I recall, not too long ago, an aquarium club event that I attended. I had a great fish geek weekend…I was speaking at a club in the Midwestern U.S. I was in "saltwater mode", talking about a reef aquarium topic... One of those, “Oh, so you think the life of a fish geek speaker is glamorous?” type weekends. The kind where you spend 14 hours traveling and 34 hours on the ground. "Fun" if you like airplanes, hotels, and airports (which I do), but not really "glamorous!" Cool stuff, a great group, but the typical in-and-out whirlwind!
I love this stuff!
The event was awesome, but it was over far too quickly! You realize the value of information sharing in the hobby at these events. I’m always reminded of both the thirst for information that exists in the hobby, as well as the culture that surrounds it. The culture of sharing and teaching. Pretty freakin' cool. And it always hits home for me when people tell me how much they enjoyed my blog about “______” a few weeks back…Causes me to realize the responsibility I have when discussing topics here.
Anyways, I shared the speaking bill with another hobbyist, who gave a great talk on the “Fundamentals of the Reef Aquarium.” At first, you’d think that the is the LAST thing you need to talk about to experienced reefers…Nothing could be further from the truth. Both of us were totally blown away by the total hunger for seemingly basic hobby information. After both of our presentations, the amount of questions we fielded on stuff that would be considered “primary” reef-keeping technique was overwhelmingly disproportionate to more advanced topics discussed in the talks. This could, of course, just as easily translate into freshwater.
We talked about this concept for a long time, and tried to get our heads around it all. Why would this be? I mean, we’re in the “Postmodern” era of aquarium keeping, where hobbyists are trying all sorts of advanced techniques and technology, and sharing via the internet. Aquatic hobbyists spend a collective fortune on the latest and greatest equipment: lighting technology, controllers, filters, pumps, etc. We are bombarded with lots of data on husbandry, animal care, setting up systems, etc. Information is everywhere.
Well, maybe the information is everywhere, but I get this sneaking feeling that many hobbyists are not taking advantage of it. Why would reefers who have 200 gallon plus systems, with thousands of dollars in livestock and equipment have detailed questions and even misperceptions about really basic shit like alkalinity, water quality, and stocking? Stuff that they should have acquired as fledgling hobbyists, or during their planning phases in the hobby adventure. How could this be?
If we can't grasp this....
...then we'll never grasp this!
Well, I have a couple of thoughts and theories about why (Well, of course I do, right?)
The Internet has changed everything: “Okay, Fellman, sure- go ahead and blame the ‘net. Slap Twitter again while you’re at it…” No, hear me out on this. I think that the internet and all of the information access it provides has been culture changing. However, some of the change in our hobby may not be for the better. There was a time when a beginner in the hobby went down to the LFS, had a conversation with the staff about starting a tank, and was sent home with some information and perhaps even cracked a book or two…BEFORE he or she even bought a tank.
With the internet, this information is readily available, along with forums where a fledgling hobbyist can discuss the hobby with experienced veterans. However, there are also hundreds of “build threads”, advertisements, and online vendors (just like mine) dangling all sorts of goodies in front of the neophyte. For just a few bucks, you can have all of this cool stuff delivered overnight right to your door! If you do it right, and if you can afford it, you’d be able to go from thinking about starting a tank to a full-fledged, high-octane system with all of the latest expensive gear and livestock by Christmas! Maybe it’s a cultural shift brought about by the era of e-commerce.
We have become accustomed to wanting something and getting it…fast. Why research it? I mean, there are products and equipment that can give you “professional results” with virtually plug and play setup. You can bypass all of that nonsense, like understanding the nitrogen cycle, or the concept of water quality management. We have live bacteria in a bottle, and electronic controllers to just set things up for us. Easy.
