News released earlier this month suggests that fishkeeping has experienced a substantial decline in the last five years. But is everything as it seems? Nathan Hill has a look at the numbers.
“88% of all statistics are made up on the spot,” comedian Vic Reeves once observed. But as humans, we seem powerless to resist the draw of numbers. Like nocturnal bugs to a candle, we throw ourselves at the mercy of sensational looking double-digit declines.
This month, a newspaper made substantial claims about the fall of UK fishkeeping. “The number of households with a pet fish,” it proclaimed with near reverential authority, “is down from 17 per cent in 2012, to just 10 per cent in 2017.” By way of reference, the text cites a survey by data analysts Mintel.
Or rather, it hauls out a couple of charts, and fails to quote any of Mintel’s text directly. Given that Mintel are asking almost £2000 for a one-off copy of the report, you’ll be unsurprised, dear reader, to know that I haven’t been able to quote figures either. I know nothing of the study sample size, the demographic — I lack all context.
The text carries on, in places, as almost gleefully pejorative. In a piece laced with spurious assertions and galloping non-sequiturs, various hypotheses are put forward for this loss. Fish aren’t photogenic enough for selfies, comes the claim. Cats, dogs and rabbits are the new ‘go to’ pet, seems to be the unstated premise here, while the author wilfully overlooks that the sole chart on which this case is made shows a marked decline in those pets too. But why let good old-fashioned reasoning inhibit a story?
Of course, the author of this piece seems to have overlooked something salient. In 2012 the very same paper reported that the data showed that around 10% of the UK — one in ten households — owned pet fish. At that time, pet fish were said to be growing in market share, increasing to the tune of several millions of extra individual fish bought by a benignly piscivorous audience. Back then, the journalists were plucking out their own reasons for this explosive growth. ‘Pet fish are easier to keep than cats or dogs,’ was the suggestion, with the writer clearly oblivious to the vagaries and intellectual exhaustion associated with keeping a magnificent reef tank in bloom.
The Pet Food Manufacturing Association (PFMA) has been tracking pet populations in the UK for the last decade. I’ve no idea how many people Mintel polled in their survey — the journalists trampolining on the all-important ‘17%-down-to-10%’ number seem to have elided here.
The PFMA has an effective study sample of 8,000 respondents. How representative that is of the wider UK when extrapolated upwards, I do not know. Not all things expand evenly, as my waistline would testify.
In 2012, on PFMA polling, they estimate that 20 to 25 million individual fish were kept in aquaria — around 9% of UK households, if the trend of later years is to be trusted. To confuse things, there are also a similar number of pond fish kept, equating 6% of households. As fishkeepers we are aware that the two camps are usually mutually inclusive rather than exclusive. Assuming the most absurd case scenario that everyone in the survey who owned an aquarium refused to own a pond, and vice versa, then we get a combined effort of 15% of UK households with a pet fish.
Racing through the years, only stopping to grab some souvenir numbers (9% aquarium, 6% pond for 2014; 9% aquarium, 5% pond for 2016 — PMFA figures) we hit the apocalyptic scene of current fishkeeping: 8% aquarium ownership, 5% pond ownership for 2017.
Maths wasn’t my most powerful subject in school, but I was smart enough to calculate the hypotenuse length on a right-angled triangle. Subtracting 8% and 5% respectively from 9% and 6% seems well within my remit, so unless I have missed out on some major mathematic reformation movement, I can only see a 1% decline in fish ownership in each of the two camps. As a retailer, and faced with figures like that, I’d probably not consider selling up and fleeing to join the ex-pat crowd of Spain any time soon.
All in, we seem to have a market that has somehow managed to grow, while simultaneously peaking and declining at the same time. Apologies, but I’m not buying in to it.
I’m not going to pretend there hasn’t been a decline in fishkeepers in the last five years — what little data there are support it. But I am going to contest the numbers. Never one to miss the opportunity to rant, I’m also happy — as someone who has followed the industry for my entire life — to put forward my own unsubstantiated suggestions about why any decline is happening. The difference in my own case is that I’ll carry the placard with shining letters above me: specious claims right here, approach with caution.
Let’s start with the nano tank. Those little bundles of affordable, high maintenance, beginner traps have been a target of derision from me for years. I would question the role they’ve played in any decline.
I think I’d argue that what we’re seeing now is a reversion to the normal, if there’s any localised ‘decline’ in fishkeeping at all. Nanos were peaking in sales around the 2012 period. The industry was generating a higher number of new aquarists, with the pathetically optimistic argument that all of these keepers would somehow master their nightmarishly hard, 25 litre goldfish set-ups and progress to something bigger and better. Don’t kid yourselves, stores. We all knew that many of those tanks, once they left our shops, would promptly be furnished with ill-fated goldies sourced from our nearest competitors.
The nano market is a bit like a drunken pilot — it was inevitably going to get grounded. I wrote recently about the conspicuous absence of nanos at the AQUA trade show I attended. The air carried the collective hum of manufacturers and retailers pretending that the nano phase never really happened. I was there, I kept asking folks where the tiny tanks had gone.
While I haven’t any data to support me, my gut feeling is that the number of keepers in the 2012 polls was in part tainted by the short-term, new-wave glut of consumption that was the nano buyer. Five years on, with nano sales evaporating away, the figures reflect the truer number of devotional, not ‘faddy’ hobbyists.
