A fresh tide...Mental shifts and the "tinted" approach to brackish-water aquariums.

We're branching out a bit, but it's not all that unusual for us. And although the direction is a bit different, it's not completely alien. 

Although aquarists have been playing with brackish tanks for decades, in our opinion, what's been missing is a focus on the actual habitat and how it functions as a whole. I think we've been collectively focusing on the wrong part of the equation for a long time- just "salt" and basic aesthetics. I think we've limited ourselves, and have convinced ourselves that there is only so much we can do. As we've done with Tannin’s Blackwater/Botanical approach, we're going to focus a lot of energy on the functional AND (far different) aesthetic aspects of the brackish environment than has been embraced before.  

Witness the rise of the botanical-style brackish-water aquarium. A system that embraces natural processes and functionality...And just happens to have a different aesthetic, too! Less emphasis on "sterile" white sand and crystal-clear water, and more emphasis on a functional representation of a tropical, brackish water ecosystem: Muddy, nutrient- rich, filled with mangrove leaves, and stained a bit from tannins. Beautiful in a very different, yet oddly compelling way. Enter the age of the "tinted" brackish-water aquarium.

Yep, tinted. As in "brown." As in- not your father's brackish-water aquarium. It's not about limestone rocks, quartz sand, and pieces of coral skeleton. Rather, we will use combinations of fine sands, muds, and other materials to create a rich, dark, sediment-filled substrate. Possibly creating higher nutrient conditions than typically associated with brackish tanks. 

"It won't work in a brackish tank! It will create anaerobic conditions! Too much nutrient! Ionic imbalance...Tinted water means dirty!"

Man, this sounds so familiar...

It's about husbandry. Management. Observation. Diligence. Challenge. Occasional failure. Yes, you might kill some stuff, because you may not be used to managing a higher-nutrient brackish water system. You have a number of variables, ranging from the specific gravity to the bioload, to take into consideration. Your skills will be challenged, but the lessons learned in the blackwater, botanical-style aquariums that we're more familiar with will provide you a huge "experience base" that will assist you in navigating the "tinted" brackish water, botanical-style aquarium.

It's not "ground-breaking", in that it's never, ever before been done like this before. It's never been embraced like this before...met head-on from what it is- what it can be, instead of how we wanted to make it (bright white sand, crystal-clear water, and a few rocks and shells...). Rather, it's an evolution- a step forward out of the artificially-induced restraints of "this is how it's always been done"- another exploration into what the natural environment is REALLY like- and understanding, embracing and appreciating its aesthetics, functionality, and richness.  Figuring out how to bring this into our aquariums.

People will question you. Criticize. Offer gentle (or not-so-gentle) "suggestions" and criticism based on what is known and accepted. 

Yeah, we've seen this before. 

"Mental shifts" are required. But we're used to that, right?

Our target specific gravity is 1.003, which will allow you to not only maintain a variety of adaptable euryhaline fishes- it will allow you to keep a number of aquatic plants, such as Cryptocoryne ciliata, which are often found under brackish conditions in the wild (growing among mangroves, interestingly enough!), making them perfect for the rich substrates, diffuse bright light, and moderate water movement which we will embrace for this type of display! 

Now, the first thing to consider is that we're talking about creating a rich substrate, one which not only provides surface area for bacteria, but which is "functional" in the sense that it provides minerals and nutrients for plant growth, such as the aforementioned Cryptocoryne, Java Fern, and yes, mangroves. And, ultimately, if you evolve towards full-strength seawater, Seagrasses. 

The bottom is covered with a thin layer of leaf litter. Specifically, mangrove leaf litter. This will not only provide an aesthetically interesting substrate- it will offer functional benefits as well- imparting minerals, trace elements, and organic acids to the water. Mangrove leaf litter, like its freshwater counterpart, is the literal "base" for developing our brackish-water aquarium "food chain", from which microbial, fungal, and crustacean growth will benefit. And of course, these leaves will impart some tannins into the water, just as any of our other leaves will!

Since the mangrove is the "anchor" of the estuary habitat, we will focus on replicating (both aesthetically, and ultimately, functionally) on the root zone of the mangrove tree. This is a fascinating and complex habitat, which serves as a nursery, feeding ground, refuge, and primary habitat for a complex array of creatures. We've chosen to utilize mangrove root and branch wood for this particular niche, because of its unmistakable aesthetics, appropriate form, and function as a protective area for fishes. The gnarled, tangled roots of the mangrove tree are the cornerstone of a dynamic, aesthetically attractive aquarium. 

Of course, you can incorporate live mangrove plants into the equation, if you're put to the challenge of maintaining them (more on this in future installments). These are very slow-growing trees, so you can enjoy them in an aquarium for a very long time by starting with a healthy "propagule" from a mangrove from brackish water. We'll have these available on a limited basis soon. They need not be "rooted" in the substrate. Rather, they should be secured partially submerged, and they will put down roots as they grow. If incorporated into the dried mangrove roots/branches, you can create a fantastic biotope display!

Finally, we like to incorporate specific types of shells in this type of aquarium for their unique and appropriate aesthetics. Specifically, shells which are from representative mullusks that are known to inhabit the mangrove estuaries. We are big on the use of oyster shells to simulate the habitat of the "Mangrove Oyster", Crassostrea gasarwhich adds a realistic touch to the mangrove roots when secured with glue. We won't initially have access to some of the crustaceans and mollusks found in this habitat, but this will change, too. We'll see more and more of them in due time.

 There is more to it than this, of course, and we'll expand on our ideas in due time. In the mean time, we invite you to research, dream, and scheme about your ultimate brackish-water aquarium!

We'll evolve from "partially-functional" simulations to a more ecologically-diverse system as we learn more and more about the variety of plants and animals that can be incorporated into such microcosms. It's an evolving process. 

Patience. You know the drill here.

We're just getting started, and it's time for us as a community to bring more ideas, experiences, and "functional aesthetics" to the brackish water aquarium world. There is a lot to learn; battles to win, myths to debunk, lessons to be taught- mistakes to be made..iterations to implement. But the goal- much like what we are learning from the ever-expanding blackwater, botanical-style aquarium movement, is that change is constant. It can be challenging, even scary at times. But the lessons learned, the secrets of nature to unlock- will bear fruit far into the the future, which will benefit the aquarium hobby in ways we haven't really contemplated just yet.

Here's to YOU. Here's to the future. Here's to pushing back boundries! 

Be brave. Be open-minded. Be observant. Be resilient. 

Stay focused. Stay excited. Stay creative. Stay diligent.

And Stay Wet. (and a bit salty!)


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 



Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


2 Responses

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman

June 01, 2017

Absolutely! I Agree. I’ve done it , too. Im a HUGE fan of muds and such in tanks. Used them in my reef task before. Of course, not everyone has access to such materials, so we can at least sort of “create our own” versions using a variety of commercially available materials. One day, we hope there is a shelf-stable live mud product that could really helps seed these types of systems, or other tropical aquariums. “Infernal kits” for fresh and brackish water are dream products for us…soem day…:)


Peter Short
Peter Short

June 01, 2017

I’m sure that if you can make it to an estuary somewhere you could collect a bit of the substrate and use that in the tank. I would place it on an open tray of some type first to collect out any unwanted critters (crabs, perhaps bristle worms etc) and then add in the tank the cool stuff you find such as the amphipods which will help in aeration of your substrate, plus provide an awesome food source.

I would also add a touch of the mud as well, to provide a feast of micro stuff you can’t see, plus the right bacteria to help cycle.

I have done this with tanks of all salinities and find it quite beneficial.

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