For "peat's sake": Avoiding getting "bogged down" in a controversy...

With Tannin Aquatics starting to really take off globally, and making a tiny bit of impact on the overall hobby world, it's important for us to explore better ways to do what we do, and to improve our offerings, practices, and ideas as we grow.

One of the questions I have received a lot over the past couple of years is why we don't offer peat moss (in either fine or fibrous forms) for aquarium use. Quite frankly, the main reason I have not offered it is out of a lot of concern I have for the overall environmental impact of offering it. And of course, we realize that there are a lot of other alternatives to peat that don't create the same impact on the environment. Do we really need to offer this material? Would it do anything more than simply round out our "portfolio" of botanical offerings- more of a "vanity" thing than a market need?

For years, aquarium hobbyists used peat moss for the purpose of lowering aquarium pH, creating "tinted" water, enriching planted substrates, and for spawning killies and other fishes. It's easy to use, comes in a few forms, and definitely "works as advertised" when it comes to aquarium use! 

Now, in all fairness to us, the bulk of the peat moss harvested worldwide is used in the horticulture field, and aquarium use likely accounts for the tiniest percentage of worldwide peat consumption. Nonetheless, its use for aquariums has been discouraged in recent years as we take on a more environmentally conscious, sustainability mindset.

I see no problem with addressing this. We certainly need to weigh both sides of the argument in deciding wether or not to use this stuff in our aquariums.

"Peat moss" is the collective name given to mosses from the genus Sphagnum, which contains almost 400 species!  Peat comes from bogs, which are one of the four main types of wetlands recognized by ecologists. It's generally decomposed moss that accumulates in these bogs, which is then commercially harvested. This material been used extensively in agriculture, because it excels at retaining water: Peat plants may hold 16–26 times as much water as their dry weight, depending on the species!

Over the years, there has been a lot written about the sustainability, or lack thereof- of harvesting peat moss. It's sort of a "poster child" for the management of precious natural resources, and there are environmental consequences to removing this material from the bogs where it accumulates.

(Image by Boreal. Used under CC-BY SA 3.0)

Although degraded peat deposits have often been restored by blocking water drainage sources, throwing in Sphagnum seeds, and covering them with a water-retaining mulch, it's not that simple a story. Yes, restoring peatlands does help soils by improving water-holding capability; however, the bacterial respiration caused by the decomposition of the mulch and other organics in the restored deposits continues to release C02. According to some studies, it can take several years for the photosynthetic rate of the new peat deposit to beat the "respiratory rate", meaning that there is a net loss of carbon into the atmosphere during this period of time, which unfortunately contributes to the production of greenhouse gasses. 

(Photo by Ed Blodnick)

Now, there are two sides to every story, and there are a lot of efforts being made to harvest peat in what most would agree to be a sustainable manner. Canada supplies up to 80% of the peat moss consumed in North America, and the peat industry there has put in significant effort to create what they feel is a sustainable resource. According to industry studies, Canada contains 294 million acres- or approximately 25% of the entire world’s peatlands! The Canadian horticultural peat industry operates on less than 55,000 acres of these peat bogs nationwide. According to the industry, the amount of peat moss harvested from Canadian peat bogs every year is nearly 60 times less than the total annual accumulation of new peat moss.

That sure sounds like they're doing something right, doesn't it? Being good stewards of a precious resource like tropical fishes, we can appreciate efforts made to conduct business in a manner that respects the environment.

So where does that leave us? 

Well, to be quite honest, I go back and forth. I told myself for a long time that if Tannin offered peat products, they'd definitely be from Canadian sources, because the industry there makes a significant overall effort to manage the peatlands.

On the other hand...

Do we even need to use peat when we have so many other materials which perform similar roles in our aquatic environments?

We've utilized a lot of coconut-derived materials, such as "Fundo Tropical", which are a great alternative to peat, and are far less environmentally impactful. We've offered a more coarse "grind", and my supplier can certainly offer us a finer particle size or a fibrous form, if I request it.

And then we have leaves, and items from palms, Catappa bark, etc.- which, in an aquatic environment perform in much the same manner as peat. We've personally used many of these items extensively to enrich aquatic substrates, and I know many of you have done work in this area as well, with good results. We're particularly encouraged about many of you playing with them in planted aquariums.

One thing about peat that I do like is that the fibrous type lasts indefinitely, in my experience. You can use it for breeding fishes, clean it, desiccate it, and use it again over and over. As a water conditioner, I'd imagine that the humic substances and tannins contained in the peat would ultimately be exhausted after prolonged or repetitive submersion, and it would become more or less "inert." Again, the fibrous type could perform other functions besides just a spawning substrate or water conditioner after it's "tint-producing days have passed. I suppose that you could use it a a form of mechanical filtration media, trapping detritus, etc.  However, I certainly wouldn't purchase the stuff specifically with this use in mind. There are certainly better alternatives.

So yeah, it boils down (no pun intended) to how we feel about it from an environmental impact perspective, and if there is a real compelling reason to go with peat versus any of the other more sustainably-sourced, less environmentally-impactful alternatives that we offer. If it's just about "tinting" the water, I'll tell you flat-out that Catappa, Guava, or Magnolia leaves will do just as nice a job. Granted, they might be employed slightly differently (like "MLM" or "Hawaiian Crush" Catappa in a mesh filter sock or reactor), but I think they offer much of the versatility of peat without the controversy surrounding its harvest and use.

You've always been straight with me, so I'll pose the question to you: Is there any compelling reason that we should offer peat products at Tannin? I'd love to hear your thoughts and ideas, pro or con, which can make a case for or against it being offered.

It might be a small thing, perhaps an almost insignificant thing, at least on the surface. However, as we all know, the accumulation of "small things" can ultimately have a BIG impact on the whole picture...

Thanks for your support, interest, and feedback. The way that we all advance the hobby and protect our world is through discussion and by addressing some of the more controversial issues which affect us. In the end, we all need to do what we feel is best for our hobby, ourselves, and of course, our planet. It's worth a bit of reflection now and again, wouldn't you say?

Stay thoughtful. Stay curious. Stay passionate.

And Stay Wet.

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


2 Responses

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman

April 12, 2017

Great feedback, Garrett! Although there is always controversy- everything I read tells me that the Canadian Peat industry is doing it right. And really, I think that the coconut products are really a perfect alternative to peat. and since we control the source directly, we know they don’t have any fertilizers or other stuff like you might find in peat from sources who supply agriculture. And in the end, as you mention- there are quite a few botanical alternatives!


April 12, 2017

As a Canadian, thanks for educating me on Canada’s role in the peat industry – it seems that we are doing a better job than I was led to believe!

Personally, I have just embarked on exploring the effects of a fine coconut fiber/sand substrate and a shallow leaf bed on an aquarium. Thus far I am impressed with the gentle tinting and relatively small effect on water pH that I have observed – I think that should I want to drop the pH dramatically, I would rather throw some pinecones or similar botanicals in a filter sock than utilize peat moss.

I think that offering different grades/sizes of coconut fiber would be more desirable, as it can be used for similar tasks.

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