the narrative we're trying to push. We are admonished by experts and the community at large not to do stuff a certain way, lest some bad outcome ensue. Often, the reasons given are either ludicrous ("because that's not the way you're supposed to do it.."), misguided, based on outdated information- or worse yet, regurgitated third-hand information. 

Often, this stuff is metered out with air of undisputed authority by those who fancy themselves "thought leaders" or self anointed "experts" who may have never even attempted anything remotely close to what is being discussed.

This is not helpful.

I recall facing this kind of "pushback" when I first started Tannin Aquatics in 2015, pushing our emerging philosophy of truly natural, botanical method aquariums.

We took "incoming fire" from a lot of directions.

Like so many things in the hobby, this "advice" and the "cautions" were often dished out by well-meaning hobbyists who, with no firsthand experience, were simply "regurgitating" stuff they've heard for years and years from others. The result was that these those types of aquariums became a sort of hobby "pariah", relegated to receiving hushed whispers in discussions. Hobbyists who dared pierce the "botanical barrier" were often looked at as foolhardy, perhaps even rebellious souls who simply wanted to do something that made others wince.

And some of these people were real assholes about it, for reasons which I still cannot figure out why.

I'm not exaggerating here.

This was literally what botanical method aquarium keeping was like for many years. And I found it a bit funny, because the practices that we developed and embraced were ecologically sound, and at least as methodical and well-thought-out as those being used to create "blackwater aquariums" for decades before we arrived on the scene.

I mean, "aquarium blackwater" conditions were embraced by some hobbyists who bred various species of fishes, like killifishes, characins, Apistos, and the like for generations...

But, curiously- only when they were trying to breed these fishes.

And that was somehow "acceptable" to the self-appointed hobby "guardians"- yet maintaining these ecological conditions 365 days a year was somehow foolhardy and rebellious?

And I found that part interesting...Like, why would hobbyists only utilize these conditions when they were trying to breed these fishes? What about the other 360 days of the year, right? I mean, the benefits were at least rudimentarily understood...So why not just keep the fishes under these environmental conditions- the ones they evolved under for eons- full time? 

Like, wouldn't that make sense? Why was this problematic?

I just couldn't get my head around that.

So I joined a small, rather quiet, yet adventurous group of hobbyists who decided that there was "something to this stuff..." and did just that. My world was filled with reef tanks and blackwater aquariums filled with decomposing leaves and seed pods.It was fun. Enlightening. And I learned a ton.

Oh, and I never had a goddam "pH crash", either.

Notice I never once have said that I "invented this stuff.."- 'cause I didn't. No one did. No one "created" this idea or "invented" the processes...No one created rules for how this stuff works.

Nature did.



Now look, it's perfectly logical to want to create "best practices", etc. in the hobby. We want to have our fellow hobbyists succeed. That's how the hobby thrives. A lot of them make sense. They help other hobbyists recreate the same successes.

But all of those so-called "rules" and "you can't" proclamations from "experts" don't always achieve that. Sure, they might discourage a few downright incompetent hobbyists from going down a path to near-certain failure (one that they were likely headed down regardless of what they did, btw), but for the bulk of hobbyists, I think that they stifle both creativity and progress. They simply discourage people from trying new ideas and approaches to stuff.

We don't want to do that as a hobby. We'll stagnate.

Listen to the advice of good-hearted fellow hobbyists. However, balance it with study and observation.

I'm a firm believer in looking to Nature for inspiration in both form and function.  There is so much we can learn by observing the wild aquatic habitats of the world and considering how they function. You only have to read this blog, listen to my podcast, or attend my lectures to get your head around that.

Now, being a progressive hobbyist and a student of Nature doesn't absolve you from common sense. And look, just because we tell you something is cool and successful doesn't mean that it's the best way to go.

And when I see this  going the other direction, I'm gonna call it out, too. 

Look, every single aquarium doesn't have to have decomposing leaves, biofilms, brown water, and sediment-filled substrate to be called "inspired by Nature" or whatever.  Last I read, the processes which govern the nitrogen cycle of my aquariums in Los Angeles are the same ones that govern the nitrogen cycle in the igarapes of Amazonia... So, yeah.

And every aquarium doesn't have to be a copy of a specific natural habitat or biotope. Otherwise, every tank becomes some tightly-labeled, rule-imposed enclosure, and we end up in the same old militant "us vs. them"position that has turned off hobbyists to some of these "movements" for years.


I've seen this sort of crap turning up on biotope enthusiast forums and blackwater aquarium groups lately. Ridiculous nitpicking that serves no purpose except to expose those who "call out" others' efforts as jerks, quite honestly. There are some incredibly talented, really great hobbyists in that arena- and there is much to learn from them. Yeah, there are also some total jerks who feel that every tank needs to meet their extremely rigid "standards" to be considered some sort of "serious" work.

It's crazy.

Do what YOU love- in a way that YOU love to do it.

Call it what you want, but be mindful of the words you use and what they mean. If you must apply a "label" to your work, I think "biotope-inspired" or "natural style" are great, much more apt, broad descriptors for hobbyists to use. I think they'd cause far fewer skirmishes, lol. When we get right down to it, even the mosthardcore "biotope aquarium" as lauded by "the establishment" in that world still isn't 100% perfectly accurate. No matter what "they" (whoever the fuck "they" are..) say!

A working definition of the word "biotope" from Wikipedia- a good one, IMHO, is useful:

A biotope is an area of uniform environmental conditions providing a living place for a specific assemblage of plants and animals. Biotope is almost synonymous with the term habitat, which is more commonly used in English-speaking countries. ... The word biotope, literally translated, means an "area where life lives".