Perhaps even too easy? Have we simply decided, in this fast-paced era, to just bypass the “learning curve?” Are we as a culture and business so eager to get new reefers into the game that we are enabling them to bypass the “dues paying” part of the climb to hobby success? Should there be a “dues paying” time, anyways? This is really prevalent, IMHO, in the saltwater side of the hobby. Who has the right to dictate THAT? On the other hand, are we exposing hobbyists to financial ruin, and most important- hapless animals to death because the newbie wants the rare cichlid or deepwater Acro and “should” be able to keep it because of his crazy filter, skimmer, advanced calcium reactor, water pumps, and electronic controller monitoring the whole thing can help?
This dovetails nicely with my next theory:
Why try to understand what the plants and fishes need? The equipment will take care of it, right? We’ve gotten to the point where no one wants to brew a cup of coffee anymore. We have the “K-Cup” to do that. Maybe we’re too busy? Think I’m overreacting? I don’t think so. I’ve been approached as a vendor numerous times to give “remedial reef keeping” lessons to people who have obscene amounts of money invested in reefs that would put mine to shame, equipment-wise. Problem was, they hadn’t a clue about keeping the animals they built their technological shrines for. I know many fellow vendors and LFS people have had the same experiences. Have we as a hobby and industry made the process of actually understanding the life forms that we keep secondary to simply acquiring them? Makes me shudder a bit.
And I'm not trying to take the "You guys have it so easy- I had to walk to school through 6 feet of snow..." mentality. It's not about, "Newbies have to pay their dues! They don't have the RIGHT to success.." No- the point is- we owe it to our animals- and ourselves, to understand this stuff.
This is where the LFS will shine above all. Talking-to people who live, breathe, and sleep aquarium-keeping will help. Vendors online- same thing. Forums have a responsibility for perpetuating a responsible, educational culture. Too much is at stake. When the average person is in the hobby for only 18 months before throwing his/her arms up in frustration, something is wrong. Especially when we are selling millions of dollars of expensive equipment and livestock to the very people who are bailing out in droves. This isn’t just a fight to create more understanding and awareness..It’s literally a fight for survival of the hobby and art of aquarium keeping. Yup.
This is a “cultural shift”: Pure and simple…In a world where people are supposedly not able to retain more than 140 characters of information, and where there is a apparently an “algorithm” for pretty much everything, we simply have lost the ability to absorb information on things that are not considered “relevant” to our immediate goal. If the immediate goal is to have a great looking tank, apparently we don’t want to take the time to learn the groundwork that it takes to get there and to sustain a system on a long-term basis. It’s far more interesting- and apparently, immediately gratifying- to learn about what gear can get us where we want, and what fishes, corals, and plants are available. We perpetuate this by well- dumbing everything down. We feature the superficial aspects of the hobby- how cool the tanks look, etc., while failing to get people to grasp the basics. You even see this in many of the “build threads” I alluded to previously. In many of these threads, you’ll see a detailed run down of the equipment, shots of the assembly, the “solutions” to the problems encountered along the way (usually more expensive equipment purchases). You’ll see pics of the finished tanks…
All very interesting and helpful, but the “weirdness” starts when, in the middle of the threads, you’ll see the “builder” asking about why he’s experiencing a massive algae outbreak, or why all of the coral frags he just added are dying in this brand new, state-of-the-art tank. Questions and ensuing discussions that make you wonder why this ill-informed, yet apparently well-healed individual went off on a 5-figure “joyride”, building a dream tank with an apparent complete ignorance of many of the hobby fundamentals. I’m often dumbfounded at the incredible lack of hobby basics many of these people show. Just because you’re a great DIY guy, and have disposable income to buy everything you see advertised on line for your 400 gallon reef tank, it doesn’t make you a knowledgeable or experienced hobbyist. It just doesn’t.
Okay, I’m sounding very cynical. And perhaps I am. But the evidence is out there in abundance…and it’s kind of discouraging at times.
Look, I’m not trying to be the self-appointed guardian of the hobby. I’m not "calling us out." I’m asking for us to look at this stuff realistically, however. No one has a right to tell anyone that what they are doing is not the right way, but we do have to instill upon the newbie the importance of understanding the basics.
