Enabling, discouraging, or nurturing the neophyte aquarium keeper: A shared responsibility.

Sort of continuing with our recent theme here, about “experts”, advice, opinions, and experience…

I was chatting with a brand spankin’ new aquarist a couple of days ago...I mean- brand new, “untainted-by-the-message-boards-and-super-trendy-aquascaping-gossip” new. Like, “didn’t-have-any-opinion-on-which-LED-system-is-the-best-new”... Like, "didn't-know-what-blackwater-is" new!

Like, "What-does-'Pleco'- mean?" new.

Yeah. That new.

And I’m being generous when I use “aquarist” to describer her, ‘cause she wasn’t!

She was asking me for some advice on what plants and fish she should be keeping in her new tank. Uh-oh...advice. That made me think a bit...Well, a lot, actually. In my hobby and professional career, I have given lots of advice to new hobbyist as many of you have,…

But not to someone this new and well- detached, I guess you could call it.. 

Yeah, detached. Like I new in seconds that she didn't want to enjoy fish as a hobby. Now, I get that, but she was talking about setting up an aquarium as if it were putting together a piece of Ikea furniture- just open the box and slap it together...and instant awesome tank! (although not sure that always applies to the furniture...)

I mean, what a responsibility I had!

She had absolutely no clue on a lot of stuff, not a single clue. Never kept fish before. She just wanted a great-looking tank before Christmas, and kind of thought it was like throwing together a scrapbook: You just toss a few things together and it’s ready to impress everyone. She literally sent me photoshopped pins of tanks from some page on Pinterest and asked how to get that. 


(I want it...NOW!")

Most discouraging to me was her desire to “impress” her friends and visitors to her home with how cool her new aquarium would look. This of course, raise the “red flag” for me, a hardcore hobbyist...Was she in it for the wrong reasons? Did she even give a darn about the animals that would be under her care?  And, is it my place to judge? 

I thought that she would be an ideal candidate for an aquarium maintenance company, so at least her animals could be looked after by someone who knew what he/she was doing...Yet she would have NONE of that! SHE wanted to be "in charge" of the tank.

Well, I could at least relate to that.

However, when she PM'd me and shared pics of random fishes and plants and such, from widely divergent environments, with huge compatibility issues that in no way belonged together, I formulated my response:

“I think before you start this project, you should arm yourself with a good book, visit the aquarium of an experienced hobbyist, hang out at the local fish store,  and educate yourself on the fundamentals of aquatic husbandry..Your chances for success are much greater with some education and fundamentals”

Oh, that didn’t go over well at ALL:  “Do you think that I am stupid?” (well, yes, now that you mention it...).  She literally said that. Turned on me in a second! She was very insulted that I would suggest anything other than a bunch of random specimens and a nod of approval for the “stocking plan” she proposed for her tank. She gave no indications whatsoever of having even the remotest amount of interest in actually caring for the fish, and quite frankly, I was annoyed at her attitude that she could just ignore the realities of owning an aquarium, skip over the learning process, and get whatever she wanted because she had a few bucks to spend.

In the ended, we parted ways with me reiterating my advice to get some background before proceeding. I know that fell on deaf ears...

(No shortcuts to this destination...)

Happily, this lady belonged to a very small minority of persons (lets just call them what they are, based on their attitude:  idiots) who enter into the aquarium world with nothing more than arrogance and lots of cash, and no regard for the lives of the animals under their care. Look, I’m not saying that you have to be a hardcore, fish-breeding, super-glue-your-coral-frags-loving, multiple cichlid-breeding, central-filtration-system-fishroom-owning, skimmer-cleaning fish geek to keep an aquarium.

What I AM saying is that you should at least have some fundamental knowledge of aquatic biology and the needs of reef animals, and even a dose of compassion. You certainly wouldn’t buy a puppy or kitten without knowing how to feed it and keep it healthy, so why are fishes and corals such an easy target for people like this? 


I mean, is it our fault as a hobby- desperate to get new blood into our community? Is it the industry, trying to stir up new opportunities? 

I mean, getting new hobbyists into the game is always a good thing. Getting someone who has no feelings or passion for the life forms and the responsibility that accompanies keeping them is- well- totally different. You just usually can't "turn" a person like that, right?

