We hear more often than not that the aquarium hobby is slowly dying.
I don't believe that. However, many do.
Sure, it's being challenged. It faces pressure from a number of outside influences. These are often disconcerting, but I think they need not signal that Doomsday is near.
Okay, I'm putting my head on the chopping block yet again, but it's something that's been on my mind.
From time to time, I see these discussion on hobby forums and Facebook and such, about the fact that fewer people seem to be entering or staying in the hobby each year. Just generally lamenting the fact that the hobby seems to be less popular than it once was. I lurked in one of these conversations not long ago, and was amused, and really sort of appalled by the attitudes I saw, and even more so, by the apparent bewilderment of the people in the discussion- several of whom were active board members in major hobby organizations, in a unique position to solve the "problem."
The sense I was getting was, "We give newbies all of this stuff to utilize and there seems to be no reason for people to drop out of the hobby..."
I think that this narrative glossed over some easily corrected underlying issues.
Now, sure, as a vendor in the aquarium hobby- but mainly as a hobbyist- I look at these discussions with more than just a passing interest, although I don't necessarily share the gloomy forecast that are proffered in these discussions. Sure, less people might be entering the hobby than, say in the 1960's, but the ones who are in are where the real value is to the hobby. They need some TLC.
And the right kind of "stuff."
The real issue, IMHO, is not trying to get as many people to enter the hobby to begin with- sure you always want more participants- but the "low hanging fruit" that we should immediately concentrate on is to keep those who are already in...IN.
I think that's where the perceived challenges to the hobby lie.
And I think I have some rather opinionated views as to why this even IS a challenge, and some surprisingly easy "fixes" to help address the issue. You may disagree sharply, find my opinion a bit insulting, and may think I'm completely off base...And that's okay. However, I think there are some aspects of my argument that deserve closer examination if we want to solve this "problem" that seems to be vexing a lot of people in the aquarium hobby lately.
Let's start with a bit of a personal "case study", if you will. It will shine a bit of light on a positive and a sort of "negative" that is happening right out in the open. It's about perception and awareness as much as anything else.
One of my fave speciality aquarium clubs is the American Killifish Association. I've been a member of this organization off and on since my teenage years. It's one of the oldest and most well-run specialty aquarium organizations in the world. Many of its members have been there for decades... A great, experienced group. I'd encourage anyone with even a passing interest in killies to join. So much to learn there!
Well, that's the good- and the challenging part of this thing.
The AKA does have a lot of members and a long tradition. However, this is where things get a bit, well- "bumpy": Like many organizations with a long-time membership core, to newcomers it tends to be (IMHO) a bit "cliquish", a bit stubborn, and somewhat "non-user friendly" at some points. Not "mean" or "rude", mind you- just sort of "in it's own bubble." Seemingly blissfully or even stubbornly unaware of the environment and opportunities which surround it. And, to someone who was a member decades ago, and then re-joined recently- it's like a freaking time warp! It's barely changed. That's both good and bad- but it's like this perfectly preserved 1970's hobby organization...With a little modern touch or two.
The good part is the quality, generosity and "coolness" of the people in it. That's never changed. I hope it never does.
Now, I admit that killies are a rather specialized group of fishes, and the husbandry and breeding of them is unique, challenging and fascinating. And the AKA has some truly "master breeder" types in its ranks, who have a lifetime of experience with these fishes that's valuable beyond mention.
Like many hobbyists, I joined this group to learn more about the care and breeding of these fishes, and to have access to breeders doing great work with them to obtain stock. The club has not disappointed in many of these aspects. Killie hobbyists are some of the most generous, helpful, and conservation-minded people around. They do a lot of good in this area.
However, IMHO, they are also caught up on this strange "thing" that drives me crazy with many hobby clubs/organizations- and I think it's at least part of what the "problem" that everyone talks about is:
The perception is that they seem to feel that it's necessary to be super "scientific" when sharing information about the fishes that they keep...I think, to the point of actually driving people away. Yes, I believe this. In the case of the AKA, it seems like many of the articles in their periodic journal are "reviews" of a genus or group of killies...well-written, tediously researched and all-but IMHO, the reviews are sort of "educated layman" taxonomic opinions, of interest to only the hardest of hardcore hobbyists. Perhaps amusing to some scientists- but really good for those late-night, beer-influenced hobby convention discussions between "old timers..."
