10 things that non-fishkeepers just don't get


10 things that non-fishkeepers just don't get

Let's all get comfy and have a nice old gripe, shall we? It's been a while since I've had a half-decent ramble, so it's long overdue, says Nathan Hill.

I’ve had a new housemate join me recently, the fourth member of our comedic urban commune where I’m the only fish-minded individual.

Now don’t get me wrong, my housemates love the many tanks I set up for the magazine. I mean, where do you think half of these step-by-steps are rigged up before they go into the mag? Rarely I can book time in the studio at planet Bauer, and even if I can I’m usually spending half of it getting into fistfights with the people on the motorbike titles, or mountaineering my way around a fashion shoot involving a plump man in waders. No, it’s mainly shot in my landlord’s lounge, with endless running back and forth with buckets, and much swearing as I spill plant substrate all over the freshly cleaned Furniture Village sofa, and explode my last pieces of expensive glassware into my eyes. It all happens, with alarming frequency.

So, this new housemate is harmless enough and all that, and he keeps his fingers out of my beer-fridge, but he personifies the general mindset of non-aquarists. He just doesn’t get it. Any of it. And I’m the one who ends up feeling like I’m doing something wrong, because I get so exhausted trying to explain the same things over, and over, and over, ad infinitum.

So it occurred to me to do a blog, mainly so I can redirect him to here whenever he asks me something asinine about my latest set up. But hey, I’m guessing we all have friends (or maybe I should class them as acquaintances: could someone who doesn’t keep fish really be your friend? Really?) who know two thirds of sod all about fishkeeping, and like me I daresay you spend way too much time having to explain the same things over again. Gets tedious, doesn’t it?

So here’s the plan. I’ll waffle about what it is they don’t get, and try to offer a little clarity to some of their points, and the next time it comes up you can sit them down at the computer, bring the page up and leave them to it while you crack on with some algae wiping. I guarantee you’ll have less cortisol in your blood this way, and they might not have to ask you so much in future.

1. Not all fish need a filter, right?

For the love of… Yes, yes fish need a filter. And not just the expensive fish. If you’ve got a fish in a tank, it needs a filter, whether it’s a 20p fairground goldfish or a ten grand Arowana.

And to pre-empt the argument that you recall from your childhood when your parents/distant relatives/dentist/whatever had a fish in a bowl without a filter and it was fine, I challenge you to go back and ask what happened to it.

If it was a goldfish, and you’re in your twenties or thirties now, then there’s little reason that this little dude shouldn’t still be alive today. Go ask. I bet you it died young, lasted a few years at best. Goldfish are meant to live a pretty long time, y’know? Not just a year or two…

So what does the filter do? In the simplest, most concise summary of aquarium filtration I’m ever going to write, the process is as simple as this: Fish make poisonous mess, bacteria eat mess, filter is where bacteria live. No filter, no bacteria, much mess, fish die.

And no, there’s no such thing as a fish that doesn’t make mess. If there was I’d sell billions of the damn things and we’d never have this problem ever again. Easy. I’d be a quadrillionaire on a yacht and everyone would be happy.

2. Fish do not grow to the size of the tank.

Okay, the illusion might make it appear that fish only grow to the size of the tank, but this is easily explained. You’re likely thinking of that poor goldfish from your childhood again, the one that isn’t alive now, and remembering that it never outgrew its tank. Ergo, you’ve probably jumped to the conclusion that it only grew to the size of the tank.

Well you’re wrong.

The chances are that fish died because it was getting too big for its tank, assuming it didn’t just die first because there was no filter, and its poor little body just ravaged itself to death by effectively dining on its own urine. Swimming in and drinking your own sewage has that effect. I’d say try it, but knowing my luck someone probably would, then I’d somehow get blamed when they died and I’d go to prison, and frankly I’m too pretty for prison. Don’t try it.

Anyway, if that fish had a bigger tank, it would still be alive now. Things don’t grow to the size of their environment (usually) unless they’re Bonzai trees. But Bonzai fish don’t exist. Sure, putting a fish in too small a tank will stump it, but that’s another symptom of living in your own effluvia.

Saying that, lots of things will stump if I keep them in cramped conditions. If I snatched a human baby and crammed it into a hamper, fed it and nurtured it, and then let it out after sixteen years, I doubt I’d have a perfectly formed pygmy. Rather, I’d probably have something closer to the Brundlefly, slithering across the floor on broken, twisted limbs, slathering from bent jaws and pleading with me to empty both barrels of a shotgun into its brain.

3. Why we would want to create a 'natural looking' tank?

Shiny things are pretty, I’m sure. Pink, garish things, like the jumper I’m wearing, are great for a while, but the novelty wears off. Our inner Magpie slowly grows up. For most of us, anyway.

We know that there’s a plastic universe of gimmickry out there. Scooby Doo figurines, fluorescent no fishing signs, and even lead-painted shipwrecks. Well, some people do like them, and that’s why there’s a market. But then some aquarists start to develop more of an affinity with their livestock.

