Blowing up brackish...sharing our vision of the "slightly salty" world...

As we're progressing towards our brackish water debut, I thought about some interesting stuff that I just had to share with you. A sort of "primer" once again on the state of the brackish aquarium world and where we think it can go...

First off, the world of brackish water aquariums is filled with a lot of cliche, a lot of guessing, erroneous assumptions, and plain old misinformation. And some fear...Yeah, fear...People are a bit afraid of some of this stuff...well, they're afraid of the potential impact of questioning some of the stuff that is considered "the way it's done..."

Oh, and there's a lot of outdated stuff floating around out there, too. And some really good information, mixed right in there with the crappy stuff. 

Yeah, this has an air of familiarity to it, doesn't it?

I mean, it's an awful lot like what we encountered when we dove deeper into the blackwater world. There seems to be a sort of common theme in the hobby when it comes to the more "obscure" areas of specialization: The greater hobby community seems to "pre-judge" it based on presumptions from the limited information that is available, even though many have never tried it first-hand.  It's human nature, I suppose...but it's sad. We're better than that. We need to lose this attitude really quickly, IMHO.

When I first started playing with brackish water aquariums, almost 25 years ago (gulp), I made a ton of know- stuff like all Mollies are brackish water fish, plants can't grow in brackish water, you needed to use dolomite or other sands to create a brackish tank, you need to maintain "near sterile" conditions...just to name a tiny few.

And then I looked at nature. Nature always has the answers. We just have to know what kinds of questions to ask, and what to look for. 

I mean, over the years, simply by studying, playing with, and actually visiting tropical brackish-water habitats, I learned a lot. I read a lot of interesting scientific papers on these habitats- many of which were over my head, but some provided bits of information that was perfectly applicable to my theories about how to manage a brackish water aquarium. I realized that, as aquarium hobbyists, over the years, we've sort of created a "template" for how you're supposed to create and manage a brackish water aquarium. And the template is kind of...well, I can't put it delicately- BORING! With a few notable exceptions, many of the brackish tanks we've seen in the past are sort of the equivalent of those 1970's-style saltwater tanks...What nature does is far more interesting.

Now, I'm nowhere close to calling myself "well versed" on the brackish water game, but I'd say I have a better than average understanding. And my approach is different, honed by years of practice and working my methods. It's not really any more difficult than anything else we do. It requires that most important of all things from the aquarist who wants to work it: the "mental shift."

You already know about that, right?

As we've touched on before, the Tannin approach to brackish water habitats is not the crystal-clear, white-sand-bottom and coral-skeleton version that seems to dwell in the greater hobby's general perception of this type of system. Rather, it's a world of tinted, slightly turbid water, darker, muddy substrates, leaf litter, biofilms, fluctuating salinity, algal films, mangrove roots, oysters, clams, botanicals, and plants. Life. In many forms. I think my reef keeping background has given me some good stuff to draw from. And for those of you who keep reef tanks, planted tanks, African Rift Lake cichlids, and other specialized systems...hmm- like blackwater/botanical-style systems- you're going to bring a lot to the table!

(Mangrove Oysters on Rhizophora mangle- the Red Mangrove. Awesome shot by Alan Cresller)

When our "Estuary" line launches in just a few weeks, you'll see that our approach is a bit different. As with so many things we do, it will not appeal to a large percentage of aquarists. It might even offend some people, for many of the same reasons that Tannin initially did: It's not a pristine, diorama-style, garden-like interpretation of nature. Rather, it's a rich, earthy, dynamic environment. And the environment itself is a big part of the draw here!

It's not as "clean-looking" as what has been presented as a brackish style aquarium in the past. Yet, those who have taken this similar approach realized for themselves that it's an amazing, dynamic one- filled with interesting interactions and insights. We won't only dwell on the aesthetics of what we'll come to know as botanical-style brackish systems- we'll dwell on the functionality of them, too. We'll look into ways that we can perhaps replicate some of the processes and relationships found in natural brackish water systems. We'll talk a lot about mud, substrates, algae, epiphytic materials...and Cryprocoryne ciliata.

We'll rely heavily on components of Mangroves and palms, because they are the true "anchors" of the brackish water, estuary habitats that we find so alluring. As hinted above, we will look at ways to not only "channel the aesthetics" of mangrove habitats- we'll look at ways to enable some of the processes which occur in them, and how we can make them work for us.

We'll start by giving you access to some materials that you've probably never had access to before, and a bunch that you've probably seen before, and applying them to this new "venue" in ways not previously utilized- but with which you are now rather familiar. We'll start gradually, and gain momentum.

Oh, and we'll have lots of discussions on fishes which reside in these habitats. There seems to be two classes of fishes that have historically used in brackish tanks:

1) Big, sort of ugly grey and black fishes that are not the most interesting (You know, Monos, Scats, gnarly Puffers, etc.)

2) Fishes like Molies and Chromides, which we've found do okay with salt in their water, even though not all actually are typically found in these habitats; yet, we've sort of thrown them into the "brackish fish" category...

3) More interesting fishes that actually are found preferentially in brackish habitats and would make great additions to our tanks...

So, we'll consider lots of cool fishes, no doubt. And we will bring up more questions than we'll answer, I'll wager! If your recall my piece on Mollies not long ago, it was a most confusing tale- yet indicative of the work we need to do as hobbyists to unravel what's fact- and what is misconception...and to avoid further clouding the issues! 

We will have lots of inspiration. We'll see some cool videos and pics from some of the world's best-known aquascapers of brackish water tank builds, to inspire and enthrall you. And we will provide a forum for you to share YOUR work with the world, as we have with the blackwater/botanical-style systems you've shown us!

And we will make some mistakes. Bad assumptions. Errors. And we'll also find out a lot of cool new stuff. we'll challenge past assumptions. Find out that some of them WERE correct...and that others were completely absurd. We'll do it together- as a community- and we'll share in an open, frank, and humble manner, within a supportive, adventurous environment.

You will never be chastised by us for being bold, adventurous...even a bit contrarian. As we continue to move forward into previously unfamiliar territory, we can help each other- and the hobby as a whole- rediscover, reinvent, and reconsider what may once have been yet another obscure niche within the aquarium hobby.

Stay excited! Stay adventurous. Stay engaged.

And Stay Wet.

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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