The blackwater breakthrough: You are the evolution.

‘We cannot solve our problems using the same thinking we used when we created them." - Albert Einstein

Isn't it sort of amazing how the hobby seems to go in "cycles" a bit?

I mean, in the 1950's and 1960's, a "golden age" of new fishes being both collected and bred throughout the world was enabled, largely because of the advent of fast air transportation around the world, and the booming Florida tropical fish farms, as well as global print media sharing the ideas and technique with a hobby world hungry to try something new. It was a time of great excitement, new ideas, and tremendous breakthroughs.

In the 70's and 80's, the hobby expanded considerably, but sort of fell into a "rut", without any really remarkable breakthroughs/developments, until the late eighties, when the modern reef aquarium sector, as we know it now, burst forth onto the scene. Like many developments in the aquarium hobby, the explosion in popularity and availability of new equipment, technique, philosophies...and information- harkened the dawn of this new era.

The explosion continued into the 1990's, and in the freshwater sector, many other developments came about, such as the breeding of new varieties of fishes, the birth hobbyist "expeditions" , in which hardcore enthusiasts went out to the wild habitats and explored for new species of fishes, such as catfish, killies, cichlids, etc. We also saw the explosion of the modern planted aquarium, which took on new life when injected with Japanese design principles and concepts. With the internet reaching pretty much every corner of the globe, ideas, images, and personalities spread like wildfire in the aquarium world.

And here we are in the early 21st century, powered by the enthusiasm of a globally-connected social-media-fueled generation of hobbyists, who can share ideas and information, and new approaches with a speed and level of detail previously only dreamed of.

This trip down "memory lane" as I see it wasn't to recap a half century of hobby growth- it was to give context to what I see as kind of a cyclical thing we have in the hobby world. As I see it, the hobby as a whole has changed significantly in just the past 15-20 years. Many ideas once thought to be crazy, "stupid", or just plain reckless are now considered "best practice", particularly in the world of breeding fishes, and in the coral propagation sector, which I experienced firsthand. 

I personally see the freshwater hobby as ripe for another round of change. Another period of growth, fed not only by the amazing new discoveries being made every day by hobbyists worldwide, but by revisiting ideas from the past, some of which were considered "novelties" for decades.

Yeah, enter the blackwater/botanical aquarium. As I say virtually every time we talk about it, this is not a "new" concept. Hobbyists have been tossing in leaves and such into aquariums for many years to initiate breeding and facilitate health of some challenging fishes. Yet, for some reason, the whole concept of utilizing these materials to create not only healthy chemical environments for out fishes, but to create aesthetically fascinating, remarkably faithful replications of wild habitats is being given some new life. The idea of blackwater aquariums being seen as a "side show" curiosity is falling by the wayside, as hobbyists are utilizing these types of tanks to keep even fishes which have been with us for decades, and achieving remarkable results...and discovering a new aesthetic and enjoyment in the process. 

Every day, I'm being sent pics and videos from hobbyists around the world, eager to share the work they've been doing in this fascinating arena- often in relative obscurity, simply because they felt that they were the only ones who enjoyed this stuff- and the "body of work" in the blackwater/botanical world continues to grow and inspire others.

And, much like some of the other aquascaping sectors which have been dominating the attention the hobby, we get new inspiration from seeing each others work. However, what's even more exciting to me is that, every time we see underwater shots of tropical rivers, Amazonian Igarapes, and Asian streams, we get some new ideas. Not just aesthetic ones, mind you- but ideas to understand the dynamics and embrace some of the things we see in natural systems- like deep leaf litter beds, all-botanical bottoms, extreme acidic habitats, peat swamps, blackwater sand bed rapids, etc.

Here are a few of the "projects" which you are working on, that I see being very interesting and important in this "new age" of blackwater/botanical-style aquariums:

-Simulating the Amazonian Igarapes- We're learning more and more about this fascinating environment every day. These seasonally flooded areas create a remarkable chemical and physical habitat for a huge range of tropical fishes. And the aesthetics are undeniably compelling and simply haven't been widely replicated before. Rather than simply viewing it as a pile of disorganized, decomposing leaves and seeds, we're realizing that it's a complex, surprisingly organized environment, which provides many of the essentials for fishes to grow, reproduce, and thrive.

