The strange dichotomy of peat moss...

Every so often, we look into ideas which have been around in the hobby for a while and, well- beat the hell out of 'em!  And not all of these little rants are simply railing on stuff like,  "why everybody does it like this..." or whatever.  

No, sometimes, we simply discuss what's on our minds and perhaps examine some long-held beliefs.

With Tannin Aquatics starting to really take off globally, and  (we've been told) making a bit of impact on the overall aquarium hobby world, it's important for us to explore better ways to do what we do, and to evolve our offerings, practices, and ideas as we grow.

With an ever-expanding portfolio of natural materials from around the world for aquascaping and environmental manipulation, we're constantly evaluating the stuff we offer and what it can do for our aquariums...and its impact on the environment. While we preach sustainability and protection, the reality is that some materials we utilize in our systems may impact the natural environment. We've always strived to offer items which have a minimal impact, but we're far, far FAR from being perfect.

One of the questions I have received a lot over the past couple of years is why we don't offer peat moss (in either fine or fibrous forms) for aquarium use. Quite frankly, the main reason I have not offered it is out of a lot of concern I have for the overall environmental impact of offering it.  It's one of those things that directly impacts the a specific part of the natural environment when we harvest it, and that is a pretty big consideration.

And of course, we realize that there are a lot of other alternatives to peat that don't create the same impact on the environment. Do we really need to offer this material? Would it do anything more than simply round out our "portfolio" of botanical offerings- more of a "vanity" thing than a market need?

It's a decision we have put off and tossed around for a long time as we evaluate the "need" versus our desire to offer a more comprehensive selection of natural materials for aquatic use.

For years, aquarium hobbyists used peat moss for the purpose of lowering aquarium pH, creating "tinted" water, enriching planted substrates, and for spawning killies and other fishes. It's easy to use, comes in a few forms, and definitely "works as advertised" when it comes to aquarium use! 

Now, in all fairness to us, the bulk of the peat moss harvested worldwide is used in the horticulture field, and aquarium use likely accounts for the tiniest percentage of worldwide peat consumption. Nonetheless, its use for aquariums has been discouraged in recent years as we take on a more environmentally conscious, sustainability mindset. That's cool!

And I suppose, if it follows the sort of way we're treated by the media and environmental groups when it comes to related issued, such as fish collection and such (just read up on the Hawaii fish collection ban for more on that stuff) . In general, we're the easiest target- the "low-hanging fruit",  without any real significant  "lobby" or industry advocacy for this kind of stuff, so it's natural that we'd be a target.

And of course, we need to self-regulate a bit. And we largely do.

I see no problem with addressing this type of issue.

We certainly need to weigh both sides of the argument in deciding wether or not to use this stuff in our aquariums. And, I suppose one could call us hypocritical because we do, indeed offer materials collected from the natural environment...And everything has SOME impact. We do our best to source materials from people and businesses which respect the environment, but it's simply impossible to be 100% perfect and be in this game...sad, but true.


With that background, let's get to the subject of this piece- peat moss!

"Peat moss" is the collective name given to mosses from the genus Sphagnum, which contains almost 400 species!  Peat comes from bogs, which are one of the four main types of wetlands recognized by ecologists. It's generally decomposed moss that accumulates in these bogs, which is then commercially harvested. This material been used extensively in agriculture, because it excels at retaining water: Peat plants may hold 16–26 times as much water as their dry weight, depending on the species!

Over the years, there has been a lot written about the sustainability, or lack thereof- of harvesting peat moss. It's sort of a "poster child" for the management of precious natural resources, and there are environmental consequences to removing this material from the bogs where it accumulates.

(Image by Boreal. Used under CC-BY SA 3.0)

Although degraded peat deposits have often been restored by blocking water drainage sources, throwing in Sphagnum seeds, and covering them with a water-retaining mulch, it's not that simple a story. Yes, restoring peatlands does help soils by improving water-holding capability; however, the bacterial respiration caused by the decomposition of the mulch and other organics in the restored deposits continues to release C02. According to some studies, it can take several years for the photosynthetic rate of the new peat deposit to beat the "respiratory rate", meaning that there is a net loss of carbon into the atmosphere during this period of time, which unfortunately contributes to the production of greenhouse gasses. 

(Photo by Ed Blodnick)

Now, there are two sides to every story, and there are a lot of great efforts being made to harvest peat in what most would agree to be a sustainable manner. Canada supplies up to 80% of the peat moss consumed in North America, and the peat industry there has put in significant effort to create what they feel is a sustainable resource. According to industry studies, Canada contains 294 million acres- or approximately 25% of the entire world’s peatlands! The Canadian horticultural peat industry operates on less than 55,000 acres of these peat bogs nationwide. According to the industry, the amount of peat moss harvested from Canadian peat bogs every year is nearly 60 times less than the total annual accumulation of new peat moss.

That sure sounds like they're doing something right, doesn't it?

I think so! 

