"The hobby's "Golden Age?"

Ahh, time to reflect a bit.

I remember as a kid, growing up in the late seventies/early eighties, I read a lot of aquarium books. My dad, who was also a lifelong fish geek (we had three aquariums in the living room- some of my earliest childhood memories were of pressing my nose against an aquarium!), had a pretty extensive library of fish books. And most of his books were from the late fifties through mid sixties, what many hobby historians would refer to as the hobby's "Golden Age."

Why was this? 

Well, for one thing, there was incredible access to new fishes. With the advent of fast air transport (ie; the "Jet Age"), fishes from remote locales in South America, Asia, and Africa could be sent to North America and Europe in a day, meaning less stress, and more possibilities.

There was an exploding international fish scene, with Europe, Asia, and North America hosting exhibitions, speciality shows, etc. I remember my dad telling me about a big Guppy show in Germany, with entrants from all over the world. This was something that was unthinkable a generation before; it just wasn't practical.

Technology was accelerating, too! The development of under gravel filters, more reliable electronic heaters, frozen and freeze-dried foods heralded new breakthroughs for those interested in keeping and breeding unusual fishes. Though we may laugh at some of the developments now, back in those days, it was pretty hardcore! 

And of course, communication was changing. Although it's really hard to imagine a "pre-internet world", the hobby magazines and books of the day were super-important, as they were the sole means to tie together the globally far-flung hobby, much as the internet does today- albeit a lot more slowly! This was important, because you had areas of the world, and in the U.S.- areas of the country, such as NewYork/New Jersey, which were "hotbeds" of hobby activity and development.

Oh, and fish farms were becoming a viable and important industry in Florida. Mass production of aquarium fishes made them more accessible and less expensive than ever, making it possible for people who had never kept tropical fishes before to easily find them at their local pet shop. It was a huge development.

Yeah, a real "Golden Age!"

So much of what we've been working with; practices we've developed, and fishes we love came from that era. The influence has been huge.

I'm sure a lot of old-timers may argue this one with me, but I think that the freshwater hobby went into a sort of "flattened" period of development in the early seventies, with fewer dynamic breakthroughs and developments occurring. Oh, sure, there were technique changes (many brought about by the newer fishes and technological developments of the late sixties), but the fast pace seemed to have slowed down a bit...

As a child, I remember seeing a lot of aquatic plants starting to show up...Not the crazy-unusual ones we have today; not rare cultivars...just lots of different plants with better quality. I think it was the very late seventies when I noticed that plants were becoming a real "thing", at least in my world of suburban Los Angeles aquarium stores! And cichlids. Lots of cichlids. However, not much else stands out for me during that time...

The eighties brought a lot of changes to our world, and to the hobby. In addition to my bleached hair and cool clothing, I started hearing more about this thing called the "mini-reef..."

Yeah, people in Germany (where all aquarium trends seemed to start!) were now keeping aquariums with "living rock" and some...live corals...


Game on.

We were "off to the races" shortly after that! The saltwater side of the hobby exploded, with a new generation of "filters"- the so-caleld "wet/dry" filters, better protein skimmers, surface overflow weirs, and foods. Oh, and soft corals.

Throughout the rest of the eighties and nineties, the reef world WAS the aquarium hobby, at least to many people. There wasn't a month that went by when you didn't see some new derivation of the wet/dry, or a new pump, filter, lighting, etc. that promised (and in many cases, delivered) amazing results at keeping animals previously not thought possible! 

I remember, for the first time, people were coming into the aquarium hobby- the reef side- without ever having kept freshwater! That was crazy weird to me- a kid who grew up being able to keep Hygrophila as easily as Sinularia. The era of hobby specialization seemed to be in full bloom. Oh, and this thing called the "information superhighway" was real, it was growing, and it made spreading information and ideas insanely fast!

There was no stopping things now.

