Just a hint of salt...

Bet you didn't know this:

There almost was no Tannin Aquatics. Well, not right away, anyhow.

Yup, before we launched the "brown obsession", as one of my friends calls it, there was my other project...

You see, as an obsessed reef aquarist and co-owner of one of the top coral propagation/vendor facilities in the U.S.,  it seemed like a transition from marine to specialty freshwater would be a tough one, even though blackwater aquariums were an obsession for over 25 years. Just going "cold turkey" into full-strength freshwater seemed like a tough road.

There was this other lifelong obsession of mine, which seemed to my friends to be a more logical transition for a geeky aquatics entrepreneur...


Yeah, brackish.

I had kept brackish tanks for years...a natural compliment to reef tanks; and, at the time, it seemed a good way to transition from the coral world, at least! The "Tannin thing" would come later, a natural "digression" from salt-sequentially, if you will. Brackish made sense for someone who had his head firmly in the saltwater world for decades. I mean, it wasn't going "all the way" fresh, so it wouldn't have to "wean myself" with as much effort. I developed a brand, product ideas, and all the trappings you'd expect from someone who is totally into something. 

Then I stopped it. Cold.

I wanted to make such a radical departure from reefs, and loved the nuances and aesthetic of blackwater so much that I just couldn't wait. Tannin won out. The "brackish thing" now became my "side project." Called "estuary" (named after the most extensive brackish water habitat globally), this idea would be developed over the longer term, while Tannin was bursting onto the scene. It would eventually become a specialty line of Tannin, and it would have to wait.

I was ruminating a couple of weeks ago with a good fish friend about the idea of brackish water aquariums..and why we see so little in the way of brackish water aquariums. 

It's almost like an aquarium hobby "no man's land." A mysterious middle ground that everyone knows about, but one which aquarists rarely seem to go to...

Unusual. Under-served. Flying under the radar. Rampant with incomplete ideas, myths, false assertions by those who had never even tried it... Hmm, this situation is sounding a bit familiar...

I mean, on one side, we have FW purists, and on the other, marine purists. The two never seem to meet. Unless you count African Rift Lakes as a sort of "in between..." 


Sure, you have people who keep puffers, mollies, etc.- some of which are found naturally in brackish water, but you won’t generally hear this people intimating that they are “brackish water enthusiasts.” They’ll say, “I keep Puffers.” or “I breed wild Mollies.”

I guess the whole classification of “brackish” may seem too "limiting" for our tastes? Like "blackwater aquariums", it’s just a label, but I suppose we tend to think more about the specific animals we keep than the type of aquarium system that we keep them in. At Tannin, it seems like we're constantly pushing “biotope-type aquariums” as a specialty unto themselves, when the reality is that many of our customers breed, say, cichlids, livebearers, or catfishes, which require-(and are furnished) specific conditions (essentially "biotopic" in nature), yet when pressed, these hobbyists will definitely classify themselves as “cichlid breeders” or “catfish enthusiasts”, etc.

Well, until recently, when you now have hobbyists calling themselves "tinters" or "blackwater aquarium enthusiasts." 


And the brackish world? 

Well, some of us are already there...sort of.

For some reason, "brackish" seems to be a lot like "blackwater"- one of those mysterious and under-appreciated "specialty areas" in aquarium-keeping. It certainly is kind of sad to not see more aquariums in the spotlight that focus on this unique and fascinating specialty. I think a lot of cool work could be done in this area by the many talented aquarists out there- fresh and salt.

(And yeah...the Amazon has an estuary area. too...)

I hate seeing good ideas that deserve more attention being neglected.

We just don't see much going on in the brackish "arena" at the moment.

Does it matter?

Probably not.  

Well, to me it does. And, think about it…When was the last time you saw a really cool full-blown brackish water aquarium, community or otherwise, done up with style and the same “cool factor” that we see with say, planted FW aquariums, reef aquariums, or more recently, botanical/blackwater tanks?  Okay, George Farmer did an amazing one in a piece featured in Practical Fishkeeping not too long ago...I know there are a few others around; many may even fall under “unusual” or "concept" aquariums…the kinds that come out in aquascaping contests and elicit a lot of “That’s so cool!” -type responses on the forums and such, and then no one really does much with them after that.

Damn, this sounds so familiar that it's not even funny.

