Eliminating the "positive?"

I know I talk about some things a lot around here. And I believe it's because these same things keep coming up, and they keep fueling mindsets and opinions in the hobby- and not all of them are beneficial.  Like, the "corrective moves" that we take in pursuit of solutions to "problems" within our aquariums. 

One of the classic approaches that we as hobbyists employ to overcome stuff like excessive algae growth is to "limit nutrients" in the aquarium. To accomplish this, we utilize all sorts of chemical filtration media, nutrient export techniques, and filtration.

Yet, sometimes, it's those "corrective moves" which actually cause more problems, or expose more weaknesses in our aquarium habitats. Huh? Well, think about it: Our aquariums are miniature ecosystems, subject to all of the laws of Nature. They are dependent upon inputs and outputs from both the terrestrial and aquatic environment. Many of these inputs and outputs depend upon the "work" of living organisms, ranging from bacteria to fungi, to algae. Like it or not, these are all important members of the ecosystem. When we remove one or more of these components, the entire system actually suffers as a result!

You can't "win" the war on algae, for example, by completely eliminating all of the "nutrients" in your tank. To do so deprives some other organisms of their needed source of nutrition. It begs the question- If you're "starving" algae by removing its nutrient source, what else are you starving in the process?

Aquariums are filled with interdependencies.

When you think of aquariums in this manner, they become a whole lot less of a "pet holding container" and a lot more of a little slice of Nature that you're recreating in your home. And of course, the botanical-style aquarium is an expression of this thinking. A microcosm, fully dependent upon a wide variety of organisms which all effect the environment.

Botanical-style aquariums are really "ecology first" systems, which  incorporate botanical materials as a means to support the myriad of life forms which reside within them. Their importance to the "microbiome" of the aquarium environment is immeasurable.

A "microbiome", by definition, is defined as "...a community of microorganisms (such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses) that inhabit a particular environment." (according to Merriam-Webster)

Now, sure, every aquarium has a microbiome to a certain extent:

We have the beneficial bacteria which facilitate the nitrogen cycle, and play an indespensible role in the function of our little worlds. The botanical-style aquarium is no different; in fact, as I just mentioned, it is perhaps more dependent upon the microbiome than other less "natural" approaches.

One thing that's very unique about the botanical-style approach is that we tend to accept the idea of decomposing materials accumulating in our systems. We understand that they act, to a certain extent, as "fuel" for the micro and macrofauna which reside in the aquarium, and that they perform this function as long as they are present in the system.

And it can be enormously complex. Yeah, this is where I start wondering...It's the place where my basic high school and college elective-course biology falls away, and you get into more complex aspects of aquatic ecology in aquariums.Yet, it's important to at least understand this concept as it can relate to aquariums. It's worth doing a bit of research and pondering. It'll educate you, challenge you, and make you a better overall aquarist.

Understand that, when we create a botanical-style aquarium, not only do we have the opportunity to create an aquarium which differs significantly from those in years past- we have a unique window into the natural world and the role of these materials in the wild.

We're not as freaked out by stuff like detritus and biofilms as we were previously. We're letting go of some of our preconceived notions of what a "healthy" aquarium looks and functions like- and I think that's a HUGE evolution in the hobby. We are making the effort to understand the ecology of our systems on a "macro" level, witnessing firsthand how various life forms are dependent upon each other.

I'm fascinated by the "mental adjustments" that we need to make to accept the aesthetic and the processes of natural decay, fungal growth, the appearance of biofilms, and algae, and how these affect what's occurring in the aquarium. It's all a complex synergy of life and aesthetic.

Synergy. Interdependency. Ecology. They all sound so good; perhaps they sound like so much "word salad" when we use them in some contexts. However, they are all important concepts. When you think about how our botanical-style aquariums function, and how they embrace the decomposition of said botanical materials as their "fuel"-it becomes obvious that to remove any set of organisms which are part of the process severely disrupts it, to the detriment of our tank.

