Let me preface today's piece by telling you that I have no "axe to grind" with the hobby. Sadly, to some of you, I will come across as judgmental in this piece, without a doubt- even though it's not really my intention.
My intent is to drag out into the light an issue that I feel impacts the hobby negatively, and could even undermine the whole thing if left unchecked. As a lover of the hobby- fresh, salt, and everything in between- and as a rather outspoken proponent- and yeah, "armchair critic" on the "culture" of the aquarium hobby, I just felt that it's appropriate to air it out a bit, perhaps promoting some discussion. Part of this was initiated by a very strong criticism I heard recently from a reefkeeper, of what he called the "stagnant and out-of-touch" freshwater world- so yeah, there might be just a bit of angst in there! The other part of the inspiration was prompted by simply observing some trends and relating to some recent happenings.
Like many of you more experienced hobbyists, I spend a fair amount of my time (and happily so, I might add) offering advice to newer hobbyists. It's a rewarding, time-honored tradition in our hobby; a passing on of hard-earned knowledge from one "generation" to the next. A key part of our "culture."
Many new hobbyists are understandably eager to embark on their new aquarium adventures, fueled by that enthusiasm that comes from being exposed to all this exciting aquatic world has to offer. It's our responsibility- and honor- to share this knowledge with others, so that they may continue to explore, develop, learn, and ultimately- share with others their "body of work" in the hobby over time. It's cool.
And the "over time" thing is what gets me going. Of late, I've spoken with several new hobbyists who were primarily looking for "hacks"- shortcuts...ways to go from "0 to 100" in a few weeks. They wanted a "complete" aquarium system- planted, Mbuna, blackwater/botanical, in these instances- without being "bothered" by what some of them chillingly referred to as "non-essentials". Yeah, the term "non-essential stuff" came up in one form or another during the conversation with at least 3 of them. "NON-ESSENTIAL?" I was like, "What does THAT mean?" Seriously, what's a "non-essential element of establishing and managing an aquarium? To them, it was everything not tied towards building the damn thing, and accumulating the "stuff" needed to get to the "finished product" at all cost. You know, stuff like considering the more specific, long-term needs of the animals to be kept.
"Non essential" stuff, indeed.
I realized that I've seen this attitude before, quite recently.
And I'll tell you that it's not everyone. It's a rather small, but unfortunately, highly visible minority, thanks to the effectiveness of social media in todays world. Yet, it highlights a trend that is a bit well- chilling- if you really look at it objectively.
I'm somewhat astounded by the lack of one simple thing- patience- that some people in the hobby display. Is our time is SO valuable that we can't even wait for natural processes to play out so that we have a "finished" aquarium (not exactly sure what that means, anyways- like an aquarium can ever be "finished")? And in some corners, we seem to value the "shortcuts" to get us to some "destination" more than we do the acquisition of knowledge, experience, and wisdom to get there. Not to pick on anyone (well, okay, maybe just a bit), but 3 of these individuals came from the "reef" side of things. As someone who spent many years in that sector on both the hobby and business sides, I can tell you that the lack of patience- and the desire to "hack" shortcuts- is pervasive in some parts of that end of the hobby. And it's influenced the "culture" more than some would care to admit. Argue if you want, but it's true, IMHO.
Look at many of the most popular developments in the reef world. A huge chunk of them are for all sorts of new gadgets and tech- pumps, numerous lighting systems, reactors, etc. All designed to help make life easier for the reefer, helping us accomplish more with greater ease. They are, I believe, intended to help hobbyists solve real-world problems. Hobbyists who understand the fundamentals of aquatic husbandry, and who could benefit from advances in equipment that make some things easier. Yet, a small and rather vocal minority within that community leaves one with a nagging feeling that the hobby is evolving towards a "accumulate gear to get all the shit done" sort of affair -as opposed to learning and practicing the art. People want these shortcuts- "hacks"- if you will- that will speed things up, bypass the "learning curve" to some extent- and arrive at desired results far more quickly, without needing to really understand the process.
I could give specific examples, but would likely step on a few toes of people I like, lol. And it's not their fault. Great technology is designed to make life easier- to help people enjoy stuff. In the right hands, brilliant results can be achieved. What's disappointing to me is how these things have been "hijacked" by the very impatient minority of hobbyists, who use them as a means to circumvent the process of learning how to manage a tank. I don't believe that's what the amazingly talented developers and marketers of these pieces of equipment intended for their creations. Meanwhile, the work of the hundreds of talented reef people who are developing cutting-edge coral care and propagation techniques, breeding and rearing marine fishes, and unlocking the secrets of animals previously thought to be unsuitable for captive life are dishonored by the attitudes and actions of a loud few.
