Botanical Style Brackish aquarium and the "mental shift"- Perhaps a "manifesto' of sorts. And an invitation to innovate!

One of the great things about being a sort of "hub" or "nexus" for this growing botanical-style aquarium "movement" is that we get to hear about all sorts of new projects people are starting- and field any number of questions on a variety of topics related to this stuff...Can it get any better for a fish geek like me? I think not!

Excitingly, we're starting to see a surge in interest about our vision for a brackish-water botanical-style aquarium. You know, one that eschews the long-standing tradition of "crystal-clear water", rocks, and pure white sand-in favor of a more realistic, "natural-style"  approach, featuring muddy substrates, real mangrove wood, live mangroves, brackish-tolerant plants, mangrove leaf litter, and botanicals. Tinted water, deep substrates, and a heavy bioload of decomposing botanical materials.

Yeah, right up our proverbial "alley!"

And of course, we receive a fair number of questions asking about the nuances of starting and managing such a system in this fashion. The reality-just like it was in the blackwater world a few years back-is that it's not "daunting" or "dangerous" to set up a system in this fashion. It's just...different. And it requires an understanding of what is going on, a willingness to explore some new ideas, and a desire to (literally) help chart a course in a fairly new direction. The more you research, the more you'll find both scholarly information on wild mangrove estuary-type habitats, and lots of practical information from the aquarium world (the reef-keeping world, in particular) on working with stuff like substrates, water quality management, maintaining specific gravity, etc. 

Now, like so many other things we do in the hobby, a brackish tank can be as simple or complex as you'd like to make it...The basic idea- a tank with lower specific gravity (like 1.003-1.008) than seawater- is pretty straightforward...Just add salt...LOL Now, there are some aspects to maintaining a consistent specific gravity (like regular freshwater top-off, etc.) and alkalinity that you need to familiarize yourself with, but it's fairly straightforward. A lot out there on that. The reality is that one of the most important aspects of marine (and by extension, brackish) aquarium husbandry is that environmental consistency is extremely important. Probably the two best "freshwater" examples of this that come to mind immediately are Rift Lake cichlid tanks and...oh, botannical-style blackwater aquariums (BSBW)!

So, the first "lesson" when embracing on a botanical-style brackish aquarium endeavor is to accept that fact that you will HAVE to conduct regular water exchanges (like, I"m thinking weekly). They're the best way to remove chemical impurities that are not easily removed by other means. As a reefer, like many of you- I'm intimately familiar with the concept that accumulating organics (specifically, compounds like phosphate) are known to inhibit calcification in corals, and the idea of exporting them is fundamental. Now, we're not growing coral in a brackish tank, but some of the concepts from reef keeping will serve you well. In my opinion, embarking on a brackish-water, botanical-style aquarium build requires that you at least have a working familiarity with some basic aspects of marine/reef aquarium dynamics and management. It's fascinating, relatable, and will give you a definite "edge."

(And don't think that I'm not contemplating a "tinted" mangrove-themed reef tank in the near future)

Now, you'll notice that, by intention, this piece is kind of "light" on specific procedure/tactics and such, because the very first step in creating one of these tanks is to simply understand what we're thinking about here, to get excited about the idea-and to visualize why it's different, dynamic, and can be very successful. I've been playing with these types of aquairums- these concepts- for decades. I've made a few mistakes along the way, but I can honestly say that I've never had any real "disasters" that were irreversible. It was just a matter of understanding what was going on in my tanks and how to work with it. It's about working with natural processes rather than fearing them. Stuff we've been through before, right? 

Our idea is for a "botanical-style" brackish tank, which mimics the dynamic, rich estuary environments of the tropical regions. There are a lot of processes at work in these habitats, ranging from tidal changes (and accompanying salinity swings) to nutrient processing, which are both fascinating and compelling, and can be mimicked, to some extent in a closed system (i.e.; your tank!). Just how far depends upon our willingness to experiment and tinker and analyze.

(Shameless plug...well, it IS my blog, right?)