So much time in many of these pieces is spent attempting to analyze what species belong in what "complex", and what type locality they're found in, that seemingly scant attention is paid to the fact that: a) Many of the species reviewed aren't even available to the hobby, and b) Little is offered on the specifics of their husbandry or even the environmental parameters of the much-ballyhooed "type localities" where they were found. Do we need to impress scientists with our taxonomic opinions? What about the incredible work we do actually studying the living fishes themselves and how they reproduce? That's gotta be worth something, right?
I mean, wouldn’t those things be useful to discuss? Wouldn't that be more useful to a typical/new hobbyist with interest in these fishes?
I sound like a bit of an ass, I know. I'm sure many people will not be happy with me.
It's not the first time, right? And my opinion is, well- my opinion. Like it or not- if this topic bothers you, we need to discuss it from multiple angles- and they're not always pretty. However, lest you continue to be insulted by my opinions, please realize that the point I'm getting at is- while it's awesome to do all of the cool research on arcane topics like speciation and taxonomy-and I have much respect for those who do this work- focusing so much on this stuff without a significant amount of "counterbalance" with more practical topics really doesn't do a whole lot to help the neophyte or even quasi-experienced hobbyist who just wants to acquire, learn about, and breed some killifishes.
It just doesn't. Not what we want to hear, likely- but I think it's correct.
For every "How to raise________" or "Making your own spawning mops" type of article, which we need- there seems to be a greater number of pieces on subjects like, "A hobbyist's view of the taxonomy of the Aphyosemion callurium Group" or whatever. Again, it's my perception- and that of others who have brought this up before. There must be a reason for this perception, right? Just something to think about.
How do you get new hobbyists interested- and keep them interested and active in the game- with the bulk of your content featuring stuff like that? Frankly, it's intimidating and off-putting to many newcomers. There needs to be a balance. An understanding that not everyone finds the same thing useful. And, just to be fair, the AKA has an online "beginner's guide" that is a HUGE, useful and awesome resource...And I think that it maybe needs to be even more widely available or digestible for this "new era" we are in.
Again, in my humble opinion, the key to acquiring new members and keeping them is to remember that this is a HOBBY, and that publishing issue after issue of (I know it's really irksome to many scientists) non-peer-reviewed "papers" on very, very specific and arcane topics is just NOT going to help you endear yourself to the typical hobbyist who's really interested in the best way to spawn and incubate a few species of annual killies in a systematic way, or whatever.
The best value (IMHO) that we deliver as hobbyists is to provide practical information to other hobbyists about the techniques, ideas, and practical approaches to what we do. The scientific "papers" are certainly something that should be featured, but a balance in content between practical and abstract has to be reached in order to appeal to a broader range of hobbyists- particularly those who are new to our specialties. And I don't think anyone would complain if the "practical/abstract" balance was skewed a bit to the "practical."
We're not scientists. Okay, some scientists are hobbyists...but hobby speciality groups are really not the optimum venue to publish true scientific research or type papers or what have you, right? It's a hobby organization. We are trying to recruit new people for our hobby; educate them on stuff that keeps them engaged. If you turn people off from the "get go", how do you expect to retain them? I know, it's a "tradition" of sorts- it goes back decades. Well, if the problem of losing hobbyists is so acute- isn't it time to revisit this "tradition" and perhaps improve upon it?
There will always be a place for these detailed works by hobbyists. I'm not saying to ditch them.
As hobbyists, we can and do contribute valuable observations and practical information to science, but I can't help but wonder why we feel compelled to publish taxonomy reviews (particularly without considering stuff like DNA analysis and such, like ichthyologists would when conducting such a review) and the like so often. We need to at least strike a balance by sharing more content about the things that help hobbyists keep and reproduce these fishes.
I know someone out there is already counting the proportion of scientific-themed pieces to hobby content in their club publication right now to push back on me...I get it. However, the fact that there is a perception by many hobbyists (I'm not the only one- it's pointed out to me often...) that it's skewed a bit means that it's something to at least consider, right? Discussing techniques which will lessen our dependence on wild populations, and provide insights into the life history of these unique fishes from a perspective that only an aquarist can is pretty damn impressive, really.