I jumped headlong into the "ground floor" opportunities that awaited anyone who forked over the cash for a "reef aquarium", Actinic 03 light bulbs,  and some livestock. Every day was a new lesson- a new development. And being able to share your triumphs, tragedies, frustrations, and everyday efforts online made everyone feel so much more connected.

A "Golden Age?" 

Yeah, I think so.

Although I maintained a freshwater tank during that time, I remember the feeling that it was just sort of "there." Like, freshwater was always there. And you didn't really feel the same...I dunno- excitement, maybe- when you thought about freshwater. I mean, African cichlids were cool. All sorts of captive-bred variants of Barbs and Tetras were neat...but...live corals!  Yeah.

And the gap between the freshwater world and the reef world was widening at a very perceptible rate. It seems like not only were new "reef-centric" brands popping up, but the "legacy brands" were pouring R&D money into this exploding world, developing more accessible, "reef-capable" products.

Meanwhile, my perception- and to be honest, many of the crew I ran with in those days, was that the freshwater part of the hobby was...well- just sort of "there." I mean, there were some new fishes showing up. Some amazing spawning occurrences. Some of the reef technology was going into a sort of  "reverse-trickle down" into the freshwater world, such as better pumps, lighting, and in some instances, overflow weirs and sumps.

But, yeah. Freshwater was the aquarium equivalent of the pickup truck. Reliable. Strong. And basically unchanged in format, save a few cosmetic touches and some technological changes, from how it was a generation before.

It seemed to me that every time I met a hardcore freshwater person, not only were they...well "old" (LOL, I laugh now...), but they were just...set in their ways. Like, "This is how we've done it for years. We don't need all that gadgetry and flash to keep and breed our fishes...We like it here." 

And that was cool, I suppose. And, in all fairness, the freshwater world prized technique over "toys"- which I have always- and still do- respect enormously. But I couldn't help but feel a bit sad. I mean, the hobby of my childhood was sort of locked in a "time warp." And highly resistant to the new stuff. And some of this attitude lives on is some parts to this day. It was, and occasionally is- inexplicable to me how people have become so resistant to change or new ideas in the freshwater world. 

I mean, it wasn't all that long ago that you'd see posts of forums asking if LED light really was any good for growing aquatic plants...when we were growing the living shit out of high-light-loving Acropora and other stony Corals on a commercial level with that technology! Customized intensities, special qualities- even weather patterns could be programmed, which you'd think would have hardcore FW people just drooling to jump on them!


We were on like 5th-generation LED in the reef world before you even saw a single FW hobbyist try one over planted tank. It was insane. No one wanted to look over the damn "salinity line!" It was like, "Oh, those trendy reefers and their gear!" or "Reef keeping is too complex!" Or, "Nitrate, phosphate, trace elements, specific gravity...it's a high school science nightmare all over again!"

Ever kept a "high-tech" planted aquarium before? Enough said. 

People seemed to want to take some kind of "stand."  And I think...I beleive- that the freshwater world sort of developed a bit of a chip on its collective shoulder. I honestly don't know why. My theory was that there was a definite "age gap" and you had a lot of older hobbyists not wanting to let go and open up their minds to stuff..And the "tribe" of newer freshwater hobbyists just fell in line...

And that's how it went for a while. The reef hobby was this shiny new object, "Netfilx", if you will-and the freshwater world was like... cable television. Reliable, plugging along, occasionally throwing out a surprise or two.

And then, a funny thing happened on the way to status quo.

This dude in Japan named Takashi Amano started sharing pictures and ideas about what he called the "Nature Aquarium" concept. A new way of looking at growing and arranging plants in aquariums. He was an artist, and brought technique, philosophy, and concept to the game, merging it with design, technology, and a way of looking at the world.

Seemingly overnight, a spark of life was injected into the freshwater world. New approaches. New ideas. And a burgeoning interest in shaking things up! And the internet was there in full maturity, helping to spread these new ideas. Suddenly, everything that may have been old was new again...New approaches to older ideas started cropping up. The era of biotope aquariums, advanced fish breeding, and high concept freshwater tanks was here!

