Take responsibility, damn it!

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The rain's back, I'm spending too much time indoors, and when frequenting my local stores I'm doing an awful lot of eavesdropping. It's time to hoist up my soapbox and unleash the demagogue within, because my hackles are up, says Nathan Hill.

Let me clarify from the offset. I'm not precious about popularity. If people don't like me, I can live with that. So I'm happy to voice a few opinions that might prove unpopular. And I'm going to.

The bone of my contention today is not specific to the aquatics trade. It's everywhere. The key difference is that when dealing with livestock, the vulgarity of the issue is exacerbated, and frankly I am astounded — not to mention pleased — that we have not to date witnessed a physical assault by an infuriated retailer on a member of the public. Shopkeepers everywhere, I salute your restraint.

I'm talking about responsibility. Personal responsibility. I'm going to write two sentences below, and invite you to ask yourselves which of them looks correct:

1. I lost one of my fish.

2. I killed one of my fish.

Feeling uncomfortable yet?

We humans have become masters of sleaze, adept at shifting blame from ourselves over even the slightest indiscretion. If people drive cars like idiots and then crash, it's the fault of a slippery road. I might trip over in a supermarket, crashing headlong into a pile of expensive glassware, sending it cascading in a shower of fragments. When the public gather round and worried staff rush over, all I need do is point at my untied shoelaces and scream 'there's the culprit' and everyone will heave a sigh of relief. It wasn't my fault.

The first of the two lines above drives me into a terrible rage. 'I lost that fish I bought last weekend...' No, no you did not. If you lost it, it only remains to find it. Where did you see it last? Have you looked down the back of the sofa? 'Lost' is the way we make ourselves feel better about the grossest kind of incompetence.

To be sure, one can have a fish die through natural causes or circumstances outside of our control. Perhaps it carried a congenital heart defect. Maybe there was an undiagnosed tumour inside. You might be subject to an unseen, ongoing power outage. These are fair caveats. You lost the fish, and it was outside of your control.

'I lost all of mine when my heater stuck on,' I might hear someone say, instantly absolving themselves. That'd be a reasonable argument back in the nineties, but this is now 2014. We have items like the Seneye. If my heater sticks on now, I get a text or email so that I can resolve the issue before it becomes lethal. That one doesn't wash any more. And for those who think that an early warning device won't make that much of a difference, I know (because I asked) that Seneye have an average of 400 temperature alerts sent by text and mail every single month. That's a lot of potential disasters avoided right there. But then, all of the major killers are easily avoided, if only we can be bothered to familiarise ourselves with them. Ignorance, as in so many fields, is no defence.

This must be the twentieth time I've written this point, but I'd like it to be my mantra; my legacy, if you will. The fish in your tank were perfectly happy not being owned by you. You have not done them a colossal favour by taking them from rivers and seas and placing them in to your aquarium. You have taken them from a natural platform and placed them into an entirely synthetic one, of which every single aspect is entirely under your control. When it comes to your aquarium, you are the closest approximation of a god that you will ever be. You have the power of life and death, through choice or incompetence. So start behaving like the benevolent deity that you are.

If that sounds anti hobby, then you've mistaken me. The hobby is fine. The concept of keeping a little slice of wilderness is fine. As long as it is given the high degree of consideration it deserves. Once we start to look at livestock as an expendable commodity, we have fallen down a certain ethical slope that we should be fighting to stay at the top of. The hobby is fine indeed, because the whole point of the hobby is to keep fish alive and happy. But some of those within it need to stop dragging their feet.

The idea of 'losing' our livestock is more transparent than a glass catfish. For the best part, we 'kill' our livestock, usually through ignorance. Less frequently through contempt. Sometimes through outright arrogance. Sadly, those most likely to be the arrogant killers are the least likely to read a blog on fish care. That's the dilemma we face on that point.