Like many other vendors, I offer products to people and don’t educate them on every single aspect of aquatic husbandry. It’s hard to do that. I do write lots of blogs and articles, and lecture all over the world, so I know I’m doing something to reach some people…but not enough. I think that I need to do better. I probably need to write more about basic sort of stuff than I do about whatever the heck is on my mind? Don't know. I do know that we all need to tell hobbyists like it is, without sugar coating everything. . There are dozens of posts and “build threads” on forums and Facebook groups that DO provide great information to hobbyists, along with plenty of articles by experienced aquarists discussing any number of arcane and fascinating aquarium-related topics. Yet, for all of this, we see what appears to be a very "superficial"understanding of the hobby by so many hobbyists. I feel sorry for these people, as well as the animals that are exposed to potentially fatal situations out of pure ignorance.
These hobbyists also miss the joy that comes with understanding and applying something that they have learned.
We all make mistakes. Part of the hobby and the learning curve. Yet, when I see so many indications that hobbyists are just not grasping the basic information that they need to be successful, I feel a sense of disappointment. I feel like we- all of us who are experienced in this great hobby and industry- are letting down a whole generation of hobbyists. Yikes, I’m giving us a bit of a butt-kicking. Yeah. I think we need to sit down with prospective hobbyist and who them that learning about the basics is actually FUN. It’s actually really cool stuff that will make their hobby experience way more fulfilling and interesting.
How does this get solved?
Well, it starts with mentoring. It starts with getting people excited not only at the end result- owning a “slice of the bottom”- it starts with getting people excited about the journey to get there, and learning about how we can make the animals under our care thrive. It’s not just about the latest gadgets- it’s about the latest information on fundamental care of animals.
It starts by us once and for all embracing the local fish store and the people who work there. Sure, there are the stories of ignorant personnel and such- but these are truly the exceptions rather than the rule- yet they have somehow seeped into our collective consciousness and contaminated forever our view of the local fish store. Most give invaluable, free hands-on advice. Most attempt to instill a passion that goes beyond just shilling products, as is unfairly leveled upon them. Enough is enough. Just like acknowledging that not all online coral vendors are Photoshop-abusing, money-grabbing deceptive-business-practicing sharks, or every E-Bay advertiser is not a no-service, deceptive sleazebag working out of his garage...we cannot keep pinpointing the LFS as the primary cause of hobby dissatisfaction and misinformation. The local store, as I’ve written about previously- is the first link to the wonders of the hobby, a cornerstone of hobby “culture”, and the owners and employees deserve our unwavering support. Like all of us- they deserve the occasional kick in the rear when they screw up. But that’s about it.
It starts by continuing to emphasize basic care...Example: How many hobbyists do you know who really embrace a quarantine protocol for any fish added to their tanks? How many hobbyists do you know that would bend over backwards to buy a product that promises the benefits of quarantine without actually doing it? A lot, I'll bet...I mean, we'd all be tempted...but how many would really just jump on that because of the seemingly easier course? Human nature? I guess.
As aquarists, we need to support new hobbyists with not just the generosity that we’re famous for, but the incredible passion that we curate. We need to give them the good and the bad information. We need to impress upon them that running without learning how to walk first is a painful way to learn. Fishes, plants and corals are not just “merchandise”, and the learning curve should not include exposing them to potentially fatal situations that could have been avoided had the neophyte hobbyist been properly instructed about their requirements from the get go. We need to let beginners know that part of the joy of the hobby is learning about this stuff first hand..by doing it.
In an era of instant gratification, it just seems that the aquarium hobby is a polar opposite. The vast majority of us get it, but there is a discouragingly large portion of the aquarium keeping hobby that hasn't seemed to have grasped the concept just yet.
Let's do our best to help change that. Support your LFS. Support your fellow hobbyists. Remember, there are no real "hacks"- no shortcuts- in this game. NO need. Enjoy the journey.
Stay excited. Stay motivated. Stay helpful. Stay generous.
And, as always...