The Measure of Success

I am always amazed by the number of new aquarists I see on the message board looking for "the secret to having a successful system." I've been in the reef-keeping hobby for almost five years and I consider myself to be reasonably successful. However, while I was at the Marine Aquarium Conference of North America last September in Louisville, I was reminded once again that there is no one "secret to success." Even the term "success" depends to a large extent on the yardstick by which the aquarist is using to measure it.

I met and talked at length with many aquarists at the conference. One of the guys I met was typical of what I call a "water quality aquarist." His idea of success is maintaining the pristine water quality found over a natural reef crest (at least in terms of what can actually be accurately measured or even measured at all!). Any measurable amount of anything in his water except hydrogen and oxygen is unacceptable. As such, he uses heavy skimming, UV sterilization, ozone injection and constant water testing. (Interestingly, though, he spent very little time talking about the animals living in his system). When he asked me about my tank, I sheepishly admitted that I tolerated a small amount of nitrate, encouraged the growth of microorganisms by use of a deep sand bed, and didn't even own half the test kits that he did. I'm sure that in his opinion, my tank is anything but successful.

Another group of aquarists measure their success by the color and phenomenal growth rates of their stony corals. I think of these folks as the "lighting aquarists." They know the color temperature and output of every bulb on the market. They are experts on reflectors and spectrum distribution and use this knowledge to maximize the growth rates and colors of their corals. I talked to one of these folks and was forced to admit that I would prefer it if my Montipora and Acropora wouldn't grow quite so fast, as it was difficult to provide them sufficient space. I asked if he could give me recommendations on slow-growth corals. (Funny, but he suddenly remembered an urgent matter requiring his immediate attention and had to excuse himself). So, if I measured the success of my tank in terms of coral growth rates, I would have to give myself an average rating.

Then, there are those I think of as the "life history aquarists," whose measure of success is mimicking the animals' natural life processes in the aquarium; in other words: reproduction… preferably sexual reproduction. These are the aquarists who install "moon lights" and use computer controllers to simulate annual cycles by day length and temperature. I know from personal experience that having a coral spawn in the aquarium is an exciting and fascinating experience. That is, until after the big event when I'm left with an emergency fifty percent water change on a 220 gallon tank. Speaking to one of the life history aquarists, I had to admit that although I had purchased a "moon light" and my tank controller could be programmed to simulate an annual lighting and temperature cycle, I had decided against it. This decision was reached after my clams spawned for the second time in two years, followed two days later by the spawning of an E. quadricolor anemone the size of a dinner plate. As much as I realize that sexual reproduction of these animals in captivity is crucial to the continued success of our hobby, the blessed event occurring in my 220 gallon closed system is just too much stress for this reef keeper. My corals grow and reproduce asexually, but alas, I'm not breaking any new ground on the sexual reproduction of reef animals in captivity. Again, if sexual reproduction is the measure of success, my tank falls short.

Next we come to the pioneers of reef keeping, a group I call the "difficult-to-keep-species aquarists." They are determined to master such species as Goniopora. These folks, just like the "life history aquarists," are crucial to the hobby. It wasn't too long ago that Acropora couldn't be kept alive in an aquarium. I have no doubt that one day, Goniopora will thrive in an aquarium the same way Acropora do now. But, for my money, I stick to coral species that are content to live comfortably in the environment I can provide right now. If I have more than one failure with a species of coral, I just don't buy any more. So, as a pioneer, I guess I fail.

Finally, there are the "techno-aquarists." These are the inventors of the hobby. A successful system, in their opinion, is one that practically runs itself. They are always looking for, or creating, new gadgets to run their aquariums. (The people in this group can get so focused on the gadgets that they don't notice subtle behavioral changes in their animals that could signal trouble.) While I do use a computer controller to run my lights and pumps, and an automatic top-off to replace evaporation, I haven't really gotten into all the devices available to simplify my aquarium maintenance. While I do enjoy tinkering with my equipment occasionally, I'm not likely to be the inventor of the next generation surge device or a better, do-it-yourself skimmer. So, as contributions to the ease of aquarium maintenance go, I fail again.

So, here I am... a relative failure at water quality, coral growth, sexual reproduction, difficult-to-keep species and aquarium technology. You would think I would be forced to change my opinion of my own success. But, fortunately, I have my own yardstick. I am a "maximum diversity and knowledge aquarist." I measure my success by the number of different species of critters living in my tank and how much I know about them. My theories of reef keeping are: "Fill as many niches as possible, thereby creating as stable a system as possible" and "The more I know about the animals I keep, the better my chances of keeping them healthy." My animals grow and reproduce (even without my encouragement) and I'm continually finding new critters in my tank and refugium.

Success, therefore, is a matter of opinion. As long as your animals are healthy and you derive enjoyment from your efforts, you have obtained a certain level of success. The only group I consider utter failures are those who refuse to spend the time and energy to educate themselves on the animals they are keeping. Their ignorance costs the lives of reef species and contributes to the degradation of the natural ecosystems. Fortunately, many of these folks leave the hobby either from frustration or the financial burden of replacing dead animals. As an aquarist, the more education you have, the easier it is for you to select the yardstick with which you will measure your success; and, in the end, the more successful you will be.

If you have any questions about this article, please visit my author forum on Reef Central.

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