The annoying thing about "labels", "rules", and overly-rigid thinking...

I sometimes wonder if we as aquarists expect too much from each other- and ourselves.

And I think it makes stuff thats supposed to be fun, kind of "toxic" at times.

I saw a post not too long ago about a collaboration between a couple of well-known aquarists to create a beautiful planted aquarium. The end result of the collaboration was truly gorgeous. However, the immediate response from some corners was, "It's nothing like Nature."

Really? So what?

And of course, I thought about the POV of the "critics", and I suppose they were sort of missing the whole point of the tank- simply to create a beautiful, low-maintenance planted aquarium- and instead, foisting their own agenda upon it based on expectations of what they thought the collaborators should have done.

That's not only sad and unfair- it's complete bullshit.

And it's indicative of a larger attitude I see more and more in the hobby.

Now, these particular guys are amazing- "big boys"- and certainly don't need the likes of ME to bail them out, but the attitude of the "critics" was a bit, well- awful.

And I wanted to talk about it.

And you know that, once I get a bug up my ass, nothing is gonna stop me from talking about it with you.

Look, I'm the first guy who says that he's sick and tired of the same old diorama-style contest aquariums being called "natural style" or whatever; that's an issue of "overly-appropriating" the word "Nature" for every freaking tank. Just too much.

I'm a firm believer in looking to Nature for inspiration in both form and function. You only have to read this blog, listen to my podcast, or attend my lectures to get your head around that.

However, when I see critics going the other direction, I'm gonna call it out, too. 

Look, every single aquarium doesn't have to have decomposing leaves, biofilms, brown water, and sediment-filled substrate to be called "inspired by Nature" or whatever.  Last I read, the processes which govern the nitrogen cycle of my aquariums in Los Angeles are the same ones that govern the nitrogen cycle in the igarapes of Amazonia... So, yeah.

And every aquarium doesn't have to be a copy of a specific natural habitat or biotope. Otherwise, every tank becomes some tightly-labeled, rule-imposed enclosure, and we end up in the same old militant "us vs. them" position that has turned off hobbyists to some of these "movements" for years.


I've seen this sort of crap turning up on biotope enthusiast forums and blackwater aquarium groups lately. Ridiculous nitpicking that serves no purpose except to expose those who "call out" others' efforts as jerks, quite honestly. There are some incredibly talented, really great hobbyists in that arena- and there is much to learn from them. Yeah, there are also some total jerks who feel that every tank needs to meet their extremely rigid "standards" to be considered some sort of "serious" work.

It's crazy.

Do what YOU love- in a way that YOU love to do it.

Call it what you want, but be mindful of the words you use and what they mean. If you must apply a "label" to your work, I think "biotope-inspired" or "natural style" are great, much more apt, broad descriptors for hobbyists to use. I think they'd cause far fewer skirmishes, lol. When we get right down to it, even the most hardcore "biotope aquarium" as lauded by "the establishment" in that world still isn't 100% perfectly accurate. No matter what "they" (whoever the fuck "they" are..) say!

A working definition of the word "biotope" from Wikipedia- a good one, IMHO, is useful:

A biotope is an area of uniform environmental conditions providing a living place for a specific assemblage of plants and animals. Biotope is almost synonymous with the term habitat, which is more commonly used in English-speaking countries. ... The word biotope, literally translated, means an "area where life lives".

And, kind of broad, right? 😆

We should celebrate the art, the research, the effort, and the knowledge that was accumulated (and shared!) in order to create all of these aquariums. Sure, in a competitive situation, it's important to follow the rules of the judging criteria, but for hobby efforts, using a Guava leaf instead of a Bertholletia excelsa leaf (because you can't collect or obtain them legally) is not a disqualifier.

Sorry, guys.

Yeah, if a hobbyists cannot obtain the actual Amazonian leaves (because, I dunno- they're from a protected habitat...), does that invalidate the aquarium from consideration as a "biotope aquarium?"

I mean, c'mon!

I've said it before and I"ll say it again: I'll bet 90% of the most hardcore "judges/critics" of these contests couldn't even tell the difference, once these leaves are submerged, softened, and covered in a patina of biocover.

So why get so dogmatic about these things?

We get really worked up; really pissy about this shit.

Even with the contest winners, you can take this attitude and nitpick to the "nth degree" if you want to use these "standards" (Okay, I will😆):

I mean, what about the substrate? Is it absolutely Rio Negro region "podzol" from the Andes?  No? Oh- NOT A BIOTOPE AQUARIUM!  Is every species of wood used in the tank form the surrounding varzea forest? No?  Oops- NOT A BIOTOPE AQUARIUM! Is every freaking bacteria, fungi, Paramecium, etc. the exact species that comes from the region being represented?

Huh? Is it? 

I think I made my point here.

You could go on and on and on and on...and simply alienate everyone on the planet except your closest friends who poses the same shitty elitist attitudes. 

So why the extreme attitudes? I'd like to think that it's because people care. And that's a beautiful thing. However, in order to keep things civil, I think that we need to step back into our corners from time to time and look at the bigger picture.


Now, in a sort of sadistic way, I admit that I derive a strange satisfaction watching from afar, actually. It's sort of funny. Sure, it shows that some people are complete assholes. It also shows the level of passion and commitment to the "art and science" that our hobby community has. That's huge.

At the end of the day, however, I think that everyone can and should put aside their interpretive differences and come to an agreement that just about any aquarium intended to replicate- on some level- a specific wild habitat, ecological niche, or area where a certain fish or fishes are found- is hugely important and valuable.


Because it calls attention to the habitats and environments themselves. It creates a starting point for discussion, research, debate...It raises awareness of the challenges that many habitats face with the encroachment of man's activities. It most certainly makes us appreciate the fragility of life- the genius of nature, and the incredible diversity and beauty of our home planet.

That's really not up for argument, IMHO.

Even the most poorly executed (by "contest" standards", anyways) "biotope" aquarium helps the uninitiated public (or even the hobby community, for that matter) to become just a tad more enlightened about Nature. It might just stimulate someone, somewhere to ask themselves, "Is that what it's like in The Pantanal?"

And maybe, just maybe, they'll open up the iPad and do a little reading on the habitat that was being discussed...Maybe they'll take a crack at creating a representation of this habitat themselves. Maybe they will research and find out about the threats it faces, seek out and donate to an organization out there that is working to protect it. 

It's all good, IMHO.

So, the next time you or someone you know is being called out because you don't conform to their expectations of what they think is "correct" or "proper" or whatever, maybe you could push back just a bit and show them the absurdity of it all... And thank them for giving a damn...And just perhaps, taking the time to say, "Hey- isn't this cool? We all care so much about this stuff that we have an intense passion for it! Wow!"

Imagine how much that would do to bring it back around to what the hobby is all about: Having fun, educating, and sharing.

I admit, my thinking is pretty rigid on THOSE points!

This amazing hobby is far, far bigger and better than any of our attitudes. It's awesome. The annoying thing about "labels", "rules", and overly-rigid thinking is that they make this stuff that much

A real tragedy that's easily avoided, IMHO.

Stay friendly. Stay helpful. Stay open-minded. Stay optimistic. Stay educated. Stay creative. Stay resourceful...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 




Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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