Getting real. Like, really real...

The aquarium hobby abounds with rules, best practices, and guidelines. And of course, the world of botanical-style aquariums is not all that different than the mainstream aquarium world in most respects. We have "best practices" and "guidelines" developed over the years regarding the preparation and addition of botanicals, monitoring water parameters, and managing water quality. 

And the "rules" part? 

Well, there is a slight departure there...

One of the best things about these types of aquariums is that there are no hard and fast "style rules." There are only Nature's "restrictions" and her limitations. That being said, and "best practices" aside, every situation, every tank, every nuance is unique, and this requires "customized" solutions for every aquarium. Sure, the methodology/strategy might be something which we can more or less "standardize"- but not the "formula."

Unless you're trying to replicate the characteristics of a specific natural habitat...and even in that instance, it's sort of "open for interpretation..."

As an example, the Rio Negro and its many tributaries provide us many different fishes that we love to keep in aquariums. The Rio Negro’s water is extremely poor in mineral content, with conductivity as low as 8 micro semions, and is extremely acidic, with pH’s ranging from 2.9 to 5.2. That's pretty damn acidic by aquarium standards, isn't it? How can you replicate water like that in your aquarium?

DO you want to?

Well, you'd start by utilizing RO/DI water and "conditioning it" with botanicals and such, which might only get you so far. There would likely be additional steps required, like the addition of acid solutions, different pH-reducing natural materials in your filter. And more detailed monitoring. And slightly different water-quality maintenance approaches. This stuff touches on the fringes of what a lot of us are comfortable doing.

I know that I'm not all that keen on the idea of playing with acid solutions and stuff. I mean, there are undoubtedly some potential benefits I'm "leaving on the table" by not chasing down super low pH, but it's not on my list of "exciting things I want to do" at the moment, anyways.

And wouldn't it be easier to create and maintain these conditions with some compromising, like finding out the "average" of the pH and other parameters of the habitat you're trying to replicate and either going for it- or perhaps, for the higher, easier-to-achieve higher limits of pH in the habitat, for example?

Even with a sort of "compromised accommodation" approach, you'd be providing your fishes with environmental conditions that are far more "realistic" than those typically provided in aquariums, right? Is there even a significant benefit to doing so? I believe so, but that's going to require some experimentation over time to prove.

That's what we need to do.

Yeah, easy for me to sit here and talk about, but it will require some work to back up this "hypothesis!"

And again, we've accomplished many amazing things without going too crazy into trying to more accurately replicate these natural conditions. However, I just can't help but wonder what we'd accomplish if we go just that much farther. The examples which Nature provides us are many and varied.

Even subtle nuances outside of just achieving a low pH- like the utilization of materials like soils, more concentrated quantities of leaves, water flow, lighting, and temperature manipulations could have some extremely positive effects on our fishes, right?

I sometimes think that we as group tend to be a bit hard on ourselves. Like, I've seen fellow hobbyists act almost "apologetic" for not creating super-exact "natural" conditions in a given if there is some "universal arbitrator" judging our work.

That's toxic, IMHO.

And we tend to make stuff "problems" or "requirements" in the hobby, often to our detriment, too.

Right? I mean, when we look at the hobby this way, it tends to open our eyes up a bit. Just look at the definitions of these two words and consider how they apply to the hobby:

Problem (prob*lem): a matter or situation regarded as unwelcome or harmful and needing to be dealt with and overcome.

Requirement (re*quire*ment): a thing that is compulsory; a necessary condition.

Few columns that I've written in the last year have drawn as much interesting response from our readers, and as much thought-provoking discussion- as a piece we featured a few months back on "rethinking" the hobby's perception of killifishes. And that makes me feel good- not only because there is a larger interest and hunger to learn about killies that I even imagined, but there IS a big- BIG "perception problem" among retailers, hobby pundits, and even hobbyists about why they aren't more popular and available.

The discussion online and elsewhere has been surprisingly broad and wide-ranging, with both hobbyist and retailers chiming in. And this is really cool- because everyone seems to want the same thing- a broader availability and appeal for a magnificent group of fishes. And of course, many of the same concerns arise when we broach these kinds of topics: Hobbyists find certain fishes difficult to find. Retailers find the same fishes impractical to sell.

A seemingly difficult conundrum.

Or, is it?

Lots of hobbyists tend to look at killifish as "problematic"- as if keeping them is fraught with issues that would keep them from ever being able to have a greater hobby appeal. 

I just don't buy into that thinking. I just can't.

Now, I have a "problem" with classifying stuff as "problems" when it comes to our aquarium endeavors. I think we tend to consider the specialized requirements of keeping/breeding/marketing certain fishes as "problems" instead of simply as "requirements."

What makes them "problems?"

The fact that we can't just place a rare fish from a specialized environment into a glass of tap water and walk away? It's not a "problem" that corals require saltwater, light, and a chemical environment suitable for their long-term care. It's simply a set of requirements that we need to meet if we want to keep them.