We see this creeping into some parts of the freshwater world, too. For example, a lot of planted tank enthusiasts will rightfully use CO2 systems and other gear to administer required nutrients and such to grow their plants. It's a lot to learn. A newbie, as any planted tank person will tell you, needs to understand just what his/her plants need and why they need them..not to mention, how much and how often. These are things that are learned beyond the instruction sheets that come with the gadget. You need to understand plants- to know the game. It takes a little time, education...experience. yet, increasingly you see on the forums those who simply think that buying all of the expensive name-brand gear will help them circumvent the acquisition of knowledge and experience and simply achieve the result. Throw some money at the "problem" and it takes care of itself!
Patience. We all need patience.
Now, there are some of you out there who will come back with, "C'mon Scott- lighten up. You're way to judgmental. People should enjoy the hobby the way they want to. There are no "rules" that govern how people engage in the hobby. Are you afraid of technology?"
And of course, my answer is a resounding, "I agree. People should enjoy the hobby the way they want to." And "No, I'm not afraid of technology." That's not the point. The point here is that using the technology as a shortcut or metaphorical "crutch" without having an understanding of the basics is not a recipe for long-term hobby success. And the "work" of these people is being held as "aspirational" because they drop some big money on a problem.
And it hurts everyone eventually, wether we see it immediately or not. Sure, it will sell a lot of gear short term, and throw a lot of money into the aquatic industry "ecosystem" for a while. But it's not a recipe to build long-term hobbyists. When a hobbyist fails and leaves the hobby- as many do- even those who spend a ton of money- it hurts everyone. It hurts the hobbyist, who feels somehow "cheated", and passes on the myth that aquariums are tough to maintain. It hurts the industry, because it's one less hobbyist who will spend a lifetime buying things for his/her fave hobby. It hurts the hobby, because its one less individual who can help others by sharing his/her experiences. And most important, it hurts the priceless animals that we love, lost to simple impatience, because fundamental skills were sacrificed at the expense of some pricy gear, intended to circumvent the "learning curve" that is simply part of the game.
It's easy to paint this seemingly negative picture when you see what's happening. I was talking with a friend not long ago, and we were sort of pondering the current state of the aquarium hobby. We both come from a diverse hobby background, most recently spending a lot of time in he "reef" world, arguably the hobby's "glam" sector. It's a sector that seems to have almost "cultivated" a strange sort of disregard in some areas for learning the hobby in favor of just buying stuff. We both still love it and at least look at it somewhat objectively.
Falling in love with freshwater again, you start noticing the obvious "cultural similarities" and differences, and yet, we couldn't help but make a obvious observation that shows a strange contrast: If you go on a reef hobby forum, you'll see tank "build threads" (like you do in FW forums), but the reef one will be titled something like "Joe's 54- gallon Starphire Rimless Corner Reef Tank." It will typically start with a pic of some nameless hobbyist's reef aquarium in some corner of the world as the "inspiration"-filled with absurdly expensive equipment and rare, pricy corals and fishes. Then, the thread will feature a discussion and pics of the numerous high-priced DC pumps, reactors, over-the-top LED lighting system, grey schedule 40 PVC fittings with orange handles, monitors, over-the-top protein skimmer, etc. as they are acquired.
Eventually, you'll start seeing progress on the build: Nice plumbing work, a beautiful stand, water testing equipment, etc. Rarely is a game plan discussed. It's all about speed- getting to the "finished product" by any means. Quickly. Eventually, some rock is placed in the tank, and typically, a really nice fish or two...followed by lots of corals. Like, a lot. Trying to fill the tank as quickly as possible. And, unfortunately, we've sort of enable these practices along the way by "ohhing and ahhing" and asking questions, like, "How do you like the "Ocean Masher 700 DC pump? Is it worth the price?" Or, with statements such as, "Wow, when I pay off my college loans, I'm gonna get a tank like yours one day!" Treating these builds as aspirational, despite the obvious lack of a foundation they're built upon. Rarely do you see questions like, "What corals are you putting into place first? Are you trying to replicate a reef crest environment or a lagoon...?" Or even, "How do you plan on curbing the aggression of your Euphyllia with all of those Acropora so closely mounted on the same rock?"
Stuff like that. You know, critical stuff that you want to think about before spending $25,000 on a system. The guy is being hailed as some sort of hero because he spends an audacious amount of money on his tank. It's weird, IMHO. (Asking questions or making gentle, useful suggestions which can help prevent disaster is not arrogant, judgmental, or unkind. It's responsible, compassionate, and the right thing to do.)
And then, in a number of these cases, something bad inevitably happens during the process- an algae issue, disease problem, or some other typical problem that you'd expect to occur when lack of understanding, poor planning and disregard for procedure meet. Again, an almost sadly-predictable scenario plays out: Frantic pics of hastily-assembled "hospital tanks", algicide or pest-eradication equipment acquisitions, etc., etc. are shown, along with what amount to shockingly "beginner-like" questions on what could have happened and what to buy to fix the problem. The aquarist typically will chalk it up to "bad salt", "poor quality fish from the LFS", etc. Anything but the folly of starting a tank with a five-figure budget, lack of eduction on the basics of aquarium husbandry, little experience, and even less common sense. And then, worst of all...often, the high-octaine "hero" sort of...fades away.