That's a truly priceless contribution.
Sure, it may not sound as "technical" or glamorous as an evaluation of the family structure of some South American annual kilie complex, but I'm pretty sure that it will do a lot more to get hobbyists involved and to call attention to the fishes, their life cycle, and the environmental pressures they face. Like it or not, we are experts on this "practical" aspect of tropical fishes.
And I again apologize in advance, because I'm sure this might insult at least a couple of editors of hobby club journals, who likely are frustrated that they aren't receiving enough "How to breed________________" articles from members of their organizations for their publications. That's a problem too, right? And it's kind of all of our faults. We all have experiences. I know we're not all writers- but even writing a brief summary on something you do regularly and well for your fishes is huge.
And welcome, too.
And, look- I'm not saying to dumb stuff down, insulate us from what's happening in ichthyology or other science fields, or to ignore the work of "citizen-scientists" or anything like that. I'm just saying that if you're going to spend a ton of time and energy lamenting about why so few hobbyists enter these specialties, you need to take a good, hard, often uncomfortable look at what you/we are and are not doing to address this.
I'm sure someone will point to me and say, "Well, why not bring this to the attention of your club. Or better yet, why not write articles for them?" Good question- but as you can see, I've been busy writing content-every day-on what I know best, right here in "The Tint." And, I'm happy to make it available to most any club (if asked permission, of course) for publication in their journals and magazines if they want.
And lest you think I'm unfairly pounding on the dear old AKA (which I truly love), I'm not. It's simply a good personal example I can offer which supports my little "thesis."
Look no further than the world I came from- the reef side of the hobby.
Now, absolutely amazing work has been done by hobbyists of all kinds over the past few decades- none of it can be discounted. Propagating corals is a huge thing that will ultimately help preserve priceless wild reefs for generations if done right. The techniques and practices to accomplish this are within reach of any hobbyist who wants to learn. There is a huge hunger and a continuous need for more of this information.
Yet, if you attend the major reef hobby contests in the past few years, there has been a strange lack of "nuts and bolts" information on the basics of coral care, set up, etc. Rather, a high percentage of the speaker topics consisted of things like reviews of coral genetics, how some big ocean-going Tang was spawned in Palau, or a talk about (insert your fave chemical...) dosing for nutrient control at a public aquarium or whatever. I mean, cool- but...it's a HOBBY conference.
And the organizers of theses conferences would often complain why the talks were so poorly attended, and that everyone wanted to see the gear and buy stuff instead of attending them. I heard this all the time when I was really emerged in that universe.
To their credit, they've started to figure this out, IMHO, and the pendulum is swinging back to more of a balance. It's really a matter of looking at what the reality is in our hobby world.
The reality is, what the coral hobby consistently needs is good information on how to keep and grow corals. Fundamentals. Duh. This is not some profound insight. You need only look around for the obvious answers.
Hobby forums are not dominated by questions about the mass-spawning of subtropical corals. Like it or not, they're filled with questions like, "How do I mount my Pocillopora frags?" or "What's the best way to control slime algae in my reef?", or "How do I acclimate my soft corals?"... Stuff like that.
Content and information should be skewed towards that, right?
Look, I know that we don't exist in a vacuum. I know that the reefs and other habitats are in trouble, and we need to understand the threats they face. We need to interact with academia to share insights and learn. We can't run from some of the science stuff...I mean, we are ALL at the mercy of the nitrogen cycle, for example, and we need to have at least a basic understanding of how it works and what the implications are for our aquarium work.
However, we also need to better educate hobbyists on how to keep and propagate the corals that are being removed from these reefs in large numbers. When I co-owned a coral propagation/import business, the bulk of the questions from hobbyists were frighteningly basic- like stuff you should know before you ever even buy any aquarium!
Any wonder why these people don't more enthusiastically attend a talk about some subtropical coral spawning study at MACNA? Many can't even keep their own coral frags alive in an aquarium. I literally received calls from guys who didn't have the most rudimentary understanding of the nitrogen cycle- yet they spent tens of thousands of dollars outfitting their reef tank with the latest gear, and buying the latest "designer frags."