Being good stewards of a precious resource like tropical fishes, we can appreciate efforts made to conduct business in a manner that respects the environment.

So where does that leave us? 

Well, to be quite honest, I go back and forth. I told myself for a long time that if Tannin offered peat products, they'd definitely be from Canadian sources, because the industry there makes a significant overall effort to manage the peatlands.

On the other hand...

Do we even need to use peat when we have so many other materials which perform similar roles in our aquatic environments?

We've utilized a lot of coconut-derived materials, such as "Fundo Tropical", "Substrato Fino", Coco Curls, etc., which are a great alternative to peat, and are far less environmentally impactful. 

And then we have leaves, and items from palms, lots of leaves, Catappa bark, etc.- which, in an aquatic environment perform in much the same manner as peat. We've personally used many of these items extensively to enrich aquatic substrates, and I know many of you have done work in this area as well, with good results. We're particularly encouraged about many of you playing with them in planted aquariums.

One thing about peat that I do like is that the fibrous type lasts almost indefinitely, in my experience. You can use it for breeding fishes, clean it, desiccate it, and use it again over and over. As a water conditioner, I'd imagine that the humic substances and tannins contained in the peat would ultimately be depleted or exhausted after prolonged or repetitive submersion, and it would become more or less "inert."

Again, the fibrous type could perform other functions besides just a spawning substrate or water conditioner after it's "tint-producing" days have passed. I suppose that you could use it a a form of "mechanical filtration media", trapping detritus, etc.  However, I certainly wouldn't purchase the stuff specifically with this specific use in mind.

There are certainly better alternatives to peat for this purpose, right?

So yeah, it boils down (no pun intended) to how we feel about it from an environmental impact perspective, and if there is a real compelling reason to go with peat versus any of the other more sustainably-sourced, less environmentally-impactful alternatives that we offer.

If it's just about "tinting" the water, I'll tell you flat-out that Catappa, Guava, or Magnolia leaves will do just as nice a job, as will the aforementioned materials like "Fundo Tropical." Granted, they might be employed slightly differently (like in a mesh filter sock or reactor, or mixed into the substrate), but I think they offer much of the versatility of peat without the controversy surrounding its harvest and use.

That being said...It's a strange dichotomy, isn't it?

Yeah, it is.

I'll pose the question to you: Is there any compelling reason that we should offer peat products at Tannin? I'd love to hear your thoughts and ideas, pro or con, which can make a case for or against it being offered. We've looked at this before, but never really got a good "read" on, we'll ask again!

It might be a small thing, perhaps an almost insignificant thing, at least on the surface. However, as we all know, the accumulation of "small things" can ultimately have a BIG impact on the whole picture...

Thanks for your support, interest, and feedback.

The way that we all advance the hobby and protect our world is through discussion and by addressing-directly- some of the more controversial issues which affect us. In the end, we all need to do what we feel is best for our hobby, ourselves, and of course, our planet. It's worth a bit of reflection now and again, wouldn't you say?

Stay thoughtful. Stay honest. Stay curious. Stay passionate. Stay diligent...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


5 Responses

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman

August 21, 2020

Hi Ken,

I think that there are good alternatives to peat moss, such as a coconut based product like “Susbtrato Fino”, which has a very similar texture to peat moss. For that matter, even sphagnum moss (the kind used in crafts and such), or even potting soils (fertilizer free) could be good alternatives, with similar water-retaining capabilities…Lots of potential alternatives. Again, I have no real problems with Canadian peat, which, as outlined in the piece, is from sustainably-harvested peat…So, potential alternatives are out there, of course.


Ken Fullman
Ken Fullman

August 21, 2020

I’m trying to raise Killifish from eggs. All the guides I’ve found suggest they should be placed on peat in a shallow container to hatch. Do you have an alternative to suggest?

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman

March 10, 2019

Hey Steve,

Coir is good stuff. Essentially ground up coconut shell. We use it extensively with really good results!


Steve van Haaften
Steve van Haaften

March 10, 2019

I bought a big bag of peat-based garden soil 14 months ago when setting up an aquarium with soil substrate. 1/2 this soil and 1/2 the recommended organic potting mix, some clay balls and agricultural limestone, all topped with gravel. Plants and fish do great, but I’m considering carbon filtration because the water stays brown-tinted although clear, despite regular water changes.

So peat will certainly tint the water a long time, but I guess tastes vary regarding coloured water. The thing is that peat moss is incredibly cheap here in Canada, and everyone uses it in their gardens.

Garden peat sold here is not fibrous but chunky particles of organic, with a few sticks here and there. Fibrous coir is sold here for gardening. Wonder how coir would work in an aquarium?

Jeff Johnson
Jeff Johnson

July 11, 2018

I’ve been tossing in wood, rocks,gravel and some mud from the lakes and ponds here in Canada, try local plants,some work,most don’t. Started putting leaves in after reading your Facebook, just love experimenting. Keep an aquarium with guppy’s to test before moving to the big tanks. End up with a few strange critters,it’s all fun.

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