There is much to learn, from the composition of the fish population, to the chemical and physical properties of the igarape- which can translate well into aquarium breakthroughs. I think we'll see some fishes that were previously seen as uninteresting- such as leaf litter-bed-dwelling "Darter Characins", certain catfishes and even Knifefishes, making more and more frequent appearances in hobbyists' aquarium. And more important, I think we'll see these fishes being bred in captivity, quickly alleviating the need for mass importation of wild populations of these fishes, because we will be able to provide them with a very faithful representation of their natural habitat. A case of us having figured out how to replicate and manage a captive version of their natural habitat over the long term,  and THEN bringing the fish into our aquariums...a radically different dynamic than we've played with in the past, right? By learning more about this habitat, we're unlocking new secrets about managing the long-term health and reproduction of a wide range of fishes. 

-Replicating food webs- As we've looked at previously, the leaf litter zones in tropical waters are home to a remarkable diversity of life, ranging from microbial to fungal, to crustaceans. These are the basis of complex and dynamic food webs, which are one key to the productivity of these habitats. By researching, developing, and managing our own deep leaf litter/botanical beds in aquaria, we may be looking at new ways to create "nurseries" for a variety of fishes.

At least upon superficial examination, our aquarium leaf litter beds seem to function much like their wild counterparts, creating an extremely rich microhabitat within our own tanks. And initial reports from hobbyists who've bred fishes in their intentionally leaf-litter-"outfitted" aquarium systems are that they're seeing better color, more regularity in spawns, and higher survival rate of some species. We're at the beginnings here, but the future is wide open for huge hobby-level contributions that may lead to continued breakthroughs.

Understanding the management of low-pH environments- We've talked a lot about the many cautions and even "myths" surrounding keeping fishes in low-pH environments. We've learned that by simply not being afraid because "they" have made them seem so scary and unmanageable for years. Rather, we're revisiting these parameters and trying to learn exactly what happens. It's been scientifically documented that humic substances contained in blackwater environments are essential to the health of almost all fishes. We're starting to discover that the low pH aquarium is entirely functional, if one learns the dynamics. Much like the previous generations' discoveries about the aquarium "functionality" of African Rift Lake habitats and coral reefs, we're discovering that these are simply different types of environments which can be replicated and managed long term in the aquarium.

Our understanding of the nitrogen cycle and the toxicity of ammonia versus ammonium, and the importance of "stability within a range" is starting to yield some results. I firmly believe that the next few years will bring about significant change-and even breakthroughs- in the way we as a hobby manage, care for, and spawn fishes such as Altum Angelfish, which have long been though problematic and difficult because of their specialized needs. It's as much about accepting a different way of thinking as it is about actually learning what's going on and attempting to replicate the function of these unique habitats.  It's always been there for us to examine...we've just been approaching it with a jaded mindset. Now, we're looking at them for what they are, the benefits they provide our fishes, and just how to replicate them properly in the aquarium. And that is a HUGE leap that is happening right now...with YOU! 

And of course, there are many, many more elements to the "blackwater/botanical evolution" that is going on right now. The evolution that YOU are creating, contributing to, and growing. So many ideas, projects, and theories to be acted upon. It is truly a wide-open, incredibly fascinating area of the hobby that I think is on par with any of the other specialties out there (i.e.; Rift Lake Cichlids, "high tech" planted tanks, reef aquariums, etc.). With the energy, talent, and desire to focus on some new frontiers, the future is very bright. This is no mere "fad" or trend" to play with a new aesthetic of leaves and botanicals- it's a shift towards a more realistic replication of some of natures' most successful and unique habitats.

And judging by the amount of sharing of new information that we're seeing on the internet, and the number of hobbyists getting into the game, I think the blackwater/botanical sector can create a model for hobby-level contribution to the body of knowledge about these highly fascinating, remarkably diverse, surprisingly pervasive, and incredibly compelling habitats.  YOU are at the center of this evolution in modern aquarium-keeping...and the world is not only noticing- they're benefitting for your efforts. And even more important, understanding these wild habitats will give us even more information on how to protect and preserve them for future generations to enjoy.

 Until next time...

Stay excited. Stay adventurous. Stay diligent.

And Stay Wet.

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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