And, kind of broad, right? 😆

We should celebrate the art, the research, the effort, and the knowledge that was accumulated (and shared!) in order to create all of these aquariums. Sure, in a competitive situation, it's important to follow the rules of the judging criteria, but for hobby efforts, using a Guava leaf instead of a Bertholletia excelsa leaf (because you can't collect or obtain them legally) is not a disqualifier.

Sorry, guys.

Yeah, if a hobbyists cannot obtain the actual Amazonian leaves (because, I dunno- they're from a protected habitat...), does that invalidate the aquarium from consideration as a "biotope aquarium?"

I mean, c'mon!

I've said it before and I"ll say it again: I'll bet 90% of the most hardcore "judges/critics" of these contests couldn't even tell the difference, once these leaves are submerged, softened, and covered in a patina of biocover.

So why get so dogmatic about these things?

We get really worked up; really pissy about this shit.

Even with the contest winners, you can take this attitude and nitpick to the "nth degree" if you want to use these "standards" (Okay, I will😆):

I mean, what about the substrate? Is it absolutely Rio Negro region "podzol" from the Andes?  No? Oh- NOT A BIOTOPE AQUARIUM!  Is every species of wood used in the tank form the surrounding varzea forest? No?  Oops- NOT A BIOTOPE AQUARIUM! Is every freaking bacteria, fungi, Paramecium, etc. the exact species that comes from the region being represented?

Huh? Is it? 

I think I made my point here. And I will never be loved by the people who organize these contests, and I really could care less. But I will happily point out the inconsistencies as warranted, lol.

You can create unusual, progressive aquariums without falling into the "dogma trap" set by some egotist. You can simply replicate the practices employed by someone else who's willing to share how they do it.

Case in point:

I have been playing a lot over the years with my interpretation of a more "evolved" brackish water aquairum; one which embraces muddy or sedimented substrate, growth of live mangroves, and encourages the accumulation of fallen leaves. It has worked fabulously for many fishes.


Over the years, I've refined the approach so that it is literally a matter of setting up a tank in a certain way, following some simple practices, and you you can easily create an easy-to-manage, ecologically sustainable brackish-water aquarium. No "rules." No "You MUST do this.." admonitions. Just suggested practices to achieve a desired result. 


And the result is that I'm able to easily recreate this enjoyable, successful, easy-to-manage aquarium repeatedly. And so can most any hobbyist who understands the approach, follows our suggestions, and adheres to NATURE'S rules of ecology.

Not my rules. 

Sure, there are other ways to create a successful brackish water aquairum. This is just one approach. One which works repeatedly for me and other hobbyists, so perhaps it's worth checking out. 

Or not. 

It's your call. 

I am not here to nitpick what you do, nor tell you that if you don't follow what works for me that you're some kind of idiot. I will tell you that you should at least consider some of what we talk about here and incorporate it into your tank, because it works repeatedly and can make your life easier.


So, the next time you or someone you know is being called out because you don't conform to their expectations of what they think is "correct" or "proper" or whatever, maybe you could push back just a bit and show them the absurdity of it all... And thank them for giving a damn...And just perhaps, taking the time to say, "Hey- isn't this cool? We all care so much about this stuff that we have an intense passion for it! Wow!"

Imagine how much that would do to bring it back around to what the hobby is all about: Having fun, educating, and sharing.

A world in which any deviation from these standards is seen as "reckless", "sloppy", "undisciplined", or just plain "shitty" ( actual words from hobbyists we've heard over the years...) Comparisons are made of many of these aquairums to Nature, yet, other than the fact that they contain live organisms, most of the tanks that are celebrated by a whole lot of hobbyists fall way short of "Nature", even by their own critical standards!

It's kind of funny to me.

What about celebrating function? What about celebrating sustainability, function over the long term? Those are important things, yet in our "visual-centric" hobby, these are seldom touched on as often as just the superficial appearance of stuff. I mean, we should- but that's only part of the equation.

What caused this mindset to saturate everything?

In my opinion, the misappropriation of the word "Nature" within the hobby has led us to this point. Specific aesthetics of Nature are met with high praise. The stuff which goes agains the "rules" is dismissed out of hand, categorized as "dangerous", undisciplined, etc.

And personally, I feel that's why large parts (not ALL, of course) of the freshwater aquarium hobby have been in a sort of "stagnation" for a couple of decades, a position that definitely opens up me and some of my colleagues to a lot of criticisms. However, they're totally worth enduring, because they leave no doubt about where we stand. And quite frankly, I think I'm correct in this thinking. 

Many hobbyists simply don't want to let go of "traditional" ways of thinking about and approaching aquarium work. Now, sure, you have unbreakable natural rules, like those which govern processes like the nitrogen cycle. You can't get around those. However, the way we interpret and approach many of the things which happen in our aquariums is all up for review, IMHO. And a lot of hobbyists are ready to do this.


At the risk of being a bit weird for quoting myself, I think I expressed a good part of our philosophy here at Tannin in this passage from a piece I wrote a couple of years back:

"Suffice it to say, there are NO rules in rediscovering the unfiltered art beneath the surface. Our "movement" believes in representing Nature as it exists in both form and function, without removing the very attributes of randomness and resulting function that make it so amazing"

We are utterly inspired by this.

This keeps us motivated to push out further. To think about how to try unique and different things.

And occasionally, to bend the rules.

Stay bold. Stay curious. Stay steady. Stay motivated...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


1 Response

Jake H
Jake H

March 24, 2022

I personally love lily pipes, but I always arrange my tank so I can have hidden double tap disconnects on them for easy removal. Also, you should check out the Aquario Neo Flow. It’s a modular plastic inlet/outlet set that looks pretty close to glass but is much less fragile.

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