Bigger, better? Smaller, cooler? Or?

It's 3:00AM local time, and my plane doesn't leave for three more hours...and I can't fall back asleep...Yeah. literally "Sleepless in Seattle", as the cliche goes!

I'm coming off of a very nice speaking engagement last night  in Seattle, Washington, at the Greater Seattle Aquarium Society. Amazing group with tons of talent! I also got to visit what is arguably one of the best aquarium shops in the United States, Aquarium Zen, which specializes in "Nature Aquarium" setups and just generally celebrates the joy of aquascaping. It's owner, Steve Waldron, is a super nice guy and just "gets it" when it comes to this stuff! Truly a "must see" if you're up this way!

His store really celebrates the art of aquascaping and keeping what most of us would call "smaller aquariums"- and does it with style and skill in a way few others have before, iMHO. Get's you excited and motivated and energized...And funny, wouldn't you know it- I had a fellow hobbyist later that evening approach me tell me about her tank and sort of "apologize"  that her tank wasn't "large" and that she didn't keep "big fish."

Huh? What?

That was sad... Totally unnecessary...And it's not the first time I've heard this kind of thing. Like, what's wrong with keeping small fishes and modest-sized aquariums? Where does this stuff come from?

I Like small fishes. In fact, I like the really small fishes. I prefer them, favor them...enjoy them.

Big fishes are cool, but- well, they're BIG. AND they eat and poop a lot. And they need large physical spaces; otherwise, most tanks are the equivalent of you or I spending the rest of our lives in our (comfortable) living room. I mean, great, you have satellite TV, snacks, a comfy couch...but after a while, those four walls start to close in a bit, right? Well, in my warped mind, that's how I see it.

It's not like bigger is better. At least, not always.

And, I'm kind of militant about it, actually. I remember in my custom aquarium installation days, I used to hate it when a customer would build, say, a 500-600 gallon aquarium, and then want to stock it with BIG fishes, like full-size Triggerfishes, Morays, large Angels, and Tangs. Oh, and sharks. I have no idea what it is about keeping a shark in a relatively large- but not large enough aquarium that appeals to people. Quite frankly, I'm not so sure what it is about keeping sharks in general in an aquarium that appeals to people....that's another thing for another time.

Anyhow, my observations of the general public and a good segment of the aquarium-keeping community seems to indicate that a lot of people just figure, "I have a really large tank. Now I can keep some large fishes in there!" I never understood that. I mean, in theory, you could keep larger, more metabolic-waste-producing fishes in a larger tank- of course. Yet, then you have this group of really big fishes that can make a big mess, grow even larger, and ultimately end up with the same issue that many of us face- not having a large enough aquarium for all of the fishes you want to keep.

Why not keep MORE small fishes...lots of 'em- in an environment that provides more than enough physical space, creates an interesting environment for them, and that they won't outgrow? Like, ever. I mean, can you imagine how many Axelrodia riesei  or Tucanoichthys tucano you can keep in a 500-gallon aquarium? Umm, I dunno- a shitload of 'em, maybe? Of course, the immediate counterargument we'll hear is, "Do you know how much it would cost to purchase 250 Tucanoichthys tucano?" And my smart-ass counterargument is, "If you can afford to purchase, outfit , and run a 500-gallon aquarium, you can afford to spend $12USD a piece on some 1/2" fish!"

(Gee...I wonder why I don't do much in the way of "tank build consulting"  anymore?)

And I've not yet had my first cup of coffee today!

And, of course,  one of the most common "pro-nano" arguments is equally as dumb, IMHO. As you know, it typically goes like, "Well, the smaller aquarium allows the fishes to be closer to their food, and for you to observe them more easily." 


Honestly, I can discuss the absurdities of that assertion, but it just will raise my blood pressure. We can do better than use those lame excuses as a rationale for keeping little tanks.

I love nano tanks. I think they're cool, fun, practical, economical; purposeful..and I suppose you COULD make the argument about keeping track of tiny fishes and having them be closer to their food...but man, it's sort of funny to me. There's a lot of ways to feed tiny fishes in larger aquariums, IMHO. Really. And if you look hard enough, you'll see little guys in that monster tank. Really. Hell, we find them in streams, so why can't we find those Ember Tetras in a 300-gallon tank? 

What about the fact that you can use nano's as a "testbed" for dozens of really crazy ideas...deep botanical beds, "100% Mini Mariposa Pod substrates", a huge ball of Water Sprite and nothing else, crushed leaf litter substrates, Catappa Bark "forests"- yeah...all sorts of zany stuff that's too expensive/time-consuming/experimental to do in a 50-100 gallon tank! 

Now, I have nothing against large aquariums. In fact, the smallest saltwater aquarium I've kept in the past ten years is 150 gallons- freshwater, 50 gallons. So, before I blast the whole institution of "Bigger Aquariums Are Better", and piss off everyone who owns a deluxe aquarium, let's clap up the advantages of larger aquariums.

Oh, what's a "large aquarium", anyways? As far as this fish geek is concerned, a "large "aquarium is anything over 100 gallons (400 L). Or you could look at it from a more practical standpoint: "large" is any size of aquarium that will result in chiropractic bills if less than three people attempt to lift it. "Large" is any aquarium that will result in weather patterns forming in your living room as a result of the moisture. "Large" is....well- you get the picture.