I can also hear the squirm of some folks pushing responsibility back a little. Perhaps the fish death was the result of an out of date test kit? Sorry, hombre, I'm not buying that either. If you want to push blame back down that line, I'm going to chase you right along it. My concept of an aquarist as a fish god is one that is omnipresent, accountable for every aspect. Test kits go out of date and give false readings. That's why you need to be hotter on keeping records and checking the dates. And by jove, you'd best have a test kit in the first place. I'd go so far as to argue that's the thing you should be buying before you even buy a tank. If you can't afford one, then you sure as sugar can't afford to buy fish...

I also tire of shared blame. For some folks, it appears that a specialist is someone called upon at the last minute to take their portion of the flack. Your retailer is a valuable resource, yes, and far from flawless. But 's/he told me to do it' is no defence either. These are your fish, not the property of the person who sold them to you. Use your local store as an advice source, but don't assume that by throwing your problems at them, you exculpate yourself. Because you don't.

That's not to say that there aren't bad retailers out there, but that's a whole different story (and blog). Any shopkeeper who pounces like a mantis on a clueless customer and tells them that setting up a 50 litre reef tank to keep anthias in is easy, deserves to be paraded through the streets and jeered. But shame on you too for being so easily duped. This isn't a TV we're talking about, it's a gaggle of living organisms. Before you buy so much as a shrimp, you should have read tomes on the subject of their care, watched online videos, discussed with folks on forums: harvested everything you possibly could. This is the age of information, where ignorance is inexcusable.

For the newcomer, a good trick to employ is to ask the questions that nobody wants to hear. 'Why can't I keep this fish?' should be the first thing you ask. 'What are the difficulties?' Rather than asking if they'll be okay in a borderline system, and then thanking the first person who gives you the answer you wanted to hear, engage with the most vociferous detractor.

If I go on a forum and want to know about keeping seahorses, I don't want to speak to the people who tell me it'll all be rosy. I'm interested in speaking to the couple of voices who tell me I'm an idiot for even considering it. I want to hear the absolute worst case scenarios, I want to know everything that can go wrong, because only then can I prepare myself for all outcomes. That's responsible. Irresponsible would be me listening to the person who tells me it's a doddle, making a catastrophe of my set up, and then saying 'I only did what he/she told me to do...' See where I'm going here?

If this all sounds aggressive, it's because I intend it to be. For those who haven't noticed, the wolves are circling, and I'd rather keep them outside. Welfare and rights groups are gaining momentum, and not because they're getting more fundamentalist — it's because they have a few strong points. We can all happily ostrich away, pretending that they're oddballs and cranks, but as someone who engages with their arguments and listens to what they have to say, I'm increasingly concerned that we're the ones who are going to look like tragic old dinosaurs. We need to up our game. Fish are looked upon as an entirely different organism as they were ten or twenty years ago. The general public are starting to care, as should we.

But hey, the 'feeling' approach isn't going to work with everyone, so how about a pragmatic one instead? I don't need people to accept that fish are worthy of moral consideration to make my point. I can do it just on a resource and environmental consequence basis alone.

Look at it this way. Every time someone kills a fish, what they have just wasted is heaps of resource. Despite the best proponents, there's no such thing as a green or carbon neutral fish. Sorry, but there it is. You might be saving trees, but you're still flying planes. For every fish in your tank is a long chain of fossil fuels, fishmeal, cereal, carbon dioxide, medications, and more. In short, every fish you buy is a drain — albeit slight — on the planet somewhere. And if you want to treat it like a commodity then you're increasing demand, in turn increasing that global strain. To kill a fish is to burden the whole planet, fractionally.

I'd apologise for being so terse, but I'm not sorry. I've killed fish before, and have felt terrible for it. But this is the key pointer. I learnt. I learnt because I understood that what I had done was wrong, and that if I was to continue to be a part of this fascinating hobby then I needed to justify my actions, and that meant I needed to stop lying to myself. We all need to learn from our mistakes, that's how the we acquire knowledge. We all like to give ourselves a big pat on the back for our successes. When our fish spawn, I note that people are quick to claim 'I bred Kribensis' or whatever, as though they were personally instrumental in the fertilisation process. But if you're going to take the praise for the good things that happen in your tank, then you also need to accept the corollary position that when bad things happen you're equally accountable.

They're your fish. They're your responsibility. Deal with it.