Promises in a bottle?

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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. 

Culture shock

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.