What our hobby needs right now is more serious aquarists, says Nathan Hill. So it's time we started putting the fish at the top of our priorities again...
A while back I wrote a piece about 'serious' aquarists that caused quite the tidal wave. On one hand, many people who thought of themselves as 'serious' and completely missed the point berated me. At the same time I was applauded by others, who loved the dryness of the piece. For the following weeks, the carbon-belching server farms supporting my inbox probably caused more environmental harm than a whole year’s worth of riding a Humvee.
But now I need to stick my head back out and say that jesting aside, what we all need are more unshackled, try-anything-once, resourceful, experimental, serious aquarists.
Aquatics is a bag of allsorts, more diverse than musical tastes. Some people go in for colour. Others — though a considerably lower number — join up because they want a stab at breeding. Many more are snared from having disposable income smouldering away in their pockets when they happen to pass an affordable nano tank.
Gaggles of hobbyists go in for aquascapes, and why not? They’re visually stunning, and what’s not to like about something with 'natural' plastered all over it? I’ll go so far as to say that aquascapes are the current PR face of fishkeeping, making appearances in tabloids as a worldwide curiosity. They’re the ones we roll out when we need to look pretty, and I’m damned glad that we’ve got them.
The benefits that ‘scapes have brought our fishkeeping collective are not to be taken lightly. In the media world, they are our social gadflies, and the people behind them considered more Damien Hirst than Fred Dibnah.
I love aquascapes, and I love the aquascaping community, but we do need to recognise it as a subset of the hobby, and a hyper specialised one at that.
Aquascaping isn’t exactly all encompassing. Some ‘scapes are more ‘natural’ than others, and though some get close (or even identical) to actual habitats, such as those in the biotope classes, others shoot from the hip and miss spectacularly. Ever seen a wild Cardinal tetra habitat? It looks like an unflushed toilet, a lot of the time; dark, leafy, heaving with algae, and a gagillion miles away from an Iwagumi.
There’s chemical smog that goes into lots of ‘scapes. Nutrient levels need to be kept abundant in many set ups, especially those 'high energy' ones, and that means pumping in nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and trace elements. The kinds of levels found in a planted gem are magnitudes higher than those found out in actual streams and rivers, and that’s before we even start looking at the endless bubbling CO2. Suffice to say, spawning activity in aquascapes appears to be limited at best. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but it’s not exactly the best situation to try to breed fish in. From the perspective of looks, ‘scapes are serious. From the perspective of fish, maybe not so.
I recall putting together a Discus tank recently, as a sort of pseudo biotope for German Stendkers. It had an exceptional response, with lots of people contacting me to ask more details about how to set up their own. I was heartened. Then I noticed a fair few ‘reactionary’ Discus tanks suddenly doing the rounds online, with hashtags about being planted — perhaps a minor swipe (given the timing) at the fact I pointed out how unnatural planted tanks were for Discus, trapped over green Hemianthus carpets, and under 1.21 jigawatts of illumination.
'See, it can be done!' was the general gist of the mocking. The tanks looked amazing, which was handy as they did at least distract from the rampant stress bars on the flanks of many of the fish.
I repeat; I’m not knocking aquascapes. Hell, they are what they are. They are beautiful, and they’re putting aquariums into the public eye and causing awe and wonder. ‘Scapers be proud. You’re giving the hobby more publicity than it would have ever gained without you.
In their own way, with dedication to meticulous details, aquascapers might already be the most serious aquarists of all.
Time to get really serious?
There’s ample sales pitch that goes along with fish tanks. 'Sleek', for example. 'Modern', and 'Minimalist'. Tanks that make headlines are 'awe inspiring' or 'jaw dropping'. But you know what I don’t see written with conviction any more? 'Great for fish'. 'A perfect environment for the livestock'. Anyone else noticing this?
I’m increasingly concerned about lack of interest in the wellbeing of fish. It’s as though the priority globe has flipped its poles, tilting on its axis so now many worry more about finding fish to suit a tank, rather than tanks to suit a fish. Less interest is paid to how fish will cope with water chemistry than it is about which species’ colour will match gavel and décor best. What does provide the best contrast to that bright pink backing sheet? And what ones need the least care? I don’t even mind what they’re called, as long as they stay borderline alive…
It’s time we started putting fish at the top of our priorities again. It’s time to stop pretending we’ve got the happy medium — that sweet spot we think we can find where water chemistry is just about tolerable for both an Ancistrus and a Neolamprologus — and time to focus on what fish want and how we can be more responsible towards them. We need aquarists that we can wheel out with triumphs of breeding and ex-situ conservation.
Last week I wrote about the first fish to come back from an endangered list, which is something of a miracle given the way that the world seems to be snuffing out species like it’s sport.