Perhaps, in our minds, we think that fish and plant selections are too limited because of the environmental parameters? Not sure. Seems like there are a ton of cool fishes, besides just the aforementioned Mollies and Puffers, that can inhabit a nicely done brackish water display!  I've played with some fishes, plants, and ideas in the brackish field that blew me away.  And those fishes? More are available when we do the research. Thanks to a lot of dedicated hobbyists and industry types, "rare" or "difficult to obtain" fishes really aren't any more.  You just have to look..and ask.

And the environment for these fishes? Is it tough to maintain? 

A specific gravity of 1.003-1.010 is not really all that difficult to maintain, and most brackish water fishes, often coming from areas affected by tidal influxes, tolerate fluctuations quite well, making them rather forgiving. Refractometers become your friends in the brackish game. And the synthetic salt mixes we have nowadays blow away anything ever available in decades past. And as far as the hardiness of the fishes themselves? I think the species labeled as "delicate" for so long acquired that label because frankly, we weren't providing them with proper conditions. Sure they did "okay", but they weren't "thriving" in many cases. Keeping fishes from special environmental niches requires some attention to details, as we all know.

And there are a LOT of interesting fishes that fall into the brackish water category- For example, the Orange Chromide Cichlid, Etroplus maculatus, the Celebes Rainbow Fish, Marosatharina ladigesi, the "Archerfish", Toxotes sp., and so many, many more. Those are just the cliched' "commonly-known" ones. There are also gobies, killies, Monos, Rainbowfishes, Scats, all kinds of livebearers, etc., etc. 

This discussion is more about considering the concept and philosophy of brackish water, rather than going into detail about what fishes and plants to keep and how to build one, so I’m merely touching on a few ideas here. We will hit details in later features as things move along.

Although in nature, plants are not abundant in brackish water habitats, you can keep plants in brackish. Not the crazy variety that you can in pure freshwater, yet you can choose from species among several popular genera in lower specific gravities (up to 1.003 or so): AnubiasCabombaCeratophyllumElodea, Java Ferns, even Cryptocoryne cilata, and Hygrophila, to name a few. When you get to 1.005 or above, the choices become fewer and farther between.

Yeah, and there's Mangroves. I love Mangroves. Reefers have been playing with them for decades. Aquarists have some good experience with them. What plant could be better for a brackish tank?

At the higher specific gravities (above 1.005), you'd be better advised to go with a hardscape, featuring wood, rocks, shells, etc. Mangroves, of course, can adapt to this specific gravity, but the hardscape might be more appealing to many for ease of maintenance. Hmm, maybe even with some of the less "tint-inducing" botanicals as well...?

And we can utilize many of the skills, practices, and equipment that we've embraced in freshwater, reef or Rift Lake cichlid husbandry to keep brackish systems. Top-off systems to maintain specific gravity, water chemistry tests, amazingly good syntehtic salt mixes, precision heaters and pumps- all of these things are near perfect for use in brackish systems. It's no longer just "a teaspoon of salt per gallon" and "vigorous aeration.."- you know, that kind of stuff.

It's a whole new game.

I just feel like there is so much talent in the aquarium hobby, and equipment, livestock, and information about these habitats has never been easier to acquire, that I'd love to see some more work being done in this arena, other than just providing these conditions for the several random fishes that we occasionally work with…In other words, keeping a brackish tank…just because it's fun.

The timing is so right.

And that's why we're going to be launching "estuary by Tannin Aquatics"  as a "boutique" on our site soon. We're going to apply the same level of obsessive detail to the brackish world as we do to the blackwater/botanical area. You'll find products, ideas, and inspiration for this unique niche all in the same place you get "The Tint."

It's time. 

Bottom line is that the brackish aquarium is one of those unique niche systems that, at least in my opinion, deserves a lot more than just the passing mention in hobby literature, and a lot more attention from intrepid hobbyists itching to try something new. It needs some "fresh" (no pun intended) thinking and outside-the-box ideas. Very similar to the world of blackwater/botanical aquariums that we have started to see more and more of.

Brackish water is a fascinating, engaging environment that, if explored with the attention that it commands, can unlock further secrets of fish husbandry, and a greater appreciation for this precious habitat.

Until next time…

 Stay interested. Stay obsessive. Stay open to new ideas...

And stay wet. (Salty, fresh..or brackish, for that matter!)

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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