Radical approaches, risk, criticisms, and the challenges we take on...

I dare you.

I dare you to try something a bit different in your aquarium work. To take a bit of a risk. To play a hunch. To employ or create a technique that others might consider reckless, radical, or utterly unconventional, at the least. To embrace aesthetics which place function at the forefront.


To be a pain in the ass? To "poke the beehive" of mainstream aquarium culture? 

Of course not.

However, likely you will. It's just what happens when you try something different. People get defensive, indignant. Even self-righteous. It's easier to criticize the ideas of others than to come up with your own. 

Its always been that way in the hobby.

Granted, sometimes you try an idea that IS truly reckless. Maybe it's doomed to fail, but you're determined to try anyway. Some will commend you for your courage and fortudide. Others will call you an idiot.

That's the "price of admission" -and the invigorating (depending upon how you look at it) part of forging ahead on your own path.

It's lonely. It opens you up to criticism. Some of it really good. Some of it ill-informed and unwarranted. 

Yet, all of it is open for others to judge.

And that's not easy for a lot of people to stomach. However, it's how we let the criticisms and comments impact our work that counts.

Perhaps some personal views might help illustrate the idea a bit more.

At Tannin, we've had rather unconventional hobby viewpoints since our founding in 2015. As an aquarist, I've had these viewpoints on the hobby for decades. A desire to accept the history of our hobby, to understand how "best practices" and techniques came into being, while being tempered by a strong desire to question and look at things a bit differently. To see if maybe there's a different- or better-way to accomplish stuff.

I never liked shortcuts...I never spent time looking for ways to avoid water exchanges or stuff like that. Rather, my time has been occupied by looking at how Nature works, and seeing if there is a way to replicate some of Her processes in the aquarium, despite the aesthetics of the processes involved, or even the results.

As a result, I've learned to look at Nature as She is, and have long ago given up much of my "aquarium-trained" sensibilities to "edit" or polish out stuff I see in my aquariums, simply because it doesn't fit the prevailing aesthetic sensibilities of the aquarium hobby. Now, it doesn't mean that I don't care how things look...of course not! Rather, it means that I've accepted a different aesthetic- one that, for better or worse in some people's minds- more accurately reflects what natural aquatic habitats really look like. 

Okay, that was a bit of a digression of sorts from the main "theme" of today's piece, but the point is that you can look at things differently, approach stuff from a different perspective than the prevailing thinking in the hobby, seem a bit rebellious, even- yet still be correct. There is no single "best" way to approach everything in the hobby. The only "rules" are those imposed by Nature, governing how ecosystems work.

When we "pick and choose" parts of Her system to suit our needs, we need to accept the consequences of our decisions. For example, when we over stock our systems with fishes, we need to employ more robust nutrient export processes (filtration, water exchange, etc) to compensate. Otherwise, wastes accumulate and our fishes' health is compromised. If we want to keep high light loving plants, we need to employ higher light intensity. Or, we can grow less light-demanding plants. It's as simple as that.

And you will face criticism- sometimes warranted, often unwarranted- from other hobbyists when you try different ideas; push thinking which goes against "conventional" aquarium hobby wisdom and practice. Some people will simply question. Others will attack. Others will have passionate views on a subject, because they're coming from a different orientation or POV than you are. That's perfectly understandable. Two people can have different views, with each being "correct", yet still disagree. And it can be civil.

I've experienced both types over the years in the hobby. I've gotten rather used to it, because it goes with the territory. If you're experimenting with stuff in an unusual or contrarian manner, and sharing it extensively with the hobby as we try to do, inevitably, you'll run up against criticisms. Rather than get all pissed off, we should welcome this as an opportunity to discuss and exchange ideas, all the while, receiving feedback from a different POV. And even in the face of criticism, it's okay to be humble and civilized.

And sometimes, you need to be humble and really see the other person's POV. You don't have to agree with them, but you can be empathetic to their view and interpretations of things. Sometimes, it's about context and nuance- or lack thereof.

A recent example was an exchange I had with a fellow hobbyist on Instagram. I had published a "story" kinda of drilling down on the idea that botanicals can provide a supplemental (or in some instances, primary) food source for many fishes, if a tank is properly configured. It's an idea we've discussed here and in our podcast and elsewhere ad nauseam. 