It's not just limited to the reef world, of course.
And, it's our fault as an industry, too.
We seem to sell prepackaged "solutions" for everything. Another piece of gear, another additive..."That'll solve your problems!" How about we educate people on the basics and beyond? The good, the bad, and the shitty? That's why we at Tannin have article after article on the most basic, and even arcane aspects of playing with blackwater/botanical-style aquariums on our site. Because I believe that hobbyists have to be armed with the most fundamental knowledge of our craft in order to succeed. I'm not going to just show pretty pics of cool 'scapes and sell seed pods. That's how I'm going to do my part to address the hobby dropout thing.
It's a wider hobby "cultural problem", too. We're lazy. A lot of us want instant gratification and simply don't want to take the time to dig through information- even if it's out there in abundance. They want it easier. Faster. More concise.
And yes- it's still not always enough. People can't be lazy. They have to read the stuff. A personal example again? I get numerous emails asking me how to prepare botanicals- even after we spent hundreds and hundreds of dollars on producing a customized infographic, and years writing dozens of articles on the very topic. Obviously, I still need to do better. We all do.
There's blame enough to go around. And to newbies and others in the hobby: Don't be freaking lazy.
The resources are there. We just have to keep directing people towards them. And people need to use them.
Hats off to people like our friend, Rachel O'Leary- who has cranked out hundreds of informative videos on all aspects of fish keeping...stuff for hobbyists of every level- but always with an emphasis on the art of fish keeping. An incalculably valuable resource. She's a fixture at hobby conferences everywhere. We need more stuff like this- more hobbyists like her to step up.
You get people into the hobby by sharing with them the awe and wonder and beauty of the aquatic world. You show them that, with a little investment of time and study and patience and execution, they too, can do it. You reinforce the basics- no matter how redundant that might be to the majority of the hobbyists who are experienced in a given subject. Get information out there in multiple, easily digestible formats. You strike a balance.
Learning never stops.
You get- and keep- hobbyists excited by sharing the things that they need to know in order to succeed and stay in the hobby. You back it up with camaraderie and support. You take the time. Do the "people skill" things... And as vendors, we must look beyond just trying to sell whatever it is that we sell, and share advice on fundamental concepts to assure lasting success in the hobby. Otherwise, we cause our own extinction, right?
"Teach a man to fish..."
Yeah, that sort of thing.
Yes, even in the social media "Insta-hype" world we're in, there is room for improvement. I've hit this hard before...we show too much "finished product" with killer aquaecapes and such, and not enough of the less sexy, although way more important process...
There is an easy fix for that one. Just share the process.
Discuss the fundamentals of what you do.
When hobbyists realize it's not just "1-2-3 AWESOME!"- and that there is a little work and occasional setback and struggle involved, expectations are set which assure people go in eyes wide open...and stay in. Expectation management via education. And there is a certain responsibility that we as hobbyists take on when keeping live fishes; this needs to be emphasized.
That's my "diagnosis"- and a "prescription" to help fix some of this.
I realize that my strong opinion may be off base with many...You might have personal experience, facts, and opinions which differ substantially from mine. And that's important. It means that there are numerous possible solutions. Here's the thing: We should all act in a manner that we feel helps advance the cause of recruiting and retaining people in the aquarium hobby. Maybe you DO prefer to write taxonomic reviews above all else.
Well, damn it, keep writing them! And we should try to step back and evaluate things as objectively as possible from time to time. If you think we should keep the most advanced segments of the hobby satisfied with content that is geared towards them, and that's what you're best at- keep doing that.
However, do turn an eye to the larger hobby as a whole once in a while, and perhaps offer up some of your good experience on a practical level to help recruit and retain some newbies. You'll be pleasantly surprised at how well that can work!
Want to be a mentor to a new hobbyist? Awesome!
My personal strategy is to offer up as much digestible, non-commercial information on every practical and philosophical aspect of our little hobby segment as possible. Your approach might be something completely different. And that's great.
Just act on it. Because nothing will change if we don't.
Thanks for indulging me on this one. Much more to discuss, I know.
Stay diligent. Stay generous. Stay observant. Stay open. Stay empathetic...
And Stay Wet.