Progressing when the waters get rough..."Regurgitation" revisited.

We're pulling back a bit today from our usual topic-specifc blog posts, to touch on something that, although we've talked about before, deserves to be repeated again...

I was at an industry event a while back and had the opportunity to spend some time talking with some pretty experienced aquatics industry people, and we were having some laughs about how the aquarium hobby has evolved, and how our practices seem to evolve with it. "Conventional aquarium wisdom" seems to evolve over time, as technique, science, and experience change. And it should! Remember how what may have been great advice 20 years ago is sort of looked at with a bit of skepticism - or even disdain today? I mean, how many hobbyists use under gravel filters as their "go-to" for filtration? Or, "You need 'X' number of pounds per gallon of rock to run a healthy reef aquarium...?" 

Stuff like that.

Things change, and we share our hard-earned wisdom with our "tribe." That's awesome.

If you’ve been “around the block” a few times in this hobby, you’ll hear fellow hobbyists dispensing words of aquatic wisdom to anyone who needs it. You know, the usual stuff, like “you need to quarantine new animal purchases”, “Use common sense when stocking tanks”, Perform regular water changes”, etc. This stuff forms the “religion" of our hobby: Core beliefs -or unshakable truths- which we pass on to all those who join our ranks. Fundamental, knowledge which we all feel that you need to have at least a working knowledge of to attain success in the hobby. It’s beautiful that most hobbyists are so willing to help out their fellow fish geeks by sharing this acquired wisdom- a true testimony to the quality of people in the aquatic world.

Sadly, you'll also see a large number of people out on the hobbyist message boards, websites, hobby conferences, and blogs, passing on “wisdom” that might be of dubious accuracy and origin- or, at the very least, information that may be generalized and passed on without experience in the given area. Classic examples are things like “You can’t keep that fish alive”, or “If you use that product, you’ll have this major algae problem in your tank”, etc. Often, the advice is dispensed with such authority and confidence that a typical hobbyist will not even question it. Some of it is really negative.

The scary part is that some of this “advice” is dispensed by a casual hobbyist with limited-or even no- experience in the given area. Advice based on third-party experiences (“Don’t keep that cichlid. This guy up in New York had one of those and said that it nuked his tank with ich." ), sweeping generalizations (“Can't run aquariums at a low pH-it will crash your tank”),  dogmatic "rules" (You need to balance that rock formation with 3 smaller groupings or it's not authentic _____ style."), anecdotal evidence ("Garlic 'cures' ich in saltwater fish"), and outright hearsay, ("You can’t keep plants alive long term with LED’s”) are just a few we've heard over the years, and they can really do harm to the hobby, in my opinion, discouraging progression and the desire to try new things.

Yet, you see it all the time…I call this hobby practice the process of “regurgitation”, meaning the dispensing of advice-often negative- in an authoritative, even humiliating  manner, without the personal experience or depth of knowledge to back it up. I think it's product of our modern, forum-and social media-enabled world. Although the intention might be good, the result is often that an interested person is chastised to the point where they are discouraged from testing their well-thought–out theory or new idea on how to do something. And that is a real tragedy, IMHO. Getting flamed on forums  and basically pummeled into submission by “the establishment” is not good for the hobby, or our souls.

I've experienced this before in the early days of Tannin Aquatics. A number of people told me that the idea of utilizing all of this botanical material to replicate habitats like igapos and such in closed systems would lead to pollution, wildly fluctuating parameters, and fish death. Having created numerous systems based on the concept over the years, I pressed on- stubbornly. And, thanks to all of you- brave hobbyists who also shared our vision- we've seen a worldwide renaissance in the idea of utilizing botanical materials to create functional aquascapes in our aquariums. It would have been so easy to just fade away if I listened to the negativity.

But this is not about me and how cool I am, FYI. That was just a personal example of this phenomenon!

I've written about this negativity stuff before it before a few years back, and still do in in my lectures, and it's an issue that doesn't always seem to go away. It's like there are some people who simply feel compelled to sabotage the well-intentioned, yet progressive efforts of others. It's like they're afraid to see others succeed or change what's comfortable. I imagine this is what people felt when they first introduced TV and people didn't want to give up their radios, or whatever.

I can't help wonder if it's fear. Really. Fear of change. Fear of not being "the expert" on something. I'm not sure. But it's a thing we have seen many times in the hobby. It's usually just a few loud people, but they can do surprisingly large amounts of damage thanks to the utility of the internet.

My plea? Don't abandon your good ideas if you're hesitant about the "advice" you're receiving from others. 

Sure, it’s good advice to discourage the guy with a toddler to refrain from creating a 240 gallon 12” high touch tank full of Piranha in his living room. or the outright beginner from keeping a school of rare, hard-to-acclimate Rainbowfishes just because "they're hot!" That’s a no-brainer.  That's good stewardship of our hobby. No one wants to see a fellow hobbyist get hurt, fail, or kill helpless animals. What I’m referring to here is the outright dismissal of logical, creative hobby thinking. I mean, how do we progress without a few persons making the decision to take the risk and try something seen by the general hobby establishment as “risky” or “impossible”? Just because “that’s the way everyone does it”, or “it’s always been done that way” does not mean that it’s right.

Probably the best example of this from recent aquarium hobby industry is the idea of keeping live corals. Think about it. It really wasn’t all that long ago that the concept of keeping reef-building stony corals was considered a pipe dream. Now, almost every weekend somewhere in the world you can find a local frag swap, with hobbyists of all experience levels trading, selling and sharing home-propagated corals once though to be near impossible to keep by many "experts." Or you can find really cool vendors that can offer a huge variety of corals to choose from.

Times change.

Remember when the idea of rearing a clutch of wild Angelfish fry was considered a very shaky undertaking at best? Not anymore. Seems like you can find a dedicated “basement breeder” doing great work almost everywhere you look. Not that the rearing of baby fishes is "no big deal"- it still excites us all-but the frequency with which it is done, and the level at which we innovate in this arena is amazing. Thanks to advances in equipment, food, husbandry techniques, and good old hobbyist tenacity and ingenuity, what was formerly thought impossible is almost routine.

And my point?

My point is that there is always 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.

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?

Think about that the next time you see or hear a fellow hobbyist outright trashing somone's idea to do things a bit differently. Please continue to express concern if something seems irresponsible or dangerous, but let’s also make a concentrated effort to encourage those with a logical plan to persue it. And most of all, let’s keep sharing on places like "The Tint."

Don't be mean. Please.

What ideas have you tried that seemed crazy, only turned out in the end to be terrific? Please share some examples to help inspire us all!

I'll leave you with a favorite, cliche'd, yet entirely appropriate quote from late Apple Co-Founder Steve Jobs, which sums it all up nicely, IMO:

“Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma - which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of other's opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

Stay bold. Stay steadfast. Stay true. Stay...nice. And if you're just trying to be mean...Stay quiet.

But always...

Stay Wet.

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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