To illustrate the point, I shared a small video snippet of a group of Pygmy Corydoras which resided in one of these specially configured setups. The only other "context" offered for this was the several dozen "Stores" posts we've put up over the years touting the same idea, along with (by last count) 19 blogs and 21 podcast episodes touting the same idea over the past 4 years alone. However, the inevitable happened.

A fellow hobbyists politely pointed out that it gave the impression that you can dump a bunch of Pygmy Cories into a tank and never feed them. He (incorrectly) pointed out that they looked "thin"- which they did not. When the video was shot, they had also just completed a group spawning event about 10 hours prior (which I didn't mention in the post), so perhaps they weren't as rotund as they usually were- but hardly "thin" or malnourished.

He was concerned because these fishes do have a reputation for being difficult to feed, or at the least non-competitive feeders. Which is, of course, precisely why I elected these fishes for inclusion in one of my "self-feeding botanical-style aquarium system" experiments! 

We had a little exchange where we both shared our correct viewpoints. I could see his point, and I think that he could grasp mine. However, his concern was that I was "just tossing it out there" in a somewhat reckless or "sensational" manner. Was he right? Was I right? I think we both were. I mean, in the grand scheme of social media. maybe one or two of the 1,176 people which happened to catch that "Stories" video might have ignorantly made the assumption that there's nothing to keeping these fishes this fashion, tried it, and killed some fishes. 

Thats one or two people too many, of course.

On the other hand, I'll wager that the majority of the almost 17,000 followers of Tannin on that platform understand the context of what was presented, and that about 1,174 people didn't rush off breathless to the LFS, purchase a group of Pygmy Cories and throw them into a tank without feeding them ever, resulting in their slow death from obvious starvation. We've beaten the crap out of the process, philosophies, and methodology about what we do here for almost 7 years now. 

Rather than be butt hurt and overly defensive, I simply engaged him and the conversation sort of trailed off. We both made our points. I agree that next time I tout this idea, I had better consider the (small number of) people who might see my feed and, without context, rush off on some radical process for all the wrong reasons...Lest I become one of the very "content creators" I rail upon, producing shallow, vapid, misinformed content.

Will that stop me from sharing ideas that some people seem to feel are controversial?

Hell, no.

The bottom line is that, when you put ideas out there- you need to be able to explain and engage when required, without attitude. If your idea is stupid, poorly thought-out, and simply invalid, you deserve to take the heat. You're not a "visionary"- you're a fool!  That's a fact.

When you know that your idea has merit, the criticism still comes sometimes, but it might be easier to deal with.

Of course, anyone who's boldly forged a path into unknown areas of the hobby and shared them has likely taken "incoming fire" before- and not all of it is constructive or civil, like the episode I just shared. Sometimes it's brutal, completely underserved, and downright mean. 

What to do?

Engage if it's worth it, ignore if its not...and keep moving ahead and sharing the good and the bad of your ideas.

With my "self feeding botanical-style aquarium" idea, I would definitely share the stories of the fishes getting ill or starving during the experiment...but there were no such stories. None. I never lost a single fish. Ever. Dumb luck? Or valid idea? I tend to favor the latter.

My experiments were not performed in a reckless, sensationalistic manner, and they were closely watched, and really not all that radical. And I repeated the process 4 different times with different fishes and tanks. Same outcome each time. My conclusion was that, if you create a carefully conceived, well thought-out habitat which creates lots of correct feeding opportunities for the resident fishes, and nurture the habitat accordingly, there are not all that many downsides, IMHO. 

Regardless, when we push unusual ideas; things that not everyone in the hobby views as "normal", it's to be expected that people will call you out from time to time.

Our interpretation of the natural habitats we admire might be extremely off-putting to some people who are not familiar with them.

You've heard me say this a million times before:

NEWS FLASH: What we proffer-our interpretation of Nature- is not everyone's idea of a dreamy aquarium.

Frankly, it puts off some people. It scares the living shit out of others. And many just don't understand. They can't get past brown, soupy water and all of the good stuff that goes with it. IMHO, they've been sort of "programmed" by the world of perfectly clean sand, bright lighting, rocks you could eat off of, and wood that, on day 45,  looks as sterile as they day it was submerged. Oh, wait...Don't those guys usually break down their tanks by day 45?😆

("C'mon, Fellman, THAT was just mean!")