Sure, you could perhaps suppress excessive algae growth by reducing the photoperiod of the tank, or by a series of water exchanges targeted at improving overall water quality (assuming that there IS a water quality issue in the first place). However when you start throwing in various chemical filtration media as a quick solution, to "reduce nutrients" rapidly (I would assume nitrate, phosphate, etc.), you begin to interrupt the function of organisms which are dependent upon these compounds for food.

This creates a different imbalance, doesn't it?

Okay, it sounds I'm saying to never take corrective measures when something goes awray in your tank, right? Well, no. I am suggesting a couple of things, however. First, ask yourself if the "problem" you're trying to "correct" is really a "problem" at all. We've had this discussion before, haven't we?

As usual, our botanical-style approach gives us a good example of this:

When we add botanical materials to an aquarium and accept what occurs as a "result"-regardless of wether our intent is just to create a different aesthetic, or perhaps something more- we are, to a very real extent, replicating the processes and influences that occur in wild aquatic habitats in Nature.

The presence of botanical materials such as leaves in these aquatic habitats is foundational to their existence, as it is in our aquarium approach.

And the fact that they recruit biofilms and fungal growths, and break down over time in our tanks is simply part of the natural process. We can consider this a "problem" which needs to be 'mitigated" somehow because we don't like the looks, or we can make the effort to understand how these processes and occurrences can benefit the little microcosms which we have created in our aquariums. 

It's about understanding, perception, education, and acceptance. It's about looking at things differently. Looking at things that we're uncomfortable or unfamiliar with as "problems" in the aquarium hobby deters us from evolving and moving ahead, IMHO. It sets up artificial "roadblocks" on our journey that aren't always necessary.

We need to look at these things as opportunities. Yes, opportunities to figure out what role they play in the ecology of natural aquatic ecosystems- and in our aquairums. We need to look for ways to incorporate, rather than eliminate them from our tanks. We need to understand what causes the imbalances which lead to  these "problems" in the first place.

If you do need to make a correction, it's important to understand WHY you need to make the correction. Often, expressed most simply, biological imbalances such as algal blooms are the result of "too much" of "something", right? The important thing is to find out WHY the imbalance occurred, and to NOT create a different imbalance in our zeal to "correct" the "problem."

By trying to eliminate or curb the perceived "negatives" in our system, we risk eliminating the positives, too!  Is it a "problem", or simply a result of a life form taking advantage of circumstances which favor its growth and proliferation?

Now, sure in some instances, excessive algal growth ( a common "problem") is an issue of you're trying to grow plants, because it competes with them for nutrients, and essentially smothers their surfaces, interfering with photsynthesis and other processes. And to many, it looks bad, because it covers the "stars" of your tank. Curbing the excess is an existential issue in that instance.

However, we've gone so far in the other direction in recent years (I think partially because of the social media-filed environment we are in today), it seems that any aquarium which is anything but spotlessly clean is perceived as "sloppy" or dirty. I think our current (and IMHO shallow) "aesthetics are everything" popular view of how aquariums should look has tainted everything. 

We've gotten a bit lost, IMHO.

We have decided to place all of our eggs in the " ..if the tank looks perfect, it must be perfect!" basket. I don't believe that this is the correct mindset to have in the hobby. I think we've went as bit too far in the other direction.

In the aquarium hobby, we often tend to "edit" Nature, polishing out, or trying to "bypass" the processes, aesthetics, and functions that we find distasteful- in search of what we have generically called a "balanced" aquarium.

It's a noble, important goal-at least, on the surface.

However, I think we need to understand that Nature seeks "balance" in Her own way- one that really doesn't take into account our schedules, goals, or aesthetic preferences.

And it's well known that an aquarium is a closed ecosystem that can easily "fall out of balance", as the expression goes, when we go too far in a certain direction. We can change some of the physical aspects of our tanks (equipment, hardscape, etc.), but Mother Nature is in control.

She "calls the shots" here.

We must keep reminding ourselves about that. 

And She works with whatever we give Her.

The reality is that we simply need to understand how to work with Her.

Stay curious. Stay diligent. Stay educated. Stay observant. Stay smart...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


Leave a comment