Aquarium Fish International contributing author David Lass wrote this retrospective piece in September 2008 for the magazine’s 20th anniversary issue.
When asked to write this special article for the 20th anniversary of the magazine, I was both pleased and honored. I also realized that I am one of a small group of writers who were in the fish hobby/industry in 1988. Actually, I started my first retail store in 1970 and in 1988 was in the middle of a period of several years when I actually worked for a living instead of earning my daily bread by playing with fish — though I still had a lot of tanks. So, I think I can convey a sense of how the hobby has changed over the past 20 years.
Aquariums are available in many shapes and designs that didn’t exist two decades ago. To start with, we now have standard glass aquariums available in many different sizes, including large ones up to 265 gallons. And if you can’t find one you like in glass, the specialty manufacturers can make just about any size and design you want in acrylic. Being able to work with curved glass has made bowfront and front-curved tanks possible. Combination packages of tank, stand/cabinet and light/full hood are now made in many different wood tones, as well as sleek black and stainless steel. These integrated systems also come with the aquarium drilled and plumbed for a sump, which hides all of the mechanical items from view. These systems are really beautiful pieces.
The other major development since 1988 has been the “nano-tank.” By this, I mean small (most often 8 to 12 gallons), packaged systems consisting of the tank, integral light/hood and filter system. The nano-tank is perfect for the new hobbyist and can be used in many places, such as a desktop, in the kitchen, for a kid’s room or as a living night-light. In recent years, these systems have been developed for marine fish and invertebrates, with the lighting systems on some being strong enough for all but the most light-hungry corals to flourish. At the high end of the nano-tank style are systems in the range of 24 to 34 gallons. These are designed specifically for marine reef tanks and have everything required (filters, heater, protein skimmer, lighting) to make it simple for anyone to set up a successful marine tank.
Along with the aquariums themselves, there have been dramatic improvements in the equipment for them, especially heaters and filters. The heaters consisting of a glass tube with the heating element and thermostat inside are still around, but there are many other heaters, as well. Most of the newer ones are completely submersible, which gives the hobbyist more options for the placement of the heater. There are also heaters that are completely metal and durable plastic ones. These types of heaters make the problem of big fish breaking heaters pretty much a thing of the past.
Filters have also improved greatly from the inside box filters and motor- or air-driven outside filters of 20 years ago. The most common filter now is the hang-on-the-back design, which comes with cartridges for mechanical filtration, and for good bacteria to grow and thrive. Most of these filters are run by a small integrated water pump, and they are really reliable. Other power-driven outside filters and canister filters have also come a long way, with most now allowing for separate media for the bacteria to live, and places for carbon or other water conditioners to be used. In general, the filters on the market today are efficient and easy to clean.
One of the most important ways in which the hobby has improved during the last two decades involves the foods available for our fish. There are now a great number of manufacturers of prepared dry foods, and it’s possible to keep fish healthy and thriving just feeding a variety of dry foods. Much research has been done by all of the manufacturers, and we now better understand the requirements of different kinds of fish. Specialty diets are available for all different fish, from koi and goldfish to African cichlids. Spirulina flakes and wafers make feeding fish that need a lot of vegetable matter easy, as well. Many different natural live foods are now offered in frozen form, including brine shrimp, mysid shrimp, bloodworms and many others.
To get a sense of how Aquarium Fish International influenced readers over the years, read some of the contest entries to the 20th Anniversary Contest here.
When it comes to feeding marine fish, the research and development has been truly impressive. Although there are still many marine fish that are obligate feeders on corals, sponges or other live creatures — making them inappropriate for captivity — many fish considered impossible to maintain a few years ago are now being kept and well-fed for long periods of time. Specially formulated frozen diets are now available for sponge feeders, such as marine angelfish and butterflies, as well as other formulations for other specific fish. Live foods are also being offered for feeding fish such as Mandarins, which require copepods and other tiny life forms, as well as for feeding corals and filter feeders.
The variety of livestock — fish, frogs, shrimps, crayfish and crabs — available today for the freshwater hobbyist is truly amazing. And what is most heartening is the fact that almost all of the creatures we keep in the freshwater aquarium are being commercially produced for the hobby. Only a few specific fish are still taken from the wild. In addition, fish breeders in the Far East (primarily Singapore, Bangkok, Indonesia and China) have developed a dizzying array of gorgeous fish of all types and colors.
The two groups of fish with the most amazing varieties are the livebearers (guppies, Poeciilia reticulata; mollies, Poecilia sp.; and platies and swordtails, Xiphophorus spp.) and discus (Symphysodon spp.). Guppies of all possible colors of fins (especially the tail) and body are possible today. Swordtails and platies also come in any color you can think of and with a variety of patterns, such as “Mickey Mouse,” twin bar, tuxedo and spotted. The fins on these fish can be of incredible length and delicacy. Mollies also are available in regular, lyretail and sailfin varieties, and in many colors and body patterns.
Discus have also been developed in many different hues of red, blue, gold, white and black, and if you are selective, you can purchase strong fish. Discus are no longer the frail, delicate fish they were 20 years ago.
In addition to all of the commercially farmed fish, many new fish have been discovered and made part of the hobby over the past 20 years. These include rainbows, loaches and the latest hit, the celestial pearl danio (Celestichthys margaritatus), which was formerly known as the galaxy rasbora.
Perhaps the biggest changes have occurred on the marine side of the hobby. We have learned so much about keeping marine fish and invertebrates over the past two decades that in many ways, it is as easy to keep a marine tank as a freshwater one. With live rock, protein skimming, ultraviolet sterilization and high-intensity lighting, it is well within the reach of any hobbyist to keep marine fish, corals and other inverts.
What is encouraging is more marine animals are being produced commercially instead of taken from the wild. Many anemonefish and other damsels are commercially farmed, and new color varieties have even been developed. Small gobies and wrasses are also available, and much research is being done on collecting the larvae of larger fish, such as angels, tangs and butterflies, from the plankton “rafts” of the ocean where they spend their first few weeks and undergo metamorphosis. The popular Banggai cardinal (Pterapogon kauderni), which is a mouthbrooder, is easy to breed — so easy that it’s sometimes referred to as a “saltwater guppy.”
Almost all of the Tridacna clams in the hobby are now being farmed commercially (primarily in Oceania and Vietnam), where they are simply grown in cages in the sea. Many soft and hard corals are also produced commercially by companies of various sizes all over the world and also by dedicated hobbyists. So much has been learned about the lighting and feeding requirements of these corals that any hobbyist can produce new specimens by fragging: taking small fragments from a larger piece of coral. Many retail stores that specialize in marines also have begun coral propagation businesses of their own.
Despite my comments about new aquarists, our hobby has come a long way in the past 20 years, including the existence of this magazine. We have a much wider selection of aquariums to choose from. The equipment for keeping fish is much better and completely reliable. Almost all of the animals on the freshwater side, and many in marine tanks, are being commercially produced, so our hobby is doing very little damage to the environment. The one thing that certainly has not changed is that the tropical fish hobby is still the best way for kids to learn the responsibility of keeping a pet, and about the fragility of nature.