Not in my experience.

Ok, I’m preaching to the choir here, but we’re a community, so this has some therapeutic value for me…LOL

And perhaps you encounter this attitude yourselves- so we in the hobby have a sort of “duty” to spread the right messages, IMHO.

What I do know is that if someone doesn’t want to take our good advice, there is little we can do except to discourage them from keeping an aquarium. That was literally my best advice to her...I suppose even that well-intended advice comes across as arrogant...

My other best advice for anyone is to not take anyone’s advice as the last word on the subject. Take any and all advice on aquariums with a grain of salt, regardless of who it comes from. Be skeptical. Read. Discuss. Listen. Ask questions. Most important, make up your own mind...think things through so that you have a clear understanding. But, you know that already.

However, even if you know you are right, never, ever be arrogant. And if you are not right, admit it freely and move on. Others can learn from your mistakes just as easily as your successes...no big deal.

I think there was little else I could do to reach this person than what was said in our exchanges. She would have none of it. It's different with an engaged, interested, new aquarist who wants to learn...What would your best advice be to a new aquarist? Is there one solid, fundamental piece of advice that you could offer to someone just starting out? Someone with genuine interest in aquarium keeping? 

Let’s hear it!

Stay focused. Stay engaged. Stay patient. Stay diligent.  Stay honest...

And Stay Wet,


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


2 Responses

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman

December 18, 2017

Hey J.F.,

You’re Spot on with a lot of your thinking. However, the one comment I take exception to is the “worthy” part…You are right. She was NOT worthy. My goal was not simply to discourage her right off the bat., Really, it was to see if she would take a gram- an iota- of responsibility, or just some effort (as you mentioned) to exert any energy at all to learn about the needs and requirements of the life forms she wanted to keep…and she didn’t give a damn about them as living creatures. To her, they were “kinetic art”- commodities to be showed off like a piece of china. You can’t just “educate” someone who has that mind set. I tried. The point is, a person like that simply doesn’t have the mindset to keep animals which require attention to their environment- indeed- the responsibility to learn what they need to survive. She was willing to expend energy on neither.

I did gloss over some of the nitty-gritty details of the exchange- I encouraged her to go to Bob Fenner’s excellent wetwebmedia.com site, a simple resource that has something for just about anyone who keeps fishes. I told her to visit a local club (there were two in her city). She literally told me that “she doesn’t have the time” to do that. I suggested that she instead hire a maintenance company to assist he- nope. No deal.

Sorry, but if I came across as callous, it might have been partially true. Yes, we all lose fish. Yes, we all make mistakes. Yes, we should all be encouraged and nurtured- which I have made a career doing in this hobby, like many others. That’s the price of admission, tragic though it may be. However, when you meet someone who is cold, unfeeling, and completely indifferent to the needs of life forms under her care- indeed, CHOOSES to be that way…really, you think it’s a better idea to give her a hug and say to go for it? I don’t think you meant that. And yeah- a person with those traits is NOT worthy. Period. Part of our responsibility IS to “discourage” people who don’t care from killing animals through apathy- not through “the process” of learning the ropes and TRYING. Our hobby, industry, and the natural habitats- not to mention, the wild populations of the fishes themselves- have enough pressures placed on them by man without the added stress from people who simply don’t care about them purchasing them to decorate their home. I think that on this occasion, I made the right call.



J. F.
J. F.

December 16, 2017

I think instead of shutting her down by telling her she didn’t know anything, you could have pointed out some topics to study. For instance, she wanted fish from different environments — tell her that she needs to pick fish with compatible needs and point her to a source that could tell her that (instead of “go read a book and leave me alone” — not exactly what you said but it could come across that way). Or just make a list of your considerations for when you are putting together a new tank.

If you really wanted to discourage her (and it seemed like that was your goal? Only the truly worthy?) you could have just told her how much time and money it really takes to maintain a tank.

I have one year of experience keeping fish. Despite a solid month of research beforehand, lots of water testing, and many expert opinions, my tank has killed more fish and plants than it’s kept alive and I’m exiting the hobby. I gave it a good try. It wasn’t enough. I wish someone had discouraged me. If someone had told me back then how many fish would die on me, I would have just gotten a cat or something.

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