It's okay. I get it. We all get it.

Yet, some of the adherents to this rigid interpretation of Nature love to "call me" on this for some weird reason to "tamp down" our ideas just a bit, I suppose. I'll get some rather nasty DM's from time to time.

Reality check, guys.

What you do is cool. I dig it. Seriously. it's rad. Do YOU, and keep sharing your fine work.


Stop trashing on what you don't really understand.

You need to understand that Nature is really not always clean and tidy. In fact- most of the time, it isn't. And if you buy into the head-scratching hobby narrative that every pristine "high-concept" contest aquarium is somehow what Nature "looks like", you're simply fooling yourself.

Sure, there are some really clear, sparkling habitats out there in the world, but they represent the exception, really.

And I'll go out on a limb and suggest that none of them have tidy rows of symmetrically trimmed, color- balanced plants, or neatly arranged rocks of related size and proportion.

Talking tough here, but I can't stress this enough.If you really want to understand the natural aquatic habitats of our fishes, some of you have to get out of the idealized aquascaping mindset for a bit and stop dissing everything that doesn't fit your idea of the way the world should be, and just accept the realities which Nature presents...

I am actually surprised we still get the occasional DM like this.

So I must push back a bit.

I am not at all joking when I tell you that I'd take an aquarium that can faithfully replicate the scenes above or below in form and function over any IAPLC "Grand champion's" aquarium. Like, any day of the week.

With zero hesitation at all.


Tinted, turbid water. Sediment, biofilm. Decomposing botanical materials. Soil. A random scattering of branches covered in fungal growth.

To me, it's freaking gorgeous. Beyond anything I've ever seen in any contest anywhere on planet Earth.

Unfiltered Nature.

Okay, I'm not mentioning this to brag about how our avant-garde love of dirty, often chaotic-looking aquariums makes us cooler than the glass pipe and stupidly-named aquascaping stone crowd, or something like that. 😆 (well, possibly, but..)

However, I want you to understand the degree to which we at Tannin Aquatics love the concept of Nature in it's most compelling form, and how strongly we feel that we as a global community of hobbyists need to look beyond what's regularly presented to us as a "natural aquarium" and really give this stuff some thought. We CAN and SHOULD interpret natural aquatic features more literally in our aquairums. This is different than what we see a lot in the hobby, but it's really not all that radical.

And not all of Nature requires us to make extreme aesthetic preference shifts in order to love it.

Well, maybe not all. A lot of it, though.


Perhaps to some, but in reality- it's really not. It's simply different. 

And by the same token, I also understand that not every hobbyist wants to-or can-go to the other extreme-trying to validate every twig, rock, and plant in a given habitat, as if we're being "scored" by some higher power- a universal "quality assurance team"- which must certify that each and every rock and branch is, indeed from the Rio Manacapuru, for example, or your work is just some sort of travesty.

At the end of the day, we all should do what we love. That's a given. 

However, we should also stop convincing ourselves that what we do is the only way to achieve a successful, beautiful aquarium. There is much we can learn from each other. And much we can learn from Nature- which can help us create more successful aquariums.

We also need to be open-minded to new ideas. We need to be able to "get out of our own way" from time to time and look at other ideas and judge them on their merit, not just based upon them being different from what we know and are comfortable with.

I hardly see any controversy in that!

Stay bold. Stay disciplined. Stay diligent. Stay creative. Stay thoughtful...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman 

Tannin Aquatics 




Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


2 Responses

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman

September 23, 2021

Hi Sandy,

I’m impressed by the way you run your aquariums! You have skill and patience to do that! I’m glad you recognize the value of the microfauna which arise in leaf litter dominated tanks! Thanks for the kind words, and glad to hear from you!


sandy duchêne
sandy duchêne

September 16, 2021

Very interesting thank you very much. I love the fallen leaves and the wild effect they give to the aquarium. I love to see nature create itself and fungi colonize this space. I don’t have a filter or pump in my aquariums so I have a lot of microscopic crustaceans living there (prey). I am therefore limited by the amount of leaves I can put in at the same time because the fish quickly run out of oxygen. I have an aquarium with Paracheirodon Simulan and another with Boraras Nævus (who breed :-)) Have a nice day and thank you for all your exciting articles. Sandy Duchêne, Switzerland

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