Here’s another thought. The working man is up against tough finances. Not every fishkeeper is a CEO on £250K a year. While livestock hasn’t really increased in cost in any considerable terms — based against old figures from the 1960s and 1970s, I noted that the price of fish has actually dropped in real terms — hardware is pricey. Low-iron glass, artisanal acrylic hardware, supplements that cost as much as a person’s monthly food bill: all these things have conspired to move fishkeeping slightly further from working-class reach.
And let’s cut to brass tacks. People are spending their money on some considerable ‘must have’ luxuries. Recently, while picking up a disposable phone for a one-off job (eventual cost 79p for my new handset) the couple alongside me at the counter were negotiating their new phone tariff. At £92 a month for the next 24 months, a mobile phone provider had just gobbled up £2,200 of potential reef tank money, right there.
‘Busy fools,’ a former boss once told me. He warned that I would be busy and poor if I always chased the low-end sales. The money — the mark-up — was in the high-tier gear. And many retailers have lived to this rule. The sale of a single £1500 marine set up might bring in as much profit as 15 x £100 nano tanks. Many stores are eager to promote their high expense range. That means less interest in stocking the accessible gear. And that means prices pushed slightly further from the cash-strapped newcomer.
Then there’s the shift in social conscience, especially among the younger generations now coming of age, where they have disposable incomes and a choice of how to spend them.
The shift in perception has been gradual, but is now too great a malignancy for aquatics to overlook. A lot of people take a stern position, that no animal should be kept in tanks. As representatives of a trade that revolves around the captivity of animals, we can open our arsenal — we assist conservation (sometimes), we maintain species that are now extinct outside of aquaria, we provide our fish a better life than anything they’d have in the wild, we are stewards who protect our stock — but these will fall on deaf ears, or worse. For a certain demographic, what we do is indefensible.
And, as a final thought, many of our advances have become our hindrances. The development of the hobby — in all the right ways — has made it terrifying. Circa. 1980 you had to buy a tank, add some fish, see if they survived, add some more, and keep some medicine on hand for the occasional outbreak of whitespot, and that was about it. Add some ant eggs, and when Finny the household goldfish carped it after six months, it’d be flushed and a replacement brought in.
It was diabolical, but it was unthreatening. Those of us who worked through the 90s will remember the efforts put in to heightening awareness of things taken for granted now — the need to mature a tank, the need to test ammonia.
In 2017, trying to buy a fish is like subjecting oneself to Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition. How long has the tank been running, with how many fish, how often are they fed, when did you test, what did you test for, no exactly what did you test for?
If I was joining the hobby for the first time, I think I’d be overwhelmed. I’m relying not just on my own research abilities, nor on the knowledge of my retailer, but also on the retailer’s ability to convey information in a way I can understand. I’m up against heaps upon heaps of conflicting, confusing and often outright contradictory information found online.
At a guess, I’d say I would be at least 17% more overwhelmed by it all than I was when I started in the late ‘80s. Maybe once I sized it all up, I might feel 88% better off splashing out £92 a month on a new phone too.
Let's take the time to listen a bit more to those with new ideas, rather than swatting them down like flies, says Nathan Hill.
We love a rebel, don’t we? I think we like underdogs in general. Very few people want to see David squished underfoot by Goliath, but love it when the little guy takes out the big guy with some kind of unexpected roundhouse kick.
Upstarts who stick it to the man are all the rage. Establishment figures are predictable, authoritarian — boring. Then comes along the wayward rapscallion who breaks all the rules, defies all the conventions and wins, and we can’t get enough of it.
Except in fishkeeping, it seems. If the hobby was a school, I wonder how many of us would be sat at our desk, arms crossed and shaking our heads in uniform complicity, ashamed by the loud kid at the back of the class who dares to question the teacher.
Take aquarium cycling, because it’s a nice and obvious topic. I probe a lot of people on this, and love to watch how discussions (predictably) pan out during spats. Sometimes I even provoke them using one of my many online aliases, just to see how quickly the firewalls come up.
Rock up to any forum or social media discussion and ask about maturing a tank, and you’ll be met with a resounding, dour faced ‘must use ammonia’ approach, as though anything else is tantamount to drop-kicking your livestock into a bucket of broken glass. Filled with cyanide.
I can see why defenders of the fishless cycle are so resolute in their stance. After all, even the official PFK stance is still that all tanks should be fishlessly cycled. But me, personally?
I’m not going to lie, I’ve been quietly playing with a lot of bacterial products in the background, out of sight in my (not) lab and using highly (un)scientific methods, and you know what? Some of them work. As in consistently, repeatedly, and in a range of different circumstances. Real world conditions. Have I been endangering things? Not really, no. I live in the charmed position of having a handful of instant Plan Bs to fall on at the first whiff of trouble. But I haven’t needed them.
Skeptical? Of course you are. Nobody is allowed to question the mighty fishless cycling republic these days. Damn my heresy, you’re thinking. Civil disobedience is STILL disobedience, right?
To be honest, good on you for that scepticism. Too many companies have cried wolf over the bacterial thing for years. Promises in a bottle. And let’s be honest here — some of those early potions claiming instant maturation were, well, crap. They’ve a lot to answer for, because in not doing what they said they would, they created the culture of suspicion we now have whenever anyone tries to tout a new wonder chemical.
