A Conversation Between Nathan Hill and Rich Ross 

From Reefs Magazine

For American readers unfamiliar with Nathan Hill, he might considered my analogue in the UK – he is a regular contributor to Practical Fishkeeping where he often tackles hobby issues from the stance of ethical, critical, and consistent thinking, while trying to get the hobby to look at itself in the mirror – he also has a degree in philosophy, which makes him super cool in my book. Nathan and I have been aware of each other for several years, briefly communicating from time to time with notes like, “Great piece, but I think I have a few disagreements – let’s talk,” but we have never found the time to be able to really dig in… until now. I have wanted to revisit morals in the Skeptical Reefkeeping series for some time now, and convinced Nathan to participate in a written discussion with me on a topic of his choosing, which turned out to be, “Is the hobby morally justifiable?” We wrote back and forth to each other in email, and then assembled the discussion below, doing some editing to make things more clear. It is important to point out that this is a conversation, not a debate. The point of a debate is to win, the point of a conversation is to hear each side and shift ones views based on good information presented from a perspective one may not have entertained previously. The point is for all of us to learn and grow together, not to try to ”win.” We hope you enjoy this philosophical conversation, and look forward to any feedback you might have (please post any feedback in this shiny new discussion forum:https://www.reefs.com/forum/skeptical-reefkeeping/ ) 

Most people think this fish is happy because it looks like it is smiling. However, this fish always looks like it is smiling, so how can we possibly tell when it is not happy? Photo by Google Search.
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From ReefsMagazine

By Rich Ross and Dr. Chris Maupin

At MACNA 25 in Denver, the potential for the new ICP-OES aquarium water testing by Triton Lab in Germany made many saltwater hobbyists swoon. The possibility of getting a real good look at what is going on chemically with the water in our glass boxes for an affordable price is incredibly appealing, since traditional ICP-OES testing is expensive and time consuming. In this installment of Skeptical Reefkeeping, we explain how ICP-OES testing works, explore the challenges of testing saltwater with ICP-OES, develop an understanding of the methods used to address those challenges, and discuss the results from the testing of a certified artificial saltwater standard that was sent to Triton Lab. 

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A partial look at some of the Triton Lab results taken from the available downloadable PDF. A discussion of the “Triton Method”, the “setpoints” used by Triton Lab, or what levels of which elements require action on the part of the aquarist is beyond the scope of this article.

 A Brief Reminder to Set the Scene Skepticism is a method, not a position. It can be defined as a method of intellectual caution and suspended judgment. As a Skeptical Reefkeeper, you decide what is best for you, your animals, and your wallet, based upon critical thinking, not just because you heard someone else say it. The goal of this series of articles is not to provide you with reef recipes or to tell you which ideas are flat out wrong or which products really do what they