"Mysterious crashes", avoiding the "blame game", and accepting responsibility.

I had a reefer acquaintance talk to me a few days back, and he was very upset about a catastrophe in his aquarium. According to him, shortly after he added "a few new corals" that were "very healthy", the tank "crashed!" Every fish in the tank died; the water went cloudy, and the ammonia was "off the charts!"

A "crash."

Wow. Bad.

Yet, the issues that precipitated the "crash" were hardly surprising.

I was quite familiar with his tank and practices. A number of my friends were. It was pointed out to him that he needed to modify his approach and technique to avoid a potential problem on several occasions, when he asked for advice. Each time, he more or less shrugged off the suggestions to modify or alter relatively simple, yet glaringly obvious practices that we felt could lead to negative issues at some point. He was convinced that his large tank and investment in some pretty pricy equipment would "insulate him from any problems" (literally his words).  A very overcrowded tank to begin with, not enough circulation, low and wildly fluctuating alkalinity, and an improperly "tuned" protein skimmer, as well as a radically incompatible animal selection (pretty much anything he wanted...), lack of regular water testing (and management).

Oh, and he was arrogant. A straight-up jerk. (A perfect case study to address the "mysterious tank crash" phenomenon with.)

And thoroughly convinced that it was some "anomalous issue" that caused the crash. He had nothing to do with it.  Various theories he proposed included the usual suspects, along with some rather creative assertions: "...a bad batch of salt mix...", "The LFS sold me some infected corals", "The bacteria in my sandbed were accumulating phosphate", my RO unit wasn't working right", "...the controller didn't alert me..." almost any explanation that didn't involve him making bad decisions. And when myself and a friend gently suggested that he might have made a few mistakes that contributed to the problem, he was less than pleased.

Now, this was an "extreme" case to some extent, with a variety of factors contributing to the disaster. Not every hobbyist who experiences a disaster with his/her aquarium is ignorant, arrogant, and incompetent. Or a jerk.

Sometimes, "Shit happens" for sure. But usually, we have something to do with it. And the causes are usually traceable.

If you've been in the hobby long enough, you'll run into the occasional problem: Disease outbreak, algae problems, maybe some chemical parameter shifts...stuff like that. Or, in rare instances, more serious stuff, like a leaking aquarium, stuck heater, filter malfunction...things that can spell doom for your aquarium. Some are things we've contributed to through errors in judgement or lapses in procedure. Others are beyond our control.

The rarest of bad occurrences have always been what we label as a "crash."


Damn, even the word sounds bad. And the implication, in hobbyist lore, is typically that something has went wrong. Something beyond the ordinary. Something out of our control. Something catastrophic; occasionally even "aquarium career-ending catastrophic." Bad stuff. Beyond our control, or so it's alleged.


And, what the hell IS a "crash" anyways?

Well, in the aquarium world, it seems that it has become a sort of "catchall" for REALLY bad stuff that happens to our tanks, and in recent years, it's NEVER something we had anything to do with.

I'd see this often in the reef aquarium world. Tragedies played out on the forums in "real time."  And I'll be honest with you- it almost always happened to the guy who had the "cool" tank; the one with all of the crazy corals and fishes...and expensive gear, and maybe, just maybe- more often than you'd expect...an owner who pushed things a bit too far. Didn't listen to good advice. Knew better. And there was always this "Why me?" attitude, when, quite honestly, you could see it coming from a mile away.  It was you, because you tried to gamble, tempt fate, take a shortcut- and "the house won" this time.

In most of the cases I've seen involving "crashes"-reef or freshwater, that was the case. Yeah, really. "Crashes" almost always have a human component to them. Well-managed, conservatively-run aquariums don't just "crash" for no reason. A catastrophe that kills every fish in the tank typically has a root cause in some sort of failing on our part- whether it's failure to pick up on a negative "trend" that was happening to the environment, or forgetting to maintain a piece of equipment...or even something as basic as overstocking, bypassing quarantine, or not following an accepted precaution or procedure.


And "crowd sourcing" sympathy for your case against such-and-such a manufacturer or hobby practice, and trying to foment anger from fellow hobbyists against said company's product, or some concept, when it was really your own fault is simply not cool.

You may may not like what I'm insinuating. You make take some offense with me. I'm not trying to sound "greater than thou" or arrogant. I'm trying to give you a dose of reality. And once you get out of the "why me?" or "blame others" sort of mindset, and look critically at your situation, take responsibility for it- and learn from it- you're well on the way to becoming a more successful aquarist. Super simple.

Trust me. In four decades in the hobby, I've killed more stuff than you. And like 95% of the time, it was due to a mistake, error in judgement, or lack of following generally accepted "best practices" of aquarium management ON MY PART.

Yeah, I've never, ever...EVER- had a "crash" for "mysterious or unexplainable reasons." That's not me being arrogant, or me showing you how "cool" I am. It's me admitting that virtually every tragedy that I've experienced in aquarium-keeping has been because of my own errors.

Yep- I've never had a "mysterious crash"-and I don't think that YOU have either. You just haven't. There is virtually always an explanation rooted in human error or arrogance. Not the aquarium additive manufacturer, LFS employee, or  the guy who told you the fish was "healthy."

So, let this go. Once and for all.

Let's stop blaming every single thing but our own failings as the cause of the problem. It's okay to make a mistake. Really. You're human. It's tragic when we lose livestock- especially when it's avoidable. However, it's part of the learning curve, and much more tragic when we don't learn from the disaster.

And sometimes we do push stuff a bit. Those of us who try new ideas, new concepts, and radical departures from the "generally accepted" way of doing stuff always risk disaster. It's not something we like to do. It's a bit scary. And it could end badly...or wildly successful. However, we go in with our eyes wide open, and understand that there is risk involved. It's the price of progress.

Mistakes are going to happen. Ideas will fail. Bad or aggressive practices may come up to bite us.

But we'll continue. We'll learn. We'll grow.

Because we don't need to blame anything or anyone but ourselves.

And that's okay.

Stay adventurous. Stay bold. Stay careful. Stay humble.

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 



Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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