It might come across as odd, but some of us feel the same way about a Guppy as we do a Gerbil, or a Budgie. We start to anthropomorphise with the fish, and start to wonder more about what would make THEM happy as the priority rather than making US happy.

I summed this view up with a statement in an old blog, but if you’re a non-fishkeeper, you’ll likely not have come across it. Basically, this fish was just chipping along one day, minding its own business and wondering whether it was going to bump into a nice waterflea to chow down on, when suddenly it got scooped up in a net, popped in a box, flown halfway around the world, and eventually, through a series of wholesaler and retailer tanks, ended up in your own aquarium.

Now you can call that luck of the draw if you like, but I prefer to take a different angle. That fish didn’t really want to be kept by you. It was happy enough just bumming about doing its own thing, but now it’s the one half of a contract of obligation that it can’t opt out of. If we’re going to put fish through the rigours of heisting them from their wild homes then I say the very least we can do is make things as cosy and as close to natural as possible for them.

Put yourself in their shoes for a moment. You get abducted by aliens and carried away to the 'Zoo at the edge of the Spiral Arm'. You get a choice of pens to live in. One is a kind of lovely replica of home. There’s a nice semi-detached house, an X-box and TV system with loads of games, plenty of fine world cuisine in it, and you never have to work a day in your life ever again.

The other pen is a mixture of bright green and pink bubble walls, with gigantic, howling, transparent worms, and a spinning multi-coloured disc that occasionally fires lasers into the ground and screams like a Stuka dive-bomber.

Which would you rather the aliens slipped you into?

4. If you’ve got a filter you still need to change water.

Yeah, apologies for this one, especially if you’re looking at getting into fish for the first time.

Okay, ever so quickly, remember that thing I mentioned earlier about poisonous mess, bacteria and filters? Well I’m going to add another bit to that. As the bacteria do their funky mess-munching thing they make a waste of their own — nitrate.

That nitrate’s some pretty nasty funk, especially when it builds up, but it’s not quite as nasty as the raw fish waste. When we waterchange, what we’re doing is taking out (in effect) the bacteria’s mess.

I already know what you’re thinking next, but lose that train of thought immediately. Even if you get a bigger filter you’ll need to change the water at the same rate. There’s no escaping it, I’m afraid.

In an aquarium it doesn’t matter how big a filter I have. The only thing that dictates how much nitrate I’m going to have is the amount of fish making poisonous waste. If I have ten fish and a small filter, I’ll end up with exactly the same amount of nitrate after a week as if I had ten fish and a massive, Titanic sized mega-giant of a filter.

In fairness, I’m oversimplifying, because there’s more to this tale. The other thing that happens is that stuff even depletes in a tank over time, and needs replacing. The only way to do that? Waterchanges. There’s other stuff to be removed that builds up too, but I think you’re getting the basics by now.


5. Fighting fish don’t fight everything in the world.

In fact, for the best part they’re utter wimps. Compared to many other fish out there they have all the fighting prowess of a sedated toddler.

Let’s put this to bed. The only thing that fighting fish want to fight is each other. Usually that just means other males. Think of a muscle-bound, vest wearing tan boy in a nightclub. The likeliest thing he’ll take offence to that night is another muscle-bound, vest wearing tan boy in that club. I don’t even appear on his aggression radar. It’s the same with fighters. Stick them with another male of their own kind, and they’ll kick seven bells out of each other. Though they do also rough up females most of the time too.

And while I have you, they don’t come from Japan. They’re called Siamese fighters. Not Japanese. Every time you say Japanese fighting fish, we aquarists have a little private laugh inside. Siamese. Learn it, because you lose so much credibility when you say Japanese.

6. Fishkeeping is not geeky. Maybe.

Well, maybe. But it depends what you mean by geeky. The danger here is the connotation of the word geeky into something negative. Plenty of people have been geeky about stuff. Einstein was pretty geeky about physics. Darwin was geeky about natural history. Steve Jobs was geeky about computers. They all did okay out of it.

Basically, if you’re a fishkeeper and people are looking down on you for it, that’s their problem, not yours. It seems that in this day and age, if you’re in any way immersed in a subject that interests you then some clown out there is going to brand you a geek for it. Meh, pick that name up, I say, and wear it as a badge of honour. I’d rather have something geeky in my life than be a judgemental, vacuous shell, eeking out my dull existence and waiting to die.

So maybe we are geeks, but we really don’t care because it’s nothing shameful.

7. You can’t race into it.

Geeks we might be, but one thing we aquarists have in droves is patience. Now, you might be taken by a fish tank you’ve seen, and you’re thinking about taking the plunge, and that’s just superb. But! But but but but but!

Your haste will be your biggest enemy if you let it get the better of you. Fish tanks take time to do what’s called maturing.