The typical freshwater "build thread", by contrast, typically will have a title like, "Jane's 75 Gallon Rio Tapajos -Themed Cichlid Tank". The thread often starts with a pic of a fish, plant, or natural environment that provides inspiration, followed by a detailed discussion of the fishes that will be kept in the system. The environmental parameters and how they will be maintained also make a up a fair amount of the "introductory" portion of the thread. Later, the hobbyist spends maybe 5-6 entries talking about the tank and it's equipment. Thereafter, it's typically about how the tank establishes, cycles, etc., and how the animals are added. Progress pictures can take months, but typically show great attention being paid the animals and overall environment. The emphasis is typically on the art, not the gear.
Look, it's not all unicorns and "Beanie Babies" here in the FW world, with everyone nice and perfect and cool...And not every reefer who spends a ton of money on his/her tank is a fool following a predictable path to failure. We've all seen examples of ill-conceived, expensive FW tanks, too. However, the apparent brazen disregard for the basics of aquarium practice that is evident so often in the high-octane reef build threads is often tempered by a surprisingly large amount of support and constructive criticism from the FW community during the process, often mitigating some of the potentially sad consequences of attempting to flaunt the fundamentals of aquarium practice. Maybe 100-plus years of hobby culture makes a difference.
There is a palpable "cultural difference" between these two hobby segments. Of course, there are thousands of amazingly talented, supportive, and highly enthusiastic reefers out there, with beautiful tanks (yeah, some even packed with expensive gear) who enjoy tremendous success, and great care for their animals. These hobbyists, who comprise the majority of the hobbyists out there, know and practice the fundamentals, preach it to others, and deploy a huge amount of patience all the way. Unfortunately, as in so many things, the "louder", more spectacular minority of people/things/ideas get the majority of the exposure. A few bad apples spoil the thing. The danger of this complete lack of understanding and patience is that it contaminates our hobby thinking. And if enough people fail...the hobby slowly dies. Or worse yet, these failures add fuel to the fire of detractors. Spectacular, animal-killing failures and the negativity perpetuated by those who experience them simply confirm the fears and mis-interpretations of the critics who would love to see the aquarium hobby just go away. Thanks, "Nemo."
I am sure that my assessment of this trend that has emerged from the reef world is probably NOT going to endear me to some of my reefkeeping friends. Some people will say I'm over-reacting and alarmist...I understand, but respectfully disagree. Yet it's my opinion that we can do some positive stuff here to stop it. I'm not trying to create a divide between the two interdependent hobby "worlds", asserting that all reefers are superficial Silicon Valley-enriched techno nerds, and that all FW hobbyists are perfectly manicured experts and "throwbacks" to a gentler, kinder time. However, of late, seeing this regrettable and all-too-familiar "NOW! NOW!" attitude seeping into the rapidly evolving freshwater culture is a "red flag" that I had to point out. Somebody has to, and it might as well be me. I'm not afraid of taking the heat, and I want to be on the right side of history, lol. It needs to stop in the reef world, and it needs to be thwarted in the FW world.
Look, it's not like either side of the hobby is in danger of an imminent, massive collapse. It's just that a shift towards a more superficial "understanding" of fundamental hobby principles is something that will, ironically set us back. Hobby "thought leaders" (Fresh, salt, and everything in between) have a responsibility to continue to preach patience and education, lest we endanger the very hobby we love so much by embracing an impatient, "I-can-solve-it-with-a-piece-of-gear" attitude. There is so much good stuff already going on- it cannot be drowned out by a few loud, yet preventable failures. We're so much better than this. We cant be that easily impressed. Expensive toys will only get you so far without understanding of fundamentals and the patience you learn along the way.
It's remarkably easy to combat this bad stuff, too:
The best way to stop this is simply to provide constructive criticism and friendly, supportive assistance when prompted. If you see someone headed towards an inevitable disaster, gently but firmly point out why, and offer ways to circumvent it. Don't just regurgitate stuff you've heard online or wherever...offer actionable advice based on your personal experiences and observations. Positive, affirming observations and gestures go a long way. We do this already...we just need to employ it more and more.
We need to preach the one fundamental skill for which there is no "hack"- Patience.
Focus on patience, responsibility, and the acquisition of basic aquarium fundamentals. The real values that the hobby cherishes. Honor them. Hold them up. Scream them from the highest mountain. Teach them tirelessly to newcomers to the hobby.
Stay vigilant. Stay persistent. Stay patient.
And Stay Wet.