That got me brooding about just how disconnected public perception and reality are. We see plenty of fish in stores that we would think of as abundant in the wild. Find me a store that hasn’t had a bustling tank of Red tailed sharks in the last six months. The things are everywhere. Except in the wild, that is. As far as we know, they’re extinct. And the reason we’re so sure of that is because we humans destroyed the habitat they live in.
A lot of real fishionados, the ones with racks of tanks bubbling away — and as nerdy as that might appear to the layperson — are keeping species alive. They’re maintaining species that no longer have homes in the wild, breeding fish that have nowhere to go. In some cases, they are the last resources for genetic material of critically endangered or wild extinct species. These are, very sincerely, the unsung heroes of the fish world. But most people will never know that, because it’s not newsworthy enough for the click-click, three-second disposable mainstream media. From a personal perspective, I salute you, and I’m sure others do.
The engineering and steering of the trade these days seems to have left 'serious' aquarists high and dry. I guess from a trade perspective, there’s little turnover in obscure, meekly coloured livebearers, or drab barbs. And I also guess it’s hard to sell the latest in arcane, high-whiz gadgetry to someone who’s mastered air powered filters in a temperature controlled fish house. It’s probably difficult to push breeding traps to those who know how to tinker margarine tubs and ice cream containers.
I put this to the trade. Decades (or considerably less) from now, as global resources reduce, species decline, and increasing numbers of luxuries are put under the spotlight and asked to justify themselves, a hobby that guzzles up water and electricity, plunders rivers and lakes for stock, hauls herrings from the sea to grind into flakes, and takes up farming space that could be better used on human food production ventures will need a poster child or three to put a positive slant on things. If the best thing we can say about the trade when the time comes is that it creates continuous revenue pumping out garish tanks and inbred platies, and that’s it, we’re pretty boned.
To win hearts and minds, more of us need to become 'serious': real amateur enthusiasts. Last time I used that term, some people tried to bite my goddamned head off. It’s a compliment, deal with it.
How do we go about becoming committed amateurs? The first thing we do is we worry about fish.
I’ve made this point before, and I’m making it again, because it’s pertinent. The fish in your tank didn’t want to be kept by you. They didn’t ask to be caught up from the wild, or reared in farms, to then travel across the globe. They didn’t want to spend a few weeks in quarantine before settling down into a cube of fluid that they had no say over.
Now, you might be the kind of person that looks on fish as being disposable. Fish might be commodities to you. If so, then you’ve got the wrong hobby. Simple as that. If fish are as throwaway as a KitKat, then you’re on the wrong side and might want to shift on to something else. I don’t mean that with malice, but an awful lot of us, fish included, would rather you didn’t take a wanton approach to living creatures. That attitude harms the hobby as a whole, and we don’t need it.
For the rest of us, it’s worth thinking what we want out of the hobby. If you want an aquascape, then I say go for it. Do a damn fine job, post images of that thing all over social media. Hell, get it into galleries if you can. Anything that puts aquatics in a positive light is excellent.
If you want to keep a community, then great. But please take a moment to think whether you’re really providing the best you can. Make a few careful stocking decisions before cracking out the debit card. Those Rams might look beautiful, but if you’re already stocking mineral loving rainbowfish, and you’ve got decidedly alkaline water, then maybe give them a swerve. Small victories, maybe, but they all add up.
But, and I definitely and sincerely swing this towards the community folks, please do consider dabbling in something more serious, even if just on the side. If you’ve already got your aquarium feet and have a good idea of what you’re doing, then you’re wasted potential. If you know water quality, how to clean filters, and how to deal with diseases, then there’s a fish out there that needs your help.
Nobody woke up and thought ‘I quite fancy become an expert breeder of obscure Indonesian loaches today,’ but rather they drifted in to it. And they drifted in to it from where you are now, from having a fishy interest and finding something particular that appealed to them. I implore you to try the same for yourself. This time in five years you might be the world authority on your niche, with conservation programs calling you up and asking how best to save the species. Imagine that.
Several years of researching and writing about fish have repeatedly shown me one depressing thing; most species are in trouble. Some have found their ways into a breeder’s heart, like L046 plecs, for being almost as appealing as their £150 price tags. But it’s the Liquorice gouramis, the Mexican livebearers, the African cichlids being guzzled by Nile perch that also need help. They might not be as profitable or as striking, but surely they deserve a chance, right?
To finish, I want to put a call out to retailers and manufacturers. I want you to think about investing in your — our — futures. Serious aquarists are going to be the ones with results to show when the time comes, and when results really matter. How about helping them out? How about sending out a helping hand, some surplus goodies and bits and bobs, to some of the clubs and societies that are leading the way with captive breeding efforts? Who knows, it might be some of the discoveries turned up by these guys and girls in years to come that’s the difference between the trade finding itself a second wind, or ignobly nosediving.
Amateurs, keep up the good work. We need you all, and appreciate your efforts.
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