Let’s quickly backtrack to that earlier point I raised about the poisonous fish waste/bacteria/filter combination. There’s one more dimension that needs to be factored in, and that’s time. Those bacteria are fickle little rotters. Think of the famous scene in the ‘Field of Dreams’ about ‘Build it and he will come’.

That’s sort of what we’re doing with our bacteria. Until we have a good colony of bacteria, we still have nothing munching down on our poisonous fish wastes. And that’s a bad thing.

Now, from the point where you start, it might be several months until everything is finally settled down and you have all the fish you want. I’ll repeat that bit. It might be several months. Not days or even weeks, but months. In fact, your tank will probably be empty for the first few weeks that you own it, with nothing but water and ammonia rattling about inside.

If you’re the kind of person who can’t even wait a week for the next episode of a TV series, and instead find yourself trawling files-haring websites for grainy, pixelated pirate copies to fuel your viewing lust, then you might not be entirely cut out for fishkeeping.

8. Bottles don’t fix everything.

When it comes to fish, we should all go in understanding that there’s no miraculous elixir that sorts out every woe that could possibly befall your stock. And yet, non-fishkeepers seem to imagine that every issue can be solved by adding a few drops of something to the tank.

What this mysterious something is always seems elusive and beyond definition, but they recall a friend or acquaintance as having troubles 'which they had to add the stuff from the shop to fix it'.

No, there’s no easy approach to fixing all of your fishy troubles with some arcane, holistic fluid, because simply put it doesn’t exist.

This non-existent elixir comes in many forms, too, I note. There’s the elixir that gets rid of the green, the elixir that cures the spot-fungus-rot disease, and even the elixir that lets you put all the fish in at once.

I hate to break the bubble, but there you go. If you become a fishkeeper you probably will run into situations that require your divine aquarist intervention, but you’ll need to do more than just grab a couple of bottles of wonderjuice. You’ll need to get wet hands. Imagine that.

9. Fish come from far away places.

I’ve slowly reached the conclusion that non-fishkeepers are all too frequently slaves to the supermarket mentality of everything. Drinks come out of a vending machine, meat comes from cellophane wrapped packets, and beans come from the Heinz bean swamp.

No, fish don’t magically appear in the store, nor are they the produce of a handful of aquarists in sheds, doling out an endless conveyance of staples. These tykes are from all around the world, from hot and exotic places where we don’t even go on holiday because we don’t want to be kidnapped or shot.

For a non-keeper, this might not count for much, but for we aquarists it all adds another dimension. We love things called biotopes, where we aim to get fish from certain places around the globe. We might have a thing for African cichlids from huge lakes in Malawi, or catfish from the heart of the Amazon. Remember what I said earlier about creating natural looking tanks? It’s all relative.

And it gets even better. Some of us even like to emulate the natural habitat right down to plant species and decoration. We only really stop just short of importing monkeys, macaws, horrendous man-eating parasites, or diseases like ebola. Though if it were available, some of us still might, for that real authentic effect.

So when you’re looking at what to you might appear a boring tank of muddy sand, with a few bunches of greenery bobbing about inside, and a handful of fish you can barely even make out, tucked away amongst the wood, just bear in mind that you might be getting treated to a snapshot of some distant, remote stream that you might never, ever hope to see in the flesh during your life.

10. Aquarists hate, and I mean really hate, crap jokes about fish.

Popping a funny line into the mix about chips and vinegar, or cat food, or even about getting out your fishing rod is not funny.

The deal is, we’ve heard them. Every single one. Each and every 'funny' one liner that you think you’re the first person to ever come out with has been said over and over to us, often by people we wish had known better. We are tired, and our patience has been worn down by such paltry gags.

So, by all means engage us with questions about our fish, our tanks, or our filter systems, assuming you’re generally interested. But if you’re going to belly-laugh hysterically at your own joke about getting some cocktail sauce to dip our shrimps into, then don’t be surprised for one instant if we one day snap, drag you out into the garden and spend the next ten minutes whipping you with a spade. Because one day it’s going to happen.

Lessons learned

Hopefully I’ve covered the key points here and now you can come back through to where the tank is and engage in a conversation that won’t make us become murderous nerds in seconds.

Oh, I’ve oversimplified my arguments to make things simple, but that was my whole angle. The important thing is that now at least you’re armed with the basic misconceptions, and hopefully you’ll never have to bore your aquarist friends with them ever again. At the same count, if you do ever decide that you want to get into fish, you might even have a bit of a head start on some of the pitfalls people slip into.

And hey, if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool, definitely never going to keep fish in your life type, then that’s also fine. At least you understand a little bit about us now. We’re all people with a hobby we adore, which happens to involve living organisms. Some people don’t see fish that way, but we do, and we get funny when people disregard our livestock like it was a CD collection, or cookware, or anything else inanimate.

Oh, and if my new housemate does ever get around to reading this, remember to empty the dishwasher every now and then, and keep your fingers out of my beer fridge. It’s booby-trapped.

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