Some thoughts on "aquatic cross training..."

It’s no secret that many of us have our "roots", so to speak, in saltwater.

My recent hobby/industry background had me firmly planted on the "high side" of the "specific gravity line" - being both an avid reef hobbyist/lecturer, and former co-owner of one of the reef aquarium worlds' most admired and respected coral propagation facilities/coral vendors. And during that time, I always admired and kept freshwater aquariums, too. And my story isn't all that unique.

Whether it was a quick stint with a clownfish in a 10-gallon tank 15 years ago, or full-on reef tank not all that long ago, saltwater is not a strange “media” to most of us in the general aquarium community. However, for some reason, in recent years, there was this “stigma” associated with even liking saltwater in the freshwater world- let alone admitting that you had a saltwater tank. It was like it was a real risky proposition for your “cred” as a planted tank lover, cichlid breeder, or whatever. And blackwater, botanical-style? WTF is THAT?

"You're crossing over to the 'Dark Side' now." is a common tease you'll hear from your hardcore FW friends if you admit to setting up- or even explore- the possibility of a reef tank. And you wouldn't believe the reaction I received from my reef-keeping friends when they heard I sold my interest in the coral propagation facility and started Tannin Aquatics: "Are you kidding me- like, brown beginner's fishes... Really?

It was as if they viewed this as some sort of "downgrade" or something.

As if there is such a difference in the "culture" or overall attitudes between reefers and say, freshwater aquascaping or biotope-aquarium-loving fanatics, I have yet to see a significant one. Trust me, I'm in both worlds, and factions among each side see the other as "snobby" and "elitist"; it's kind of funny!  And it works both ways, trust me. As recently as a couple of years ago, I remember getting gently teased by my reefer friends when I professed my love for freshwater. And I also remember attendees at my talks around the country coming up afterwards and sheepishly “confessing” that they had a soft spot for freshwater, too! 

It's funny how times change.

With the advent of so-called “high-end” planted freshwater planted tanks, with their associated concept, CO2 injection, reactors, lighting, and such,  and with the unabashedly unique idea of botanical-style aquairums- there has been a palpable shift in the reef aquarium hobby’s collective mindset about the “cool factor” of freshwater tanks! Suddenly, it’s in "vogue" to not just talk about, but to aspire to- or even own, a freshwater system- particularly one of the “high tech" planted systems, which are the freshwater equivalent of a reef system…I can’t help but think that the gadgetry/systematic approach and ‘exclusivity” factor of these “high end” FW systems is part of the “new appeal.”

And of course, there are more and more super experienced planted tank enthusiasts and fish breeders who want to set up a reef tank to "dabble" with corals. They're already familiar with husbandry, water quality management, and systems design, so it's simply a matter of working with a different "media", much like an artist might work with oil paint and acrylic. The nitrogen cycle, temperature management, filter media, and 80% of the system designs/equipment are the same in both freshwater and saltwater.

There are many, many compelling reasons why a freshwater hobbyist SHOULD own a saltwater tank (reef, especially). I’m throwing out a few that come to mind just to spur some further discussion and provoke you to try one if you‘ve been on the fence a bit. Here they are- in no particular order:

*Saltwater aquariums offer a totally different aesthetic experience- Yeah, imagine a tank that you light with customized blends of color, regardless of the form factor of light that you use…simply because corals require it. No yellow daylight look here, baby. And the vibrant pinks, greens, yellows, and blues, of corals and marine fishes offer an entirely different palette to work with.

*Saltwater systems embrace biological and chemical principles that will better help you understand things like nutrient cycling, trace element uptake, etc.- If you like dosing stuff into your planted tank, you’ll love a well-managed reef system! You can explore the effects of supplementation on coral growth, and have real time results. Corals seem to respond even more quickly than plants to changes in their environment, so they can really “keep you on your toes!”


*Saltwater systems challenge you in different ways than a freshwater aquarium- In a freshwater system, there is a lot less emphasis on gadgetry, plumbing, and such. Rather, your greatest energy is expended on actually managing and running the tank itself. In "reef culture", gadgetry is more in the forefront, I'll give you that. Reefers love protein skimmers, reactors, high-tech lighting systems, and electronic controllers. It doesn't have to be all about gadgets, however. As an experienced freshwater enthusiast, you bring a lot of tank management and  observation skills to the table are perfectly applicable to reef keeping.

If you can handle a 40-tank fish room, you can handle a 125-gallon reef aquarium, no sweat. If you could manage a blackwater, botanical-style aquarium, you've got the upper hand. The philosophies of care of these diverse aquatic systems are interchangeable, really. You will learn to recognize growth patterns of the corals that you keep, how the fishes that you select affect the corals, etc. Learning the relationships between corals fishes, and other reef organisms will make you a better, more alert reefer, and those skills are already present in every hardcore freshwater aquarist!

