Plying the niches...

One of the coolest things about running Tannin Aquatics is that we are what is known in the business world as a "niche" business. That is, we serve a specialized area of the aquarium hobby- people who are interested in creating more natural-looking- and functioning- aquatic displays.

As such, we not only offer products catering to a specific area of interest in the aquarium hobby- we provide information and inspiration to help cultivate new ideas and advancements that keep things fresh and progressive. And with this obsession about serving a specialized area of interest, we have a keen understanding of what our community is interested in.

I am quite proud of the fact that we did our small part to help bring blackwater, botanical-style aquariums out of the metaphorical "shadows" and helped curate and disseminate new and hopefully more nuanced information and "best practices" stuff about working with these specialized systems- helping, along the way to dispel some long-held misconceptions and misinformation which likely kept more hobbyists from playing with them.

It's like that with a lot of speciality areas within the hobby. You could literally pick one- or a dozen- little aquarium hobby niches and find a whole lot of great people doing cool stuff and sharing their experiences- and an equal quantity of misinformation, second-hand "tips", and outright bullshit!

The other day, I was having an email exchange with a member of our community who was lamenting that the brackish water area of the hobby is still sort of in that "emerging" phase- essentially a "victim" of decades of scant hobby information, focus on the most superficial aspects, and second-hand reports. It was- and is- common to see discussion about brackish aquariums on forums prefaced with stuff like, "I've heard______."

That phrase typically turns me off. 

In fact, it often makes me want to vomit.

It's part of the modern narrative of the "keyboard benefactor" in the hobby- often a (well-intended) sharing of information by a hobbyist who has little or no personal experience or direct information about the subject being discussed...And what it leads to is further dissemination of often shaky, many times incomplete, and often simply wrong information. In short, these kinds of well-intended attempts at helping often have the exact opposite effect. They often contain information which discourages interested hobbyists from moving forward into the niche they're into.

And that's a tragedy, IMHO.

One of the questions which I am often asked by the uninitiated to our niche is, "Why do you add this stuff to your aquariums?" A truly foundational question, of course- yet one which literally makes us think through the entire process.

Obviously, we could go into the answer in great detail, but I think that we've more or less covered the "why?"part of the equation since day one in this column, so I won't go on and on about that! Suffice it to say, we play with botanicals in our aquariums because they help us to replicate- in some manner, the processes and conditions which occur in natural aquatic systems. 

It's as simple- and complex- as that.

It's all about replicating the look and function of Nature, and most important- helping to understand why.

And the most important thing is not to get too far out in front of this stuff and make wild assumptions. Although we can replicate some aspects of Nature, we don't have the technical means, at least at a hobby level, to verify all of the impacts of utilizing botanical materials in our aquariums. And we simply don't have a complete understanding of every function of a natural aquatic ecosystem and all of their functions and interactions..

And we simply don't know everything about botanicals and their use in our aquariums. 

And, that's okay.

To that end, you'll notice that, in this column and elsewhere, you won't see us making wild, broad assertions about what botanicals can and cannot do in aquariums.

Rather, we can report upon the impacts that we can see and quantify in our own aquariums, and research the potential impacts that these materials have. We can also study the botanical materials which accumulate in natural aquatic habitats, and attempt to understand their influences upon them. We can ask questions, entertain hypothesis, and experiment.

However, we don't make assertions about them, and we discourage our community not to, either. We can't- we shouldn't. 

I hate exaggerations, the perpetuation of myths, and the attribution of all kinds of capabilities to techniques, products, etc. in the hobby which are only marginally based in fact. Especially when these ideas are pushed out by people who may not have all of the facts, the personal experience, and/or the background to back them up. 

These things-no matter how well intentioned- become very detrimental to the hobby.

Now look, I realize that many times, these things are offered up with very good intentions; not with some "nefarious purpose" in mind. I mean, sure, sometimes you'll see someone who has a vested interest in selling something proffer these kinds of things, which flat-out sucks. I think it's far more beneficial in the long run, to simply acknowledge that they don't have 100% certainty about the benefits of their product, but that there are interesting results and potential benefits, and to encourage responsible experimentation.

That's what we do, and I think that it's just fine- if you communicate this effectively and openly.

In our niche, it's led to a tremendous amount of participation and good information being created for the hobby. We as a brand, and us as a community share our success, challenges, and outright failures openly. We all learn together. We don't simply "parrot each other"-regurgitating secondhand information- and that's great!