Plenty of us got our fingers burnt in those days, and so badly burnt that we have the bitterest memories of products that didn’t live up to their expectations. It was all the worse because we’re not talking about something disposable, like a radio or teapot. What was happening as a result of spurious claims was death and suffering to animals in our care. We were doing everything right, we thought, but it turned out that death was still with us. Then it turned out it wasn’t always our own fault after all. Damn.
Despite that, I think it’s disingenuous to automatically discredit any newcomer who’s touting a revolutionary idea. I’m all for a Dragon’s Den style rigorous grilling of any product making grandiose claims,
but what I’m not for (and I have done this myself so many times) is a dogmatic rejection of it, on no grounds other than ‘because’.
Thing is, technology, and that includes biotechnology, is advancing. The fishless cycle works, it’s tried and tested. But it is longwinded, and most people getting into their first ever aquarium are impatient.
Fishkeeping is a culture shock in a world of instant gratification. Of course the holy grail of aquatics is the instant maturation liquid (or pill) that lets you go to full capacity in an instant. That’s why so many companies word their packaging in such a way as to allude to that. Some can’t deliver. Some I’m finding are pretty close.
It’s worth remembering that sometimes the upstart really does bring something new to the table. But then there’s safety in the tried and tested methods of conformists.
Perhaps, if we occasionally took the time to listen to each other, rather than drowning each other out in a frenzy of our own dogma, we’d make even more progress. After all, I’d hate to see the hobby stifled and regressive, all because it was so busy swatting away the very revolutionaries who could have eventually ironed out all of its kinks.
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!
Nathan Hill has been watching fishkeeping videos...
I recently watched a DVD rip of a VHS from the early nineties, complete with tracking wobble and static hiss. It was all about setting up an aquarium, and it was bad, even for then. Undergravel filters I can forgive. Plastic plants with edges so sharp that you could cut tomatoes, I can forgive. Recommending brackish catfish with Angelfish and gouramis I can’t.
It was good nostalgia. I fawned over products I’ve not seen in over two decades. Hell, I watched the whole thing and spotted stuff that I still need. In the 1950s, sporting heroes did things differently. You had few specific cricket, football or tennis players per-se, because all sportsmen did everything. In the 80s and 90s, fishkeepers were similar. Did they keep tropical fish? Yes. Did they keep plants? Yes, usually badly but yes. Did they keep marines? Yes, with awful filters, tufa rock and dead coral skeletons. Goldfish? Yes. Ponds? Yes. Africans? Yes. Oscars? Yes. It was typical to be involved with everything.
Nowadays, after a quick flirt with entry level tanks, it’s increasingly the norm to define oneself as a ‘type’ of fishkeeper. That’s why we have reefkeepers, aquascapers, biotope buffs, Discus hoarders, catfish collectors and Koi gurus. We immerse ourselves in the latest information on our subject of choice.
Yeah, there’s still a background mass of leisure keepers with community tanks, drawing enjoyment on forming harmonious communities of pick ‘n’ mix, and that’s ace — I just tend to class those keepers as ‘specialists in waiting’. One day they’ll find what really excites them, and ride it out to its logical conclusion. I’ve seen it happen a thousand times.
All this specialisation has been facilitated by advances in technology and availability. Looking at that 90s video, there were product shots aplenty, and a lot of it was utter garbage. If I wanted to set up a ‘scape back then, or a reef set-up, I was doomed from the start. New gear made for new opportunities.
R&D is driven by customer desires. Wherever the public starts to show interest, companies will start to find ways to monetise it. People wanted reef tanks and companies made the gear to cater. People wanted plants and along came CO2 regulators and decent fertilisers. I don’t think that trend is over.
I can honestly imagine a time when nudibranch tanks become all the rage. Currently, those delightful slugs are a fantasy, almost all doomed to starvation in aquaria, because of their hyper-niche coral diets. Food is a strong research area. New pastes are tempting formerly unfeedable creatures to gorge. I even watched Harlequin shrimp — obligate starfish feeders — chomping down on manufactured food recently, despite once saying (with more authority than I’ve ever had) that it could never happen.
The aquascaping genre has scope to subdivide, now that the hobby has created a genre of aquarists interested in plant care above all else. I fully anticipate categories of ’scapes based around nothing but carnivorous plants, say. Why not, huh? Culturing of Cyclops is easy, and you can bet other mini freshwater organisms are coming soon. Plus, I can’t help noticing the trend for taking plants above the waterline. The paludarium, or some new variant of it, is going to be big business, just wait and see. Some bright company will spot this, and make luxury designs to accommodate.
Expect a LOT more hybrids. The new wave of cichlid mashups isn’t going to be the last of farmers’ exploits. They’re looking for the next big curiosity seller. There will be a huge audience, because they’re novel, and the mindset that fish are disposable isn’t leaving the main populace any time soon. If the UK changes its stance on genetic modification, I dread to think what new opportunities will open to breeders.
In brighter news, expect affordable big tanks. I can see that running costs are going to be a driving factor for any electrical gear development, and that’s going to push companies to make things as low consumption as possible. Eventually, it’ll become cheap to run massive power filters, heaters and lights again, meaning people will get those 2m+ tanks in the living room.