*Saltwater systems offer you a chance to inject the “soul" of freshwater aquarium keeping into a culture that needs some- Yeah, there is an “art” to the saltwater hobby…lost somewhere in a cacophony of LED lights, electronic controllers, Facebook frag auctions, photoshopped coral pics, debates over “LE” coral names, etc., etc. so prevalent right now. A freshwater aquarist is way more attuned to the “core” experience of aquarium keeping, and the culture in freshwater is far more "evolved", offering you the opportunity to help some reefers get back in touch with skills, techniques, and yes- emotions- that they may have either never felt before, or simply lost track of in the frantic-paced marine universe. The reef hobby needs some generalized aquarium "evangelists" out there, trust me!

*Breeding freshwater fishes helps you get your feet wet with skills and protocols that will help you in marine fish breeding efforts- This is a very important, possibly overlooked benefit of freshwater aquarium keeping. Captive breeding is the future of the marine hobby. IMHO, everyone needs to have at least a rudimentary understanding-if not a basic working knowledge- of breeding aquatic animals.

If you can’t raise a baby guppy, you have no chance with a Clownfish, trust me. So, in the freshwater world, where breeding dozens of varieties of fishes is seen as "just something you do", there is a ton of opportunity to cross-pollinate technique, philosophy, and experimentation into the growing marine fish breeding sector. This is a huge deal, in my opinion, and the freshwater practitioner can offer his/her skills to the marine breeding world immediately. It will have real impact on wild populations and the sustainability of the aquarium hobby in general.

I can go on and on…I can hear arguments from both sides (“The Cardinal Tetra is nowhere near as colorful as a Majestic Angel”, or “A reef tank looks like a fruitstand compared to the natural appearance of a planted FW tank.”, etc., etc.) The point is not to create rivalries or foster animosity between the two hobby factions…The idea here is to demonstrate to you that the skills, techniques, and philosophies behind the two aquatic “media” are not only analagous- they are surprisingly interrelated.

I suggest that not only do you keep a saltwater aquarium, but that you attend a marine conference or frag swap and see what these amazing people are all about. Reef hobby “culture” is not all that different from freshwater, once you get past some stubborn attitudes on both sides of the fence- and the chances and benefits of “cross-pollenation” are many and profound! I spent a lot of time talking about this when I was a lecturer in the reef aquarium hobby world.

I hope that I never see another one of those “freshwater is a joke” or "reefers are techie-snobs" kind of posts again. Really, the only real "joke" is that we have this amazing opportunity to learn new skills- or perfect existing ones- that will benefit the general aquatic hobby for generations- and have turned away from it with an elitist attitude in some quarters. Saltwater hobbyists are dedicated just like we are- perhaps even to a greater extent..They’ve been working with reef aquariums for only like 30 years…So it's still a sort of "ground floor" opportunity to apply what's been learned in 100-plus years of freshwater aquarium keeping to this new sector. More than a century!

You think freshwater hobbyists might have learned a few things in that time that can benefit the saltwater world? Absolutely! And, there are a LOT more serious and highly skilled freshwater hobbyists than reefers by an enormous margin..An untapped “market” to develop new reef keepers, and to inject some good things into the saltwater world. And of course, an incredibly important opportunity for freshwater hobbyists to bring some salt-lovers into the new age of specialized freshwater aquariums! 

Final side benefit of aquatic “cross training” with our saltwater friends: If we introduce some experienced saltwater enthusiasts with love to the freshwater world, not only will many give it a try and make the effort to understand that world- they will attempt to convert others…bringing not only new blood, new skills, and new friends to the game- they will help strengthen the overall aquarium hobby, providing a larger, more widespread understanding of what we do, and helping to stand up to the very real external pressures our hobby now faces. 

Final side benefit of aquatic “cross training” with our saltwater friends: If we introduce some experienced saltwater enthusiasts with love to the freshwater world, not only will many give it a try and make the effort to understand that world- they will attempt to convert others…bringing not only new blood, new skills, and new friends to the game- they will help strengthen the overall aquarium hobby, providing a larger, more widespread understanding of what we do, and helping to stand up to the very real external pressures our hobby now faces. 

With that, I’m curious how many of you have marine tanks in your homes, or plan on setting one up…If you spurned saltwater for a time, never lost the fire, or simply enjoy it as another aspect of aquarium keeping…I’d love to hear/see your experiences, as would our readers!

Remember, to keep the saltwater hobby vital, we also have to keep it “fresh.” And of course, to keep the freshwater hobby thriving, we need to inject a little salt into things now and then, too! 

Today’s tale of protein skimmers, phytoplankton, anemones, and Neon Tetras…

Regardless of your water’s specific gravity, I encourage you to stay engaged, share all you know with an open mind and a generous heart.

Time for some aquatic "cross training!"

Stay curious. Stay bold. Stay excited. Stay enthusiastic. Stay creative. Stay open-minded...

And Stay Wet.

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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