Some fishes are aggressive. So, is that a "problem?" Well, only if you decide that they must be kept in community tanks with docile guppies or whatever. Some fishes require brackish water. Is that a "problem?" Only if you don't have a way of mixing and measuring salt concentration, right?

Perception. Perspective. Point of view...

If we want to sell rare Apistogramma to a wider market, for example, it's not a "problem." It's a challenge to figure out a way to keep them comfortable and healthy in order to accomplish this, and to communicate this to prospective keepers. If we determine that it is not practical for us to meet the requirements of the fishes in order to keep them/breed them/sell them, well- then it's simply a situation where we cannot meet the requirements in order to accomplish this.

Just because I can't keep African Cichlids with my acid-water-loving tetras doesn't make them a "problem", right?

The word "problem", IMHO, gives us a cushion to fall back on when things that we want to do in the hobby require that certain steps which we are unaware of, uncertain of, unwilling to take, or cannot undertake- present themselves. The challenge is to determine if the requirements are insurmountable for us, or if there is a way we can meet the requirements in a manner that is practical, given our resources.

A great example is the perception that blackwater aquariums have had for so many years in the hobby was that they were a "problem."

I think that the "problem" of blackwater tanks for years was that we as a hobby saw them as "dirty", dangerous", "non-sustainable" etc. We didn't tend to look at the blackwater environment as one that simply required that we meet a specific set of parameters.

We didn't look at keeping blackwater aquariums simply as an endeavor that required an understanding of the processes involved, and developing technique and practices to accomplish our goals. Rather, we as hobbyists saw a foreboding, dark environment which had low pH and all sorts of seemingly contrarian, scary processes.

We made it a "problem."

It took doing things that we hadn't previously done before- researching exactly what it was, what is required to make "blackwater"- and doing some things which were perceived by the majority of hobbyists as unconventional to get there.

But we did.

And now, we approach keeping blackwater aquariums not as a "problem" to overcome, but a system which requires us to do specific things in order to do so successfully.

Look, it wasn't like we were creating warp drive or trying to solve nuclear fusion. But it is an example- one of many in our hobby, which simply required us to look at what exactly we wanted to accomplish, understand what it was just a bit, and to develop ways to work within the requirements and parameters laid out by Nature to do it in our aquariums. It's still a "work in progress", but we're well on the way to making stable, long-term sustainable blackwater aquariums far more common and achievable in the hobby. 

And not quite so scary!

Let's not make every set of requirements of our fishes "problems." Rather, lets find out ways to meet their needs. 

Let's think this through when we want to get real...

I think that we can do all sorts of stuff previously though to be unachievable, if we look at it in a more positive way.

We've got this.

The important thing to remember- something we tend to forget now and again- is the fact that we're trying to replicate- on many levels- a specialized aquatic habitat- both functionally and aesthetically. This involves some trial and error, some experiments, and some time.


In fact, the entire experience of a blackwater, botanical-style aquarium boils down to a process and a pace that helps foster the gradual, yet inexorable "evolution" of the aquarium. And let there be no doubt- a botanical-style aquarium does "evolve" over time, regularly and steadily changing and progressing. As we've mentioned before, it might be the perfect expression of the Japanese concept of "wabi-sabi", popularized by Takashi Amano, which is the acceptance of transience and imperfection.

This is a huge point; something which everyone who works with blackwater/botanical-style aquariums comes to know and usually accept.

We need to have an attitude which doesn't allow us to panic; to make fast, short-term moves in favor of longer-term outcomes. It's a very different philosophy. You need to accept different aesthetics. You need flexibility. You may even have to accept short-term losses for a greater long-term good.

You need to have faith in Nature.

Because you're trying to replicate Nature on so many levels.

It's a dance. An art form. A process, and an evolution. Sometimes seemingly chaotic, other times maddeningly slow. Always alluring. Always deferring to Nature...

Yet, that's what we need to do when we try to "get real", right?

I think that is.

Until next time...

Stay dedicated. Stay engaged. Stay observant. Stay diligent. Stay patient...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


1 Response

Joshua E Morgan
Joshua E Morgan

November 18, 2019

Too true :) My best guess is that the reason blackwater tanks are viewed as being ‘dangerous’ is that before most aquariumists understood the importance of carbonates, many would try to reduce the PH of their hard water with acids, causing the PH and KH to bounce around and stress out their livestock…until they neutralized the carbonates entirely, at which point the PH crashed violently and killed the remaining fish. My 5 gallon blackwater is refusing to dip below a PH of 6 even when I am adding API PH down to the tank at the recommended dose, even though the source water has a TDS of about 2 before the PH down is added and even though I am not adding any carbonates to the tank…these softwater tanks are not nearly as unstable as people say they are so long as you are not throwing large quantities of acid into the tank (which would increase the TDS anyway…equally undesirable for soft water species)

My thought is this; Problems exist to be solved. If a fish really does pose a ‘problem’ and you want to keep them…solve it! :)

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