Do today's fishkeepers fall into one of two groups, asks Nathan Hill - and if so, which type are you?
After an interesting conversation with an aquarium manufacturer, I took a few minutes to think about the trade.
I’m not certain about this, things seem to be polarising, and I’m interested in hearing real world aquarist feedback to see if I’m barking up the wrong Amazon sword.
The way I see it, and the chief content of the conversation I had, there are two camps of fishkeeping today.
Back to basics
There are the traditional fish lovers, who tend to focus on nothing but the object of their affection: fish.
These keepers, as I’ve noted through visits and chats, enjoy the form and movement of their livestock above all else. They are fascinated with the behaviour, shape, feeding and colours of fish.
For these keepers, the aesthetic of the tank is minor, negligible, even. There is no love of luxurious, expensive glassware or shining pipes, no affection given to the sleek lines of an LED or lighting canopy. Functionality over form.
They want the fish and fish alone. It matters not one jot to them whether the tank has multi-coloured or multi-type substrates. They turn a blind eye to a treasure chest ornament or flowerpot in which their fish hide.
And why not? After all, is it not the case that the fish have little care for whether their cover in the aquarium is a sunken battleship, or an authentic piece of driftwood?
On the other hand, there are the modernists. Typically these will be either reefkeepers or aquascapers, concerned about the impression that their tank gives. For these chaps, perhaps it is the competitive nature of their hobby that draws such concern about putting on a 'show'. I don’t know for sure, that’s why I’m asking.
Modernists are happy to spend more on their hobby, I speculate, though that’s not to say traditionalists are skinflints. Far from it, as many traditional keepers I come across seem to invest in expensive species and projects.
Those that breed Zebra plecs, for example, tend to have basic, almost ugly set ups, with tanks balanced on recycled old metal frames, scratched glassware and throbbing, gurgling air driven filters. But their fish, costly to the extreme, are something that nobody would want to take a half-hearted approach to.
I find that modernists often know less about their charges than traditionals, too. For them, they’ll sometimes not get past the common name of a fish, just content that it looks good and fits in with the overall artistic impression of their display.
The trade seems to reflect this supposed polarisation of mine. Just take a glance into shops and you’ll see a medley of offerings. Some more 'boutique' stores will have delicate glassware, mouth blown pipes, and often exorbitantly priced, gleaming equipment to accompany.
At the other end of the spectrum, you’ll find basic blocks of tank, on basic blocks of cabinet. That’s assuming a cabinet is even used. Instead, a tank may be sold with the most basic of gear, to end up on a dressing table or TV stand – not that I’d recommend using either, even though I have been a culprit of both of these.
Basic, cheap filters are available, rough about the edges, but selling like supermarket bread in a UK snowstorm. And I don’t mean they sell a little, they positively fly out.
This leads me to ponder what I see as the three main reasons for people joining the hobby.
I have always assumed that a large reason people start keeping fish is because the prices on small set ups have dropped, and people perusing garden centres on a Sunday afternoon have cash to burn.
The pester power of kids, the affordability of a new set up – less than a hard night on the town these days – and the availability of easy to keep, colourful fish have all, I suspect, played a part in introducing new blood to the hobby.
Another big chunk of keepers, making up a surprising portion of those I recall serving in my long retail career, are those who are nostalgic. They grew up in a family where a fish tank was kept.
Their parents would have had a community tank, or maybe bred something like cichlids, in the old hardware of the day; undergravel filters simmering away, and with gaudy submersible heaters on show.
I found that this group had reached an age where they wanted, and had the disposable income for, a tank of their own. They wanted to almost recreate something similar to what their folks had done, and that generally doesn’t involve new, confusing, high technology gear and pristine displays.
The third, and quite rare group was those who had been inspired by tanks they’d seen elsewhere, or even by the higher tech displays in store. Often more gadgety, with a penchant for cameras and suchlike, they would be the ones to enquire about their first stab at something that replicated a tank that had caught their eye.
I should reiterate that this last group was rare, however.
What are you, and why?
So all of this rambling leads me inexorably to the point of my blog. What kind of keeper are you? Are you trad? Are you mod? Are you something else?
But more than that, if you can shed insight into why it is you do what you do, I’d be fascinated, as I’m sure others would too.
For myself, I started trad, and remained trad for many years. I had tanks teetering on top of other tanks, with clusters of wires going into sockets that looked like something Rubik’s would invent. Unplugging a filter would become a laborious and brain engaging affair, involving following long trails of cable around loops and knots until I found their connected appliance. I had patchwork hoods, tubes swinging from cable ties, and at the time I never really noticed any of it.
Thinking back, I can barely remember what substrate I had, but I’m sure I had something bright at least a couple of times.
Then I went modern, where I’ve stayed pretty much ever since, or so I like to think. Still that old sentiment of 'fish above all' runs strong, and even today when presented with the most curious botch of a tank, it’ll take me a few minutes to realise, such will be my directed intention on seeing the fish inside.
I’m not sure the two camps are mutually exclusive, either. I think you can be completely focused on both the fish and the look of its home. It’s just that I don’t usually find many people who concentrate strongly on both.
Is there anyone in the middle ground here?