Offense/defense and the art of proactive aquarium keeping...

Today, I wanted to talk about practices which create great long-term outcomes for our aquariums. Proactive stuff.

It involves looking at our aquariums from multiple perspectives.

You've heard the time-worn sports cliches and how they apply to other areas of life...and they apply to aquarium-keeping for sure:

"The best offense is a good defense."

"Offense scores points. Defense wins games."

Well, they do. Which one is most applicable?

Both. Applied in the proper measure. At least, that's my take on it.

We need to play "defense" in our fish-keeping as much as we play offense.

"Defense", in our world, is the day-to-day things that we need to do to keep our tanks running well: Feeding fishes, observing, adjusting parameters to make sure that the system is running optimally, or reacting to a disease or other health issue of the fishes and plants, or repairing equipment, etc. "Defense", in this context, is what almost every aquarist on the planet practices on a daily basis.

Would we be better served buy investing more energy in offense?

You know, "attacking" problems proactively from the outset?

Before they become problems? I think so. It's one thing I can say was a positive gain from reef keeping: Setting up a system from the start to address the potential "what-ifs?" Reefers are really good at this sort of stuff (just look at the gadgetry and plumbing in some of those forum "tank-build threads!"), and it translates well to freshwater.

Although I've typically been a "Don't f - - - with- the- tank- once- it's- up- and- running"- kind of aquarist for many years, my philosophy has evolved a bit since I began working heavily with botanical-influenced systems. The offense-defense dynamic is more important that ever.

An example of "offense", in this context, would be setting up a new system to create an optimal environment to breed your fish. Things that are big-picture, growth activities are also "offensive." You know, selecting the proper sized aquarium, appropriate filter, heater, and other components falls into this category. In a botanical-style aquarium, much like any other, it's important to create the optimum situation to assure that the system can function properly as it evolves over time.

A mix of "defense", with a healthy dose of "offense." 

"Offense" also includes things like stocking the tank with a mix of appropriate fishes, which are compatible and capable of serving in the environment which you've created.

Making logical decisions is an essential part of the development of any aquarium, although in a blackwater/botanical-style aquarium, you need to take into account the other variables in the equation: Lower pH, the bioload of decomposing botanical materials, and the long-term maintenance of stable pH and organic levels.

We've talked repeatedly about not obsessing over target numbers, yet the importance of maintaining a tight range for most parameters cannot be understated.

What other "offensive" things can you do to assure long-term success in a blackwater, botanical-style aquarium?

We've mentioned many of them repeatedly here over the past couple of years; most are sort of automatic" to many of us now. Yet, in my opinion, there is one practice that stands out above all others in the context of our approach:

The continuous replacement and supplementation of leaves and botanicals as they start to break down. This not only creates a continuously evolving aesthetic, it helps maintain the biological diversity and environmental parameters are held in the cherished "tight range".

I know a few "tinters" who make significant replacements of leaf and botanical items and replace them with fresh materials simultaneously, and this is conducted on a regular basis. This is similar to the Japanese aquascaping practice of "sozo haishoku" espoused by Takashi Amano, which is the processs of removing of as much old substrate material as possible along with the plants it contains in an aquarium, and replacing them with new materials. It preserves the overall "composition" of the layout, but the "softscape" (botanicals and leaves, in our case) could change dramatically.

This process is very interesting to us as botanical-style aquarium fans, because, as we talked about before, it does sort of mimic what happens in many streams and rivers on a seasonal basis: Older materials are swept downstream as the watercourses swell, and are replaced by new ones that arrive to replace them. And of course, in the aquarium, performing a "sozo haishoku"-type replacement of materials can significantly change the aesthetic of the aquascape because the botanicals are replaced with different ones after the previous ones are removed.

Now, personally- I'm a fan of less "radical" moves, and in the interest of a good "offense", I favor regular additions to the botanical "set" in my aquariums. I tend not to remove any decomposing botanical material, unless it becomes an aesthetic detraction because it's blowing all over the place or something like that.

Having studied many images of Amazonian igarapes, it is very obvious that, although some materials are swept away, many remain in place until they fully decompose, adding to the richness and complexity of the habitat, and that we can mimic this process in our aquariums to some advantage.


And defense.

Working together for long term success. It's a beautiful dynamic. A beautiful game.

Massage it. Evolve it. Tweak it. Perfect it, if you can.

Stay on top of stuff. Stay observant. Stay vigilant. Stay cautious. Stay bold. Stay balanced.

And Stay Wet.

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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