Oh, and LED lighting, too!

Now, you still see some artifacts of the "stubbornness" that I attribute uniquely to the freshwater world: Resistance to some ideas, and insane, almost nagging clinging to a certain style or "trend" that seems to pervade everuything...yeah, I'm calling out you diorama-loving, beach-scene creating, path-through-the-"fairy -forest"- moss-tree-covering competition aquascapers. Enough already. You have such insane skill. Please apply it to break some new ground!

Okay, off my soap box on that one. Can't wait to see the hate mail.

And hey- the reef world can be pretty stubborn. Pretty annoying, and ridiculously trendy, too. I know, because I co-owned what was debatably one of the hottest coral propagator/vendors in the world for a few years...And I got kind of sick of it, myself. The world of trendy, "named" coral frags, selling for trendy, breathtaking prices, the excessive reliance on over-the-top" tank builds, gadgets and lack of fundamental technique that was creeping in, and some of the lame "sameness" that I'm so critical of in the "pro" aquascaping scene.

Although it's not completely true, a lot of "dumb money" has entered some aspects of the reef world, without a thought about developing technique and pushing the frontiers with new ideas. People just want to drop mad coin without bothering to think long-term and in a more "macro" way. You have people entering into the reef hobby, dropping enough on their tanks to buy a new BMW, and then flaming out in months in a haze of hair algae, RTN, and controller-programming nightmares. 

"Champagne problems?" Well, maybe.

When I finally had enough of the commercial side of the reef world and sort of retuned to my roots by launching Tannin Aquatics, my decades-long foray into a crazy-cool biotope-inspired aquatic niche was finally ready to roll out to the world. 

And I admit, there was plenty of resistance from some corners. My ideas were not entirely new. People had been playing with leaves and stuff for a long time. However,  I realized that no one really developed the concept and elevated/obsessed on it like I did. I couldn't wait to share my obsession with the freshwater world.

I was a nobody in the FW world, with little "cred" in serious FW circles; and dropping reef names, conferences that I spoke at, my list of reef superstar friends, or my insane coral warehouse and reef tanks meant nothing. As it should have! I had to scratch, claw, and earn my place in a tiny sector of the freshwater world. Had to demonstrate that I wasn't someone just trying to exploit the hobby with some crazy ideas.

But it's different now. We've evolved. Developed a community. There is far more interest in new stuff. A letting go of old habits. A questioning of long-held beliefs..and an urge to advance the hobby that I hadn't seen before in the freshwater world. I can't tell you how many of my reef keeping friends are jumping in to blackwater aquariums. And how many freshwater friends are building great reef tanks...It's super exciting now!

And, don't get me wrong...There ARE plenty of amazing reef people doing cutting edge work who hate all of the aforementioned stuff. And, along with their new-gen freshwater counterparts, they're creating a new "Golden Age" of the aquarium hobby!

"Crossover technique" is starting to trickle in..and not just in the gear side. We have reefers doing biotope tanks and applying "Iwagumi" rock scapes to their tanks. We have freshwater planted tank enthusiasts trying a out a reef tank with nutritive substrates and lighting manipulations... It's starting to get pretty amazing! 

How fortunate am I to have lived in an age where I have been able to witness, participate in, and play a part in evolving some of the developments in the aquarium hobby over the past few decades!

What was the point of this self-indulgent, semi-biographic romp down a wet and soggy "Memory Lane?"  

I think it was to demonstrate how the hobby has evolved, will continue to evolve, and how it's never been easier to literally change the world. The internet makes it possible to spread new ideas, kill old, outmoded thoughts, collaborate with others, validate ideas, and develop friendships as never before. It's changed everything.

It's still changing.

And each and every one of us bring our lifetime of experience into the game, helping to advance the hobby in directions previously forgotten- or even unimaginable.

It truly is a "Golden Age."

And I'm pretty excited to be a part of it. I'm sure that you are, too.

Stay open-minded. Stay creative. Stay excited. Stay collaborative...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 




Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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