Change is in the air in the aquarium hobby. It's palpable...We see so many fascinating developments in the botanical-style aquarium world alone. It's a very exciting time!
Over the past four-plus years that we've been in operation at Tannin Aquatics, I've certainly noticed a few "trends", and most of them are pretty cool!
And some of them are kind of "cyclical" in nature. We've seen them before, sort of.
One of the most interesting things I've seen is the philosophical "evolution" of many of our customers and members of our community. Perhaps the most unique aspect of what we do with the botanical-style, blackwater aquarium is to allow Nature to do a lot of the heavy lifting.
This has been a really big thing. A mental shift- and a quantum leap, actually!
Despite a lot of discussion and marketing and such over the past decade or so, I think we as a hobby have somehow "edited", in our minds, what a really "natural" aquarium is. It's become more of a semantic thing in some places, IMHO.
I think that, in our effort to foster some natural processes, such as plant growth or whatever, we've pushed things in a direction that actually may have fought Nature a bit. And with that, created a mindset and culture based on "conformity" instead of bold individuality.
This effort might have pushed a lot of hobbyists out of their personal "comfort zones", which is cool- but I also think it created a sense of "expectations" and a certain set of "rules" that hobbyists felt they had to conform to in order to be "accepted" into the "culture" that developed around this stuff.
It not only permeated the "processes" they needed to follow, it also dictated stuff like the specific products they had to use, the way stuff is presented, etc.
I've seen this sort of stuff before in the hobby.
I almost think that the aquarium world has a sort of "cyclical nature", where we jump on the latest technology or trends to help enhance what Nature has been doing all along. Now, there's nothing wrong at all with the tech and advancements...It can help us accomplish many things. However, it's no substitute for understanding the underlying processes involved.
And, I firmly believe that understanding and appreciating the fundamentals of the hobby- and the natural world- can yield the same results- or better- than tons of expensive gear and "stuff" when simply "thrown" at the situation without thought as to why..
It requires us to shift our minds to places that might be less comfortable for us...
It just is a lot less sexy than "gearing up" or blindly following someone else's "rules"- it requires us to open our minds up...It requires patience, process and personal observation.
That mental shift is something.
I think the pendulum is swinging back a bit. Not "digressing", mind you. Just switching back to a more accepting approach; taking our hands off just a bit. Once again realizing that Nature knows best. Understanding that we can use technology and technique to work with Nature.
We're realizing that Nature has been doing this stuff for billions of years longer than we have, and She has some damn good ideas on how to run things!
Rather than fighting processes like decomposition, formation of detritus, and biological diversity, we seem to be spending much more energy setting the stage for natural processes to occur.
And our fishes and other aquatic animals are really benefiting from this. Fish health, appearance, overall vivaciousness, and spawning activity are being positively impacted by the concept of working with Nature in this manner.
Once again, just as aquarists did since the dawn of the modern age of fish keeping, we've been thinking of an aquarium as a place to grow stuff- and we're looking at the whole aquarium as a "microcosm" of Nature.
A living, breathing, growing entity.
I saw a sort of "compressed" version of this century-long evolution of freshwater aquaristics during the rise of the reef aquarium hobby, which really started to take off in the mid 1980's. My mind has been on this "side of the fence" quite a bit lately, as I'm going to be speaking at a reef club in a few weeks. It got me reflecting about this stuff...
For the longest time, in the reef hobby, we were happy to just keep a box full of fishes and maybe a few tough invertebrates alive. Then, we evolved up to trying to house them long term, and propagate them.
Experiments with new technology and technique resulted in the birth of the modern reef system, with robust filtration, lighting, and studious analysis of water chemistry. The emphasis was on providing a great environment for the corals and inverts, so that they can thrive and reproduce.
And the learning never stops. The techniques and philosophies continue to evolve...
Within the past 10 years in the reef hobby alone, we've went from a doctrine of "You should have undectable nitrates and phosphates in your reef aquarium because natural reefs are virtual nutrient deserts!" to "You need to have a balance between too much and too little."