Alright, I'll give you this: larger aquariums aquariums do offer a more stable environment. Larger water volumes retain temperature better (acting as heat sinks), hold more oxygen, maintain chemical balance longer, and dilute metabolic waste easier, by virtue of volume (provided the aquarium is not overcrowded, and that common-sense husbandry techniques are employed, of course).

Within reason, larger volumes of water (especially with tanks of greater surface area dimensions) allow you to keep greater numbers of fishes, or, gulp, larger specimens. Of course, why do you HAVE to keep huge fishes just because you have a large tank? I'm not getting this, still.  Of course, common sense must prevail, too. Ive met a few hobbyists who's ego was even larger than their tank...and just because you have a large tank doesn't make you "cool" or successful... If your fishy "career" includes a legacy of mismanaged,  overcrowded 10, 20, and 50 gallon tanks, ending in disaster, there's a really good chance that you'll repeat the same thing with your 200 gallon aquarium. In other words, if you suck, you're just buying more time with a large tank. It may take a little longer (and cost a lot more), but it happens.

Of course, larger aquariums DO provide more space to develop dramatic aquascaping schemes. You can utilize those huge pieces of driftwood that look absurd in smaller aquariums. You could actually build up a 6 inch botanical bed and still have room for water and livestock!

Yep- big tanks are pretty cool. They're also expensive to purchase. And they're a bit tougher to work with. And they cost more to operate. And they take longer to stock.  Although, I know plenty of people with 20-40 gallon "high tech" planted aquairums that spend more on them than I did on a few 75-100 gallon reef tanks I've set up over the years!

It's easy to fantasize about the huge aquarium that you're going to build when you win the lottery. It's quite another to actually set it up if you're of more modest means. In reality, it's usually necessary to compromise somewhat based on budget, space, time, etc.

Remember, despite what you might see and hear from time to time, having a large aquarium does not brand you as a "success" in our hobby, any more than maintaining a smaller system brands you as a novice. It's not like you crossed over some imaginary barrier and arrived as a "serious" hobbyist. Success in the hobby is about creating and maintaining a vibrant, healthy aquarium, regardless of size, for the long term growth and prosperity of its inhabitants.

Yes, large aquariums are impressive; well, fro ma size standpoint, at least. I've seen plenty of large aquariums that were downright unremarkable (in fact, I've set up a few, myself).  I mean, they really sucked to the point where you wouldn't want them if they were given to you. Really. Many hobbyists set up huge systems as the "next phase" in their aquarium career, and some end in disappointment- or even disaster. If you're not able to master the art and science of aquarium keeping with a small system, a large tank will likely not be any different for you. Think before you leap.

Large aquariums can be visually arresting, beneficial to their inhabitants, and just generally add a new dimension of fun to your hobby. However, the time, money and commitment to maintain them are a serious consideration. Keeping a large aquarium is not an endeavor that you enter into lightly.

For many hobbyists, a more modest-sized aquarium allows them to enjoy their hobby-as well as their life. Being forced to become a "tank slave" to your monster-sized aquarium may not lead to long-term hobby happiness. On the other hand, smaller aquariums do require discipline and self-control in order to keep them properly stocked and correctly maintained. The margins for error are proportionately smaller than in larger aquariums. Be aware of this, and enjoy your aquarium accordingly.

Regardless of the size of the system that you create, think "outside the box" when planning your system. Pleeeeze! 

In the end- it's your call as to how you want to proceed in your hobby. Don't buy into the latest trends or fads. Just go with what will work for you. It's not the size that makes your aquarium special. It's the skill, dedication and imagination of the hobbyist that gets the job done. Creating and maintaining an aquarium that brings pleasure and enjoyment to you is the true measure of success in this hobby.

And my bad attitude is not helpful...

But it's fun to kind of piss everyone off now and again...seriously.

Keeps things interesting, huh? Or annoying, depending upon how you look at it, I suppose. Maybe I'll try to catch a few more zzz's right now and...

Stay on edge. Stay innovative. Stay honest with your feelings...

And Stay Wet.

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 





Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


1 Response


October 12, 2017

So-called “Monster Fishkeepers” seem to fall into the same type of pet owner as those who buy pit bulls or rottweilers… while there are many responsible pet owners who truly love and care for their pets, there are always those d-bags that buy them for their “tough guy” image. It is a bit of a thrill to have an apex predator in your home, but so many of these large fish eke out a living in a bare-bones aquarium that’s barely large enough to turn around in.

I think of this local ad that I saw – a 50 gallon aquarium and five red-bellied piranha for $100. What a deal! Except that piranhas need about 50 gallons apiece… and the fish were advertised as “all fish are missing one eye but are perfectly healthy”. Uh… that’s not what healthy means. And when I visited Ripley’s Aquarium in Toronto and saw the huge red-belly tank with dozens of fish the size of a football, it made me really sad that these fish are recommended to live in something as small as a 50 gallon.

A greater number of smaller tanks. A greater variety of fish and biotopes. And a more manageable amount of maintenance. Why have one room with a huge fish tank when you can have a fish tank in every room!

Leave a comment