Unfortunately, in the aquarium hobby, it's not uncommon to see straight-up "regurgitations" by otherwise well-intended hobbyists, making strong assertions or statements about this stuff- good or bad- who simply didn't bother to do their "due diligence" and research the facts for themselves before pushing it out on the web with personal commentary.

Often, these people have no firsthand knowledge or experience with the stuff they are pushing out! You know, the aquarium equivalent of "re-tweeting" something just because.

Well, that sucks, too. Right?

It sucks because it doesn't really add to the body of knowledge we are trying so hard to accumulate. It sucks because it can perpetuate second-hand knowledge that may or may not be accurate.

It hurt our niche for years...In fact, it simply discouraged it from really evolving for many decades. No one really jumped in with gusto and the desire to progress, evolve, and expand upon the limited information that was out. As a result, the limited, often shaky- information out there already flourished and became the "standard bearer" of the niche.

That kind of stuff is actually kind of tragic in a lot of ways.

Simply perpetuating this stuff can really inhibit those who want to push forward carefully from even doing so-or just being a fraud to share their efforts. People are often afraid of  getting their ideas and experiences out there! Being "first" to do something in the aquarium hobby can be a real scary thing sometimes. Lots of people are "skeptics" or "armchair critics", who simply live to trash others who are trying something different. I see it a lot. And I think it's okay to be the first to do something previously seen as "crazy" or "risky" or "unorthodox" in the hobby.

Someone who has to be the first to accomplish something great.

Someone who can overlook the negativity and "smack talk", to fly in the face of convention while taking that road less traveled. This is how we progress. This is how we will continue to progress in the hobby. And more important, this is how we inspire a new generation of hobbyists to follow our lead, for the benefit of both the hobby and the animals that we enjoy.

We can't dispense advise to fellow hobbyists with a dogmatic attitude that discourages progress and responsible experimentation. It will simply stagnate the progress of the hobby we all love.

And of course- my "call to arms" to ply new niches in the hobby comes with a request that you temper this with common sense.

I’m not advocating the abandonment of common sense and healthy skepticism. Everyone should not make a mad dash to the LFS to assemble schools of Black Diamond Stingrays. What I AM pushing is that we (and by “we” I mean every one of us in the hobby) should encourage fellow hobbyists who want to experiment and question conventional wisdom to follow their dreams.

If someone has an idea- a theory, and some good basic hobby experience, there is certainly nothing wrong with that. Yes, there is the sad fact that some animals might be lost in the process. It sucks. It’s hard to reconcile that…and harder to stand by it when animals are dying.

However, that may be the cost of progress.

The cost of not progressing might be far higher:

The loss of countless species in the wild whose habitats are being destroyed, while those of us with some skills, dreams and respect for the animals sit by idly -watching them perish, failing to even attempt captive husbandry and propagation for fear of criticism and failure from the masses. There has been very real talk over the years about making the importation, and possibly the distribution- of live corals and some fishes illegal in many nations. It's not that unrealistic a possibility. Who knows what opportunities might be missed if we fail to persue our goals?


Let's keep working together to push the state of the hobby farther than ever, backed up with facts and personal experiences! Of course, you should share your theories and hypothesis- but you should identify them as such. And guess what? When we aren't sure about something, there is absolutely no shame in saying, "We're just not sure..."

Everybody wins that way. Especially the animals we love so much, and the habitats we're fascinated by.


And there is something really interesting about our hobby "work"-especially in our little niche.


There's been a fair amount of research and speculation by both scientists and hobbyists about the processes which occur when terrestrial materials like leaves and botanical items enter aquatic environments, and most of it is based upon field observations by scientists and ecologists.

As hobbyists, we have a unique opportunity to observe firsthand the impact and affects of this material in our own aquariums! I love this aspect of our "practice", as it creates really interesting possibilities to embrace and create more naturally-functioning systems, while possibly even "validating" the field work done by scientists! 

It goes without saying that there are implications for both the biology and chemistry of the aquatic habitats when leaves and other botanical materials enter them.

THAT is the real value of experimenting- pushing outwards...plying the niches and backwaters of the aquarium hobby.

Cast off..

Stay brave. Stay curious. Stay unabashed. Stay confident. Stay open-minded...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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