One of the great things about the aquarium hobby is the people in it! The "culture" that we've developed has embraced the idea of sharing and disseminating of information and experience, which is absolutely amazing!
Yet, with all of the "feel good" stuff, there is a "dark side" to this...
"Explain this, Scott!"
Okay, I will!
If you’ve been “around the block” a few times in this hobby, you’ll often hear fellow hobbyists dispensing words of aquatic wisdom to anyone who needs it.
You know, the usual stuff, like “You need to quarantine new animal purchases”, “Use common sense when stocking tanks”, Perform regular water changes”, etc. This stuff forms the “religion" of our hobby: Core beliefs -or unshakable truths- which we pass on to all those who join our ranks. Fundamental knowledge which we all feel that you need to have- at least- a working knowledge of to attain success in the hobby.
It’s a beautiful thing that most hobbyists are so willing to help out their fellow fish geeks by sharing this acquired wisdom- a true testimony to the quality of people in the aquatic world.
Interestingly enough, you’ll also see a large number of people out on the hobby forums, websites, at hobby conferences, and blogs, passing on “wisdom” that might be of dubious accuracy and origin- or, at the very least, information that may be generalized and passed on without personal experience in the given area. Classic examples are things like “You can’t keep that fish alive”, or “If you use that technique, you’ll have this problem in your tank”.
Often, the advice is dispensed with such authority and confidence that a typical hobbyist will not even question it.
The scary part is that some of this “advice” is dispensed by a casual hobbyist with limited-or even no– experience in the given area. Advice based on third-party experiences (“Don’t use that filter. This guy up in New York had one of those and said that it nuked his tank”), sweeping generalizations (“Deep sand beds will crash your tank” -a popular one in marine tanks a few years back), anecdotal evidence (Catappa leaves and garlic extract “cure” ich), and even stuff that's outright hearsay, ("You can’t keep_________ long term.."), can really do harm to the hobby, in my opinion, discouraging progression and the desire to try new things.
Yet, you see it all the time…I call this the process of “regurgitation”, meaning the dispensing of advice in an authoritative manner without the personal experience or depth of knowledge to back it up. Although the intention might be good, the result is often that an interested person is chastised to the point where they are discouraged or even intimidated about testing their well-thought –out theory or new idea on how to do something. Getting flamed on forums and basically pummeled into submission by “the establishment” is not good for the hobby.
And it happens far more often than you'd think.
I personally experienced this a couple of times- most recent was when I launched Tannin 3 years ago- I was "warned" by "experienced hobbyists" (BTW, I've been in the hobby since I was like 4- literally..and I'm in my fifth decade of life...do the math... ) that you can't maintain low pH blackwater aquariums long-term, that working with leaves and other botanicals in this environment is a reckless, dangerous practice, and that you'll have stability issues, pH crashes and eventual death....
I realize that, on the surface, stuff like warning people about the potential issues with some experiments is important. However, to flat-out dismiss ideas without consideration of procedures, practice, and safety measures/"best practices" that have been established by those working in these distant reaches of the hobby is just...well, irresponsible, IMHO.
Sure, it’s good advice to discourage the guy with a toddler to refrain from creating a touch tank full of Electric Eels in his living room. or the outright beginner from starting out with a group of rare and delicate wild Discus. Those are "no-brainers." No one wants to see a fellow hobbyist get hurt, fail, or kill helpless animals (at least no one who is a decent human being!). What I’m referring to here is the outright dismissal of creative hobby thinking.
It's a hypocrisy, IMHO. I mean, progression requires that some initial pioneers take some risks. It's always been that way...
I mean, how do we progress without a few persons making the decision to take the risk and try something seen by the general hobby establishment as “risky” or “impossible”? Just because “...that’s the way everyone does it”, or “It’s always been done that way” does not mean that it’s right.
It just doesn't.
Think about it.
It really wasn’t all that long ago that the concept of breeding some fishes like the Black Ghost Knife or the Arrowana was considered a pipe dream. Now, almost every weekend somewhere in the world you can find captive-bred specimens at the LFS at reasonable prices. Amazing, really, when you consider that fishes like this were once nearly impossible to acquire and breeding them was just out of the question.
Remember when the idea of rearing a clutch of Discus or "L-Number" Plecos was considered a very shaky undertaking at best? Not anymore. Seems like you can find a dedicated “basement breeder” doing great work almost everywhere you look. Not that the rearing of larval fishes is no big deal- it still excites us all-but the frequency with which it is done is amazing.
Consider coral propagation...Once considered a novelty, the art, spice, and technique of coral propagation has gone from a risky, scary hobby endeavor to multimillion dollar business. Coral "frags" are a staple in the hobby.
Thanks to advances in equipment, food, husbandry techniques, and good old hobbyist tenacity and ingenuity, what was formerly thought "impossible" is almost routine.
My (over-simplified) point is that there is always someone who has to be the first to accomplish something great. Someone who can overlook the negativity and smack talk to fly in the face of convention while taking the road less traveled. This is how we progress. This is how we will continue to progress in the hobby.
Where would we be if an intrepid hobbyist like Rosario LaCorte heeded the ceaseless admonitions not to mess around with the Tetras and annual killies back in the day? Not only did Rosario's tenacity and courage help unlock the secrets of their husbandry, it lead to captive breeding and larval rearing of species once thought to be near impossible to breed in captivity. And more important, it inspired a new generation of hobbyists to follow his lead, for the benefit of both the hobby and the animals that we cherish.
I’m not advocating the abandonment of reason and common sense. Everyone should not put down their iPad and rush out to buy a school of rare Tropheus, full grown Pacus, and delicate brackish-water Pipefish for their 50 gallon community tanks filled with tapwater. What I AM pushing is that we (and by “we” I mean every one of us in the hobby) should encourage those who want to responsibly experiment and question conventional wisdom to follow their dreams.
If someone has a plan- a theory, and some basic hobby experience, what is wrong with that? Yes, there is the sad fact that some animals might be lost in the process. It’s hard to reconcile that…and harder to stand by it when animals are dying. Yet, that may be the cost of progress.
The cost of not progressing- not experimenting- might be far higher: The loss of countless species in the wild whose habitats are being destroyed, while those of us with some skills, dreams and respect for the animals sit by idly -watching them perish, failing to even attempt captive husbandry and propagation for fear of criticism and failure. Who knows what populations might soon only exist swimming in our tanks? Who knows what opportunities might be missed if we fail to persue our goals?
Think about that the next time you have the urge to shoot down someone’s idea to try a different approach. Then, think about the future of the hobby, the reefs, and mankind himself. Let’s continue to express concern if something seems irresponsible, and pass on our suggestions and ideas based on our personal experiences.
However, let’s also make a concentrated effort to encourage those with a logical plan to persue it. Let's NOT simply "tow the party line" and march to the drumbeat of "conventional wisdom" at the exclusion of any rational though- or personal experience.
Ditch the dangerous hypocrisy of simply "regurgitating" what "everyone says..."
And most of all, let’s continue to share.
Stay brave. Stay curious. Stay experimental. Stay original. Stay honest.
And Stay Wet…