Our concept incorporates leaf litter, mangrove roots, and some tinted embraces the diversity of life forms (including algae and small crustaceans) which thrive in these environments. It involves the biofilms and detritus and other things that we've been familiar with in our blackwater, botanical-style work. It's a lot different from the more "sterile" brackish concept that's been around for a long time, but in our opinion, more realistic. Sure, more challenging (with the added aspect of the leaves and such), but dynamic and interesting. Filled with potential to unlock a lot of secrets about both these compelling ecosystems and the organisms which reside there. Could you screw up and make an algae-filled mess? Of course. Could you end up with a wildly unstable tank that grows more biofilms than fishes? Quite possible. 

Could you end up spawning Monos, gobies, and other fishes? Yup.

(The humble "Bumblebee Goby"- pic by Ted Judy!)

Risk/reward at its finest!

And sure,  I can envision a lot of "armchair critics" citing a recipe for "disaster", with concerns about "aerobic conditions", "pH crashes", and all of the usual "caveats" that have been hurled at us from our BWBS aquarium work...typically by people who have never even attempted such stuff. It can be lonely, even discouraging- when you're trying to do something that flies in the face of what is "conventional." So yeah, the very first step in approaching things this way is to free your mind from the noise that's out there. To open up yourself to the process, and to...DO. To make your decisions based upon what you're observing in your tanks; to draw upon your experience in other aquaristic endeavors, and to utilize your judgement and instincts. You need to make that famous "mental shift" like you did when you started with blackwater, and understand that all sorts of "stuff" can work- if you understand the specifics of what you're doing and don't let the criticism and "advice" from those who might try to deter you because it's different than what they know.

Yeah, it could seem a bit daunting at first, but like so many other specialty areas of the hobby, it's about doing that front end research and understanding the dynamics. Saltwater systems (full strength marine or brackish) are dynamic environments with a bunch of variables that you need to contend with in order to keep them stable. Brackish fishes are pretty tough for the most part, in that they have to adapt to changing parameters in their tidal environments. That being said, we are "kicking it up a notch", complexity-wise, by adding the element of decomposing botanicals, wood, and muddy, silted substrates...Definitely a new take on this, and it requires-if not experience- just good fundamental aquarium management, observation, a wealth of patience-and the ability to adjust quickly based on changes...A few more "moving parts", but we think far more interesting than the current "popular" take on brackish!

You'll be working with some materials that are familiar to you, like leaves, botanicals, and wood- as well as some items which, although perhaps different in composition- like marine-sediment/mud and aragonite-based substrates-are analogous to stuff you know from the freshwater planted world and the nutritive substrates that are played with by thousands of hobbyists every day. Your just sort of applying some of those ideas to a new "medium", if you will. There are a number of marine sediment-type products out there which can help form the literal base of your brackish water aquarium. They will provide not only the proper physical "structure" for this type of system- they will also provide an influx of minerals and trace elements, and provide some pH/alkalinity support.

It IS a bit of a strange dynamic, because on one hand you're working with marine salt and buffering substrates, while simultaneously introducing materials like wood and leaves, which can pull down the pH a bit. A real sort of "tug of war", if you will. And I believe you'll find what I have over the years: These tanks will "sort themselves out" and "find" their "operating range" once you get them set up and engage in consistent husbandry procedures (i.e.; water exchanges, etc.). It requires regular water testing, lots of observation...and patience. All skills which every one of us possesses.

Just like it is in the BWBS world, nature will impose some limits to what you can and cannot do in a closed system. There may be a limit to (for example) how much botanical material your tanks will tolerate before the parameters fluctuate excessively, or before algae grows faster than plants- or whatever. But rather than make sweeping generalizations ("add 'X' amount of this stuff 3 times a week"), you'll arrive at "customized" solutions for your system, and help construct "best practices" for managing brackish water/botanical-style tanks.

(Yes, I'm finally getting this damn tank wet...more to follow!)

By not being afraid to go "off-road" a bit, you'll be helping pave the way for others who will follow-just like we're doing with the blackwater, botanical-style aquariums- so that, in the very near future, this type of aquarium will not be perceived by the hobby in general as some sort of "side-show stunt", but just another approach to managing a unique natural aquarium. It's "open-source", and you're invited to contribute. You'll be helping to "write the code" as they say in Silicon Valley. 

Horrified? Turned off?  Or excited, intrigued, and motivated?

Stay brave. Stay fascinated. Stay observant. Stay independent...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 



Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


Leave a comment