We've come to understand that reef aquariums- like any type of aquarium- are truly biological "microcosms", which encompass a vast array of life forms, including not just fishes, corals, and invertebrates, but macro algae, benthic animals (like worms, copepods, and amphipods), planktonic life, and more.
Reefers came to understand- as freshwater pioneers did generations before- that just because a reef has "undetectable" levels of phosphates and nitrates in the waters surrounding it, our aquariums don't have to run that way. The "optimum" environment for our animals might not be exactly what we think it may be on the surface.
The reality in the reef keeping wold is that corals need nutrients and food, and an aquarium is not a natural reef; an open system with uncounted millions of gallons of water passing through it hourly.
We discovered this reality in the coral propagation business, where the long-held aquarium mindset that you need a "nutrient poor" system in order for corals to thrive was not really the whole story. Particularly when we were trying to mass-culture corals on a commercial level.
They needed to eat. Polishing out everything from the water with lots of gear and such was actually detrimental. We allowed some detritus to accumulate in our systems; didn't fear feeding our corals...and they grew.
Reliance on some aspects of Nature is a good thing.
Yet in recent years, with the explosion of gadgets and internet-enabled "hacks", reefkeeping as a hobby has sort of gone a bit the other way- heading into that "technology can do everything" phase that the freshwater world did decades ago, in my opinion. Somehow "saving time" has surpassed applying patience as the underlying "mantra" of that hobby sector.
Yet, I think it's finally starting to break just a bit again. Recently, Iv'e seen soem well-known reef keepers having some rather spectacular failures, and I can't help but wonder if at least part of the underlying causes were the hobbyist getting a bit too far away from Nature, and a bit too "cozy" with tech instead!
They'll never admit it. However, I think they know better...
Needlessly (IMHO) complicating things in order to foster the same results that can be achieved by embracing natural processes- with a bit less "certainty", though- seems a bit odd to me. ... Positive, even predictable results generally take longer than if you apply all the gadgets, additives, and tech to the process- but Nature will find the way to get where she wants to go- with or without all the gadgets we employ.
We've sort of figured this out in our sector of the hobby.
It just takes patience. And good equipment. In balance.
And patience is often more economical than gear... And the results far more interesting, IMHO!
You can have extraordinary success working with Nature AND technology together.
It's a balance of sorts.
And, gaining further understanding of dynamic natural aquatic habitats, such as the igapo flooded forest floors of South America, serves to enhance the "state of the art" of our segment of the hobby by looking good and hard at Nature and how She works, not just at the next gadget, product, or "movement" (not that "movements in the hobby are a bad thing...lol) that promises "No water changes!" or whatever...
Much like the freshwater world has done, I believe that the reef-keeping world will end up "pulling back" a bit from an almost complete "reliance" on gadgets and tech to create advancements in the state-of-the-art, and put more emphasis on learning how natural systems work once again, and how they can be replicated in aquariums through a balance of tech and technique.
We can and should use technology to embrace natural processes...Not to "fight" them, circumvent them, and "supersede" them. The experimentation required and the ideas we play with are very bit as interesting as the "toys" we can use!
We've begun to understand that it's not all about creating the most scrupulously clean environment possible for the animals under our care- it's about maintaining the best possible dynamic for their overall health, growth, longevity, and hopefully- reproduction.
Creating and fostering processes and conditions that create a biological balance within our little (or not so little) glass and acrylic boxes we call "aquariums."
Today's aquarist can appreciate the "elegance" of the complete aquatic ecosystem, from the most beautiful fish to the lowest bacterial life form, and everything in between. When we strive to understand, embrace, and replicate natural systems in our aquaria in form AND function, we are truly embarking on a more enlightened way of aquarium keeping.
And guess what?
You, with your tank full of leaves, wood, water, and life- are doing just that.
Every single day.
Stay brave. Stay studious. Stay intrigued. Stay diligent. Stay patient. Stay enlightened...
And Stay Wet.