What is a fishkeeper, beyond a person? An unashamed fish junkie, thinks Nathan Hill...
Someone who lives from one fishy ‘hit’ to the next. I was speaking to some industry heads recently. They weren’t entirely fish people, if you get my drift. They asked me to stereotype the average fishkeeper, likely so that they could plan a way of making a targeted sales pitch.
I pondered this for a bit, and had to reply that beyond a passion for fish, there was no core ‘identifier’ for a fishkeeper. You can’t draw any conclusion beyond ownership of some kind of aquatic lifeform. Actually, even that’s wrong. I still class myself as a fishkeeper, even during those times I don’t have any tanks running. It just seems to be that much a part of my identity.
Fish in their veins
We are a diverse bunch. This last week, a week involving long shifts, food on the road (if at all), and little sleep, I visited a spread of northern and Scottish aquarists. Over that period, I met aquarists who were lavish or frugal, and everything inbetween. I met retailers who’d look as at home in a quaint village café, working as a husband and wife couple, as they do in a fish shop. I met keen-eyed go-getters, hungry for fishy wheeling and dealing. I met a man who just nodded approvingly — knowingly — when I set eyes upon a fish we had mutual love for, and I met a man with a headful of ethical concerns and a hipster approach to his store design, wardrobe and grooming. Put all of these people together in one room and they’ll get on better than a syndicate of lottery winners. See them individually in the street, and you’d never be able to make a connection between them. Yet every single one of them had fish in their veins.
I’ve been a fishkeeper in one form or another for 37 years, from student, then public aquarist, through retail, to teaching, to writing. In all of that time, I’ve never had the ability to tell a fellow hobbyist at a glance. Hold up a bag of fish in front of me and within five seconds I’ll tell you the exact number of fish in it. Give me a net, and I can tease out one specific Glowlight tetra from a shoal of 500. I even have something of a sixth sense for feeling when a tank isn’t 100% on water quality. These are all acquired skills. But show me a human face and ask ‘fishkeeper or not?’ and I haven’t a clue.
Some of us eat fish, some don’t. Some of us catch fish, others hate the idea. Some of us have one tank, some of us lose count at 50. Some of us breed our fish compulsively. Some of us danced with delight that one and only time our guppies produced offspring. Some of us keep underwater gardens, sculpted to perfection and Kings for a day before we move to the next project. Some of us like clinical, barren tanks and lab-grade fish. Some of us like leaves, mulch and mulm, and algae swinging from branches. Some of us want our fish out and about, all day, every day. Some of us want a catfish that flashes a single whisker once a year, and consider ourselves blessed to see it.
A state of mind
For me, fishkeeping is a state of mind, not a measurable characteristic. We’re all in this game because at some point, somewhere down the line, that alien underwater world imprinted itself on our minds and gave us a big shot of dopamine in doing so. I think secretly we’re all addicts, on one level or another. To this day, looking in to aquaria, especially with the light shining, pumps humming and the bubbling sounds that accompany it, sends me into a hypnotic place that nothing else in this world does.
So what is a fishkeeper, beyond a person? An unashamed fish junkie, I say. Someone who lives from one fishy ‘hit’ to the next. Someone prepared to get so engrossed in their tanks that they easily forget a mealtime. And even if you try to give up the hobby, I don’t reckon that buzz ever goes away. I doubt it will for me, and I’d be surprised if it ever does for you.
Happy fishkeeping, fellow addicts!