I could get hit by a bus tomorrow, so I might never find out. Still, it’s exciting to live through the hobby’s Cambrian explosion, watching new species of fishkeeper turning up all over in real time. I just hope that in 20 years I can look back at a 2017 YouTube video of myself in a shop, and snort derisively at how terrible all the products are, and just how little we all knew ‘back then’.
Thinking of buying a new internal power filter for your aquarium? If so, don't miss the April 2017 issue of Practical Fishkeeping!
The internal power filter is the most popular type on the market, and there's a huge amount of models available. So where do you start when choosing one?
Our April magazine makes things much easier — it features a giant internal filter test, in which we compare 50 filters to suit a range of tanks and budgets, with prices from just a tenner to over £70. You'll also find advice on what to look for when choosing a new filter — and we offer our best buys to suit a range of different set-ups.
Looking for a safe, middle of the road position on tankbusters? No, me neither, says Nathan Hill...
I can’t be the only one to notice that big fish are reappearing everywhere right now. I don’t mean the occasional, one-off Giant gourami, either. I mean rows and rows of shovelnose, Goliath tigers, Hydrolycus and so on.
Who am I to say what’s right or wrong in fishkeeping? Nobody beyond an individual concerned for the welfare of fish and the future of the hobby. Plus, fish can’t speak for themselves. We are their voices.
I believe there are good and bad venues for big fish. If you own a five-mile stretch of Mekong delta, then by all means knock yourself out and buy some Pangasius catfish. If all you’ve got is some 80cm/32in Clearseal tank from 1981, wobbling precariously on a bookcase, then how about you don’t?
Who is to blame for the big fish resurgence? Loads of people. There are cultural influences coming in from all around the world, fed to us via the likes of YouTube. Some countries don’t encourage or hold dear the same ethical standards as we tend to in the UK. Brits are a nation of animal lovers. From abroad, I can find endless videos of tanks crammed with more big fish than the cargo hold of a John West trawler.
People wanting to mimic things creates a buying audience. Let’s not pretend there’s nothing endearing about owning a big fish. My first tropical fish was a piranha. Because it was cool. Neons were not cool. Big, dangerous fish have wow factor.
A lot of retailers have spent the last decade or so trying to weedle out tankbusters. Big fish are like boomerangs. They go away, they make a big loop, they come back. I had a retailer slip up a while ago. He was trying to downplay the giants he had in his sumps as rescued fish, not his problem. I quickly asked if he’d originally sold them as young fish in the first place. He went pale and coughed an evasive answer.
With any purge comes a void. The more retailers avoid big fish, the likelier someone will see that void as a gap in the market, rather than a deliberate and manufactured attempt to get the things out of the industry once and for all.
To be clear, there are responsible — expensive — sellers out there. If I buy a £500 migratory pimelodid for a 60cm tank, completely off the cuff, something has gone very wrong. At five hundred smackers, you’d expect me to know what I was getting in to. You’d expect the seller to be pretty thorough with me about where it was going, too.
The ‘dark’ side
Perhaps the renaissance period of aquatics is over. Maybe the ethical revolution I thought was coming just went out the window. I even see people thinking it’s funny to live feed goldfish to piranhas and post videos of it. Sometimes I think that if what I see online is representative of the hobby as a whole, then we are racing to see who can hit rock bottom first.
I hope it’s not true. But to quote Dan Ashcroft from the 2005 series Nathan Barley, ‘the idiots are winning’. They’re going to make the rest of us look bad too. You and I (I hope) are not representative of this ‘dark’ side of fishkeeping. The problem is, folks who think there’s nothing wrong with cramming ten Red tail catfish into a 100cm tank and posting videos of it online are slowly normalising this behaviour.
How do we resolve it? We could argue that retailers need to vet keepers more. But as a person coming from a fish shop background, I know that some people will lie, in a calculated, comprehensive and manipulative way to get what they want. That’s nothing new, and it’s hard to stop.
Better, I think, that we just make our opinions loud and clear. Don’t be shy. Let people know if they’re doing something wrong. I know you’re capable, I’ve seen my inbox whenever I’ve touched on a subject that you guys don’t agree with.
If someone is buying up monster fish for an undersized tank, with no forethought of where it’s going to go once it outgrows its home that’s irresponsible. If they bought a cat to keep in a rabbit hutch, or a dog to keep in a crate, the law would have something to say about it.
If anyone thinks I’m wrong about that, I’d love to hear how. The postal service is alive and well, and my email is open for all.
Could LED lighting actually be harmful? While we don't suggest that you start hauling your LED bars off your fish tank, for rats, at least, it doesn’t bode well, writes Nathan Hill.
LED is hailed as the eco-friendly solution to our lighting needs in all areas of life, and not unjustly. LED running costs and lifespans shame their inefficient predecessors, and within aquatics the enhanced potential for spectral tweaking and controllability that diodes bring is pounced on. LED developers can create ‘synthetic’ light, replicating any spectra found in an open clear stream, a canopied rainforest, or 20 metres below sea level on the equatorial belt.
LED has its detractors, but that’s standard with any technological advances. Claims about the detrimental side of LEDs have surfaced, from the reasonable, through the specious, to the outright exotic. For the best part, LED technology has done well in swatting off attacks on its integrity.
A huge claim is that LED can cause blindness, and there has been research performed that would apparently support this – with major caveats.
Papers have circulated about the effects of LED exposure on retinal cells, but these have been within a framework of acute and high exposure. For example, one oft-regurgitated study in the Journal of Photochemistry and Photobiology turned out to be based on LED exposure which was the equivalent of staring at a 100W light bulb for 12 hours at just a few inches distance – hardly an equivalent to anything we as humans are doing with our lights. Of course LED could cause blindness, but so could a domestic torch if I held it against your eye for long enough.
Evidence links some blue LED use and human illness. To be balanced, all strong blue lights (not just LEDs) have been associated with mild headaches and nausea, and in cases of long exposure, there is a known risk of eye damage. With blue LEDs in particular, connections have been discovered with melatonin suppression, which in turn can lead to sleep issues and weakened immunity in humans.
It’s hard to then take that particular data and apply it to fish, who have evolved in an environment where light exposure is a far cry from human terrestrial lifestyles, and where a piscine role of melatonin isn’t thoroughly understood, so I’ll not try. Research suggests that melatonin is a feature of fish immunity, but the differences in the role of photoperiods between fish and humans is the shakiest of territory.
A new article in Neuroscience’s November 2016 journal, titled Light Induced Retinal damage Using Different Light Sources, Protocols and rat strains reveals LED phototoxicity, has flagged potential problems with LED use at ‘normal’ levels. Whereas former research has focussed on the low hanging fruit of acute exposure – shine lights in the eyes at high intensity for a quick result – a study by Krigel et al. has found that white LEDs can cause retinal damage at an exposure equal to that of typical human use in domestic settings – warehouses, offices and so on. Or rather, it can cause retinal damage in both albino, and, to a lesser extent, pigmented rats.
It would take a colossal leap of faith on my part to claw at data built upon nocturnal mammals, and then use it with fish that have evolved to live in a predominantly blue environment, so I will avoid that. The differences are too great.
Humans are biologically closer to rats than fish are, and if we have a powerful LED hanging above out tank, with vast quantities of light spillage, and we’re sat there for hours at a time, with unshielded eyes, then there could be a danger we’re taking a hit of something bad. It’s a weak link, but it’s all I have.
What did Krigel’s team do, and what did they establish?
Research was based around subjecting multiple rats (albino Wistar and pigmented Long Evans types) to both acute and chronic exposures of either fluorocompact bulbs, cold cathode fluorescent lamps, or LEDs (cold white, blue and green).
Rats subject to acute light exposure were first kept for 21 days in a low intensity, 250 lux environment (12hours on/12 hours off light cycle) and then placed in enclosures of up to staggered intensities from 500 – 6000 lux for 24 hours, after having their pupils artifically dilated. They were then placed back in to 250 lux enclosures for another seven days before being sacrificed, and the eyes examined under a microscope for photoreceptor quantification. Immunofluorescence was performed on eye sections, and electroretinograms performed on the rats during the exposure process.
Unsurprisingly, all rats experienced retinal damage at 6000 lux (all light types), but this this terrain is already well explored.
What was interesting was that rats subject to acute exposure at 500 lux (the same as domestic LED lighting) with dilated pupils showed: “a significant reduction of ONL [outer nuclear layer] thickness […] not only in albinos but also, to a lesser extent in pigmented rats,” when examined. But note that the pupils were dilated – that’s important – and we’re talking a 24 hour exposure.
The article goes on a couple of sentences later to state that in this 500 lux acute case: “It is important to note that in dilated conditions, at the same illuminance, CFL [fluorocompact bulbs] did not cause any damage neither in the albino nor in the pigmented rat, demonstrating that different light sources do not exert the same potential retinal risk.”
That in itself is quite a substantial point, as it does show that LED, when used on a like-for-like basis, has a capacity to damage greater than its analogues in the lighting world.
Regarding the obvious damage sustained at 6000 lux, what interests me is that compared to modern reef aquaria, 6000 lux is actually quite low. In a reef system, the minimum lux you want at the base (though to be fair, lux is a bit of an archaic method of measuring light in aquaria now) is upwards of 3000 lux.
On an actual tropical reef, lux is around 110,000 to 120,000 at the very top, dropping to somewhere around 25,000 lux one meter below the surface. An albino rat with dilated pupils here has little chance of escaping retinal harm.
From a fish’s perspective, it’s safe to say that evolving to live in such an environment has allowed the animals to build in some resistance to such phototoxicity. Unless we’re talking about deeper water species that have had no need to develop optical biological defences, I’d say that it’s unlikely we can draw too much from it.
Except, that is, that LED lighting is by its nature more enriched in blue radiations than many other light sources (sea-level, atmosphere filtered sunlight included). This is because it makes more economic sense for lighting manufacturers to start with a blue LED to create white light, and subject it to yellow phosphore coverage in order to reach the desired colour temperature. So, ‘white’ LEDs still pump out elevated levels of blue radiation compared to other white lights.
Uncharacteristically for me, it’s not the fish I’m thinking of here. Usually I’m the kind of misanthrope that would watch a whole ocean liner of people going down if that was the balance against saving the lives of a few tetra, but not today. Today I’m also thinking about my own eyes. You see, like you and every other fishkeeper I know, I can spend hours staring into an aquarium. If that aquarium happens to be rigged up with similar LEDs to those in the acute test mentioned, and if they’re pumping out over 6000 lux, then I’m playing the role of one of those rats.
The acute test involved 24 hour exposures. I would say that at full swing, I could spend maybe up to two hours at a time looking into a reef tank under intense LED lighting before I had my fill, so I don’t live a close approximation. And I’m not a rat.
For the aquarist who relishes their tank and rushes back to it at every opportunity, I’d advise watching out for future research with a keen eye (assuming, tongue firmly in my cheek here, that they still work). At time of writing this, the article in question is trending with what I’d guess to be a flurry of concerned developers and excited wannabe-postgrads looking for a research subject scrambling over each other for any indications of where this is all headed.
I should also mention at this point that the experiment also showed that at high exposures, in the albino rats, the most substantial loss of photoreceptor cells wasn’t caused by the LED at all, but by the cold cathode fluorescent lamps (these are the kind of neon lamps that you’d find on the underside of boy racer cars, for example). So, there is worse out there.
The rats subject to chronic exposure were placed in specific cages with same light sources as for acute testing (fluorocompact bulbs, cold cathode fluorescent lamps, or LEDs – cold white, blue and green, again) set to a cyclical exposure of 12 hours on/12 hours off at 500 lux, for a period of 8 days or 28 days respectively. They were then sacrificed, and the eyes subject to the same diagnostic procedures as with acutely exposed rats.
To quote the paper directly: “After 1 week of exposure, retinal damage was different in W[istar] albinos and L]ong]E[vans] pigmented rats. In W[istar] rats, retinal cell loss following 1 week of exposure was observed only in the superior retina of rats exposed to blue-LEDs.
“After 1 month of exposure, all LEDs induced retinal damage in the superior retina, and only blue and green LEDs induced damage also in the inferior retina.”
What struck me personally from all this was less the dangers of LED lighting at standard levels, and more the comments regarding low level, blue LED acute exposure. The researchers mention that: “Blue LEDs at 500 lux were toxic after 24 hours of continuous exposure even in pigmented not dilated pupil rats…”
For me, that is a worry — albeit not a huge one. Reef aquarists LOVE blue light – there’s nothing better to make corals ‘pop’. I’ve visited stores where intense blue LED rigs have provided most of the ambient light for the store, provided as overspill from the displays they’re powering. Though I’m not saying you should be wary about going somewhere with strong blue lights, I would say that if you’re a retailer with this kind of rig – do maybe be careful.
Later, the article goes on to state that: “[W]e performed an extended analysis of the mechanisms of LED-induced retinal cell toxicity on albino rats, showing that unexpectedly, not only apoptosis was induced but also necrotic cell death, particularly with blue LEDs. This necrotic death triggered an important inflammatory response as observed in our experiments, even at domestic light intensity on albino rats."
Discussing the limitations of the research, the authors note that: “Many factors influence retinal exposure and retinal toxicity, including retinal pigment epithelium pigmentation, pupil diameter, geometry of the face and the nature of the light radiations, including its spectrum, its intensity, the exposure sequence and timing of exposure[…]”
While the authors accept that: “Extrapolation of animal experiments are challenging[…]” they add that “comparisons were made in this study in a very controlled manner which allow compare the effects of different light sources (sic).
“It shows that at the same illuminance and under similar conditions, white, blue and green LEDs provoke retinal damage, while CFLs do not. They also highlight once more, the toxicity of blue light and particularly of blue-LEDs
“Taken together, these data suggest that the blue component of the white-LED may cause retinal toxicity at occupational domestic illuminance and not only in extreme experimental conditions, as previously suspected.”
What's to say?
What I can draw from the article is a scenario where long term white LED exposure can cause retinal damage in albino rats, and to a lesser extent (and in some cases, such as with induced dilation of pupils) in pigmented rats, and acute blue exposure can harm the eyes of pigmented rats as well. There’s nothing that we can say about human exposure to LED from this, so it’s not the time to start hauling LED bars and pendants from tanks and demanding money back. As I read the article, my opinion at this stage is not to be too concerned.
Data aside, I would like to introduce something anecdotal, if for nothing more than raising a conversation piece, and it applies to strictly blue lighting.
Note that the human eye has evolved to react to naturally occurring light sources (we went about 100,000 years as a species before we recently came across actinic, for example). Because of that, the action of a dilating pupil is triggered by various wavelengths of light. The problem there is that the pupil doesn’t behave in entirely the same way when subject solely to blue light as it does when subject to a full spectrum.
Based on what I’ve covered so far, I’m confident I don’t need to say explicitly where I’m going with this, but I will anyway. If I’m sat staring into an aquarium I’ve set to ‘uberblue’ with my remote controller, and if it’s churning out extraordinarily high lux both in the tank, and all the while there’s light spill over the top of it, and my pupil is flared more than usual while all that blue radiation is flying about with no ‘natural’ light telling my pupil to close up, then I imagine I’ve got the kind of perfect storm that would make a researcher want to line up 50 of me all doing the same for a month so that they can ‘sacrifice’ us after and get all histopathological on our collective retinas after. That’d be some fine data to have, but I doubt it’s coming any time soon.
If nothing else, if I ever get an albino pet rat, I’ll be taking extra care not to house it anywhere near a reef set up.
There are two very special prizes to be won today.
We have two of the much sought after plush Zebra plecs to be won from GreenPleco.
Plecostomus plush toys from GreenPleco are teddy bear catfish with lifelike and anatomically correct features and suckers for mouths. Since we first reviewed them in PFK everyone has gone mad for them, which is understandable because they really are awesome.
The ones we’re giving away here are the giant Zebra plecs — 60cm/24in in size. And they glow in the dark too.
Please note that the picture shows three Zebra plecs, but we’re only giving two of them away. We’re keeping the third one ourselves!
Win a Fluval Flex 34 l aquarium worth £109.99!
The Fluval Flex aquarium not only offers contemporary styling with its distinctive curved front, but is also equipped with powerful multi-stage filtration and brilliant LED lighting that allows the user to customise several settings via remote control.
• 7500K LED lamp supports plant growth and enhances fish colours
• Fully adjustable White + RGB LEDs for endless colour blends
• FLEXPad remote can also control fun special effects (i.e. fading cloud cover, lightning bolts)
• Powerful three-stage filtration for superior water quality
• Oversized mechanical (foam), chemical (carbon) and biological (Biomax) media included
• Multi-directional dual outputs for customised water flow
• Hidden rear filter compartment
• Stylish honeycomb wrap conceals water line and sides of rear compartment
• Easy feed top cover opening
• Bold curved front design
• For freshwater use only
Check out today's advent calendar prize.
Win an 85cm Arcadia T5 Tropical Pro LED lamp worth £49.
The Arcadia Classica T5 LED Tropical Pro lamp fits into a retro fluorescent T5 fitting, there is no need to upgrade your hood – saving money, time and energy.
• Traditional T5 end caps for direct replacement of fluorescent lamps – T5 tubes
• Uses third of the electricity, producing almost double the light output of the equivalent fluorescent
• Adds ripple effect, even one T5 LED lamp will make a difference
• Lampholder rotates to correctly direct light output
• Waterproof when used in conjunction with the IP67 ultraseal lampholder
• Two-year guarantee.
Check out today's advent calendar prize!
Today’s prize is a 250g pack of Hikari Cichlid Staple food, worth £8.49.
An excellent quality daily diet for all cichlids and larger tropical fish, Hikari Cichlid Staple has been specially formulated to ensure the pellets are readily accepted and quickly devoured. Offering complete and balanced nutrition, it promotes excellent growth rates through improved digestion. The highly digestible pellets ensure clean, clear water.
The floating pellets, which allow easy monitoring of amount eaten, contain stabilised Vitamin C which supports immune system health and promotes a long and healthy life.
Today's prize will keep your fish very happy indeed!
Today’s prize consists of a bundle of 50g Tropical Fish Flake Food, 50g Corydoras Tablet Food and a 9g sachet of Fish Treats with Shrimp — and we have six bundles to be won, worth £12 each.
FishScience Tropical Fish Flake food
> Natural formula with Insect meal
> Recreates the natural, insect based diet that most aquarium fish would eat in the wild
> The ideal everyday food for all small and medium sized tropical aquarium fish.
> Naturally enhances the fantastic colours of your fish using Spirulina algae, paprika and krill.
> Contains natural ingredients which support your fishes immune system and promote their health, including Beta Glucans, Garlic and Omega 3 oils.
> Specially formulated with insect meal to promote easy digestion and health.
FishScience Corydoras Tablet food
> Recreates the natural, insect based diet that most Corydoras and bottom feeding fish would eat in the wild
> Special formula rich in Insect Meal to promote health and easy digestion whilst reducing waste
> Environmentally friendly and sustainable – reduces the use of Fish meal taken from the sea
> Tablet food, which is ideal for bottom feeding fish such as Corydoras and loaches.
> Tablets slowly break down to allow natural feeding behaviour
> Extensively tested by Corydoras experts throughout the UK.
FishScience Fish Treats with Shrimp
> Sticks to the aquarium glass so you can observe your fish
> Specially formulated to promote health, easy digestion and long life
> Naturally boosts the fishes immune system with garlic, Beta Glucans and Omega 3 oils
> Contains shrimp and krill.
Check out today's prize in the Practical Fishkeeping countdown to Christmas.
Win a £50 Maidenhead Aquatics voucher!
Treat yourself to some fish or aquarium products with this £50 voucher to spend at any branch of Maidenhead Aquatics across the UK.
Maidenhead Aquatics was established in 1984 and is now the UK's largest leading specialist aquatic retailer in the UK, with over 150 stores throughout England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland.
This includes four regional winners in the 2016 Practical Fishkeeping Readers’ Poll: Maidenhead Aquatics @ Windsor (South east), Maidenhead Aquatics @ Cardiff (Wales), Fishkeeper Coatbridge (Scotland) and Maidenhead Aquatics @ Mere Park (West Midlands) and ten stores listed in Practical Fishkeeping readers’ Top 40 aquatic shops.
Today's prize is ideal for reefkeepers who want to upgrade to LED from fluorescent.
Win an 85cm Arcadia T5 Marine white LED lamp worth £49.49.
The Arcadia Classica T5 LED Marine White Lamp fits into a retro fluorescent T5 fitting, there is no need to upgrade your hood - saving money, time and energy.
The 18,000K (Kelvin) rating creates a vivid white light that highlights marine life perfectly, reaching into the deepest crevices to show off every beautiful colour and shape. The natural colours of marine life forms really benefit from this light source as it promotes the level of photosynthesis needed for healthy growth.
The LEDs work together to cast a ripple effect on the water, just as natural sunlight would on the ocean. For a night time glow, It can be rotated 300 degrees, so you can illuminate just where you want to.
The Arcadia Classica T5 LED Marine White Lamp creates five times more light per kilowatt hour than traditional lighting forms. However, it only uses a third of the electric, so saves you money and power.
Discover what's behind the door of the Practical Fishkeeping advent calendar today!
Win a pack of Hikari Algae Wafers worth £14.99.
Hikari were the originators of wafer shaped algae diets. In 1991, when Hikari launched Algae Wafers, no other food existed to help keep Plecostomus healthy. There were many reports of Plecostomus getting thinner with each passing day. To address this problem, Hikari began researching raw materials and production techniques to develop potential diets. After considerable experimentation, Hikari developed the best ingredient formulation possible. The next stage was to develop a format the fish would eat, that wouldn't dissolve in the water and allowed the nutrition to be accessed readily. The revolutionary disk shape was chosen because it complimented the way Plecostomus eat.
Rich in natural green algae, which helps promote excellent colouring, Hikari Algae Wafers offer complete and balanced nutrition for Plecostomus and other algae eating fish including marine herbivores.
Today's prize is ideal for the marine aquarist or reefkeeper. Check it out...
Win an Easy Reefs food bundle worth £35.47.
The prize consists of Masstick 42 (£12.99), Easy Booster 28 (£12.99) and DKI marine (70g).
Masstick is a self-adhesive paste in a powder formula, ready for rehydration with water.
Once it is rehydrated, it can be stuck to any surface of the aquarium, depending on the animals’ needs. The rehydratable powder formula allows Masstick to be blended with any mollusc or crustacean pulp as well as eggs from fish, molluscs and crustaceans, Artemia, mysids, copepods, rotifers and medicines that are administered orally.
Once prepared and introduced into the aquarium, Masstick does not disperse into the water for hours, so it can be completely taken advantage of by fish and crustaceans. This feature allows the product to be used as “ad libitum” or rationed feeding. Because Masstick is comprised mainly of freeze-dried crustaceans, it does not contain fish skeletons and is thus very low in phosphates compared to its protein content.
Masstick 42 contains three transparent, zip-lock bags with 42 net grams of product in each one.
Easybooster is a liquid phytoplankton in single-dose bags that is ready to use, easy and clean. Easybooster 28 contains 28 blister packs.
DKI marine is a balanced food, which has been developed to satisfy the nutritional needs of omnivorous marine fish from the coral reef biotope.
DKI marine marine comes in the form of tender granules and neutral buoyancy. It is available in three grain sizes.
The main ingredient is freeze-dried shrimp (Palaemonetes varians) coming from the Veta de la Palma fisheries located in the Doñana Natural Space.
The microalgae (Nannochloropsis, Tetraselmis, Isochrysis, and Phaeodactylum) included in its formula provide fatty acids, completely natural vitamins, functional compounds and bioactive ingredients which preserve and boost the marine fishes’ immune system and general health.
Today's prize is ideal for the aquascaper or fishkeepers with planted set-ups.
Win a five-piece aquascaping kit from Arcadia, worth £44.99.
This high quality kit contains five 30cm/12in stainless steel tools for the aquascaper: ultra-sharp scissors with curved blades, ultra sharp steel flat blade scissors, bent front tweezers, straight tweezers, scraper blade with double end large and small scrapers.
The kit comes in a stylish and compact leather case.
Today's advent calendar prize is worth £114.95 and is ideal for the pondkeeper.
Win a Fish Mate P7000 Pond Fish Feeder worth £114.95!
With a weather resistant snap-lock lid, 7 litres of hopper capacity and programmable LCD timer, the Fish Mate P7000 Pond Fish Feeder from Pet Mate is the ultimate in pondkeeper hedonism.
Easy to assemble, even easier to use, you’ll get peace of mind on holidays or weekends away that your prize koi are having their bellies filled just right!We’ve one to give away, with an RRP of £114.95, so get involved to win it!
Check out today's great prize, worth £98.99!
Win a 26cm Marine white LED Blade light from Arcadia.
The LED Blade has design and light output at its forefront, the ultra sleek anodised aluminum case with a profile of just 8mm it has been designed to provide as close to an invisible light source as possible, whilst doubling up its function as a heat sink for the high power LED’s.
Contains 42 LEDs
High Lumen per Watt
Low running costs
No bulb replacements (>50,000hr LED life)
Inline power switch
Low carbon footprint
Creates the ripple effect
What's hiding behind today's door?
Six bundles of FishScience Malawi foods to be won, worth £14.80 each.
We have six packs of FishScience foods to be won, each comprising a pot of Malawi Pellet and Malawi Flake.
FishScience Malawi foods offer a unique formula containing algae and vegetables to recreate the natural plant and algae based diet that mbuna would eat in the wild.
The prize includes:
50g Malawi Flake — a complete and nutritionally balanced diet for Malawi cichlids and other algae eating fish
115g Malawi Pellets — high quality 2mm sinking pellet specifically formulated for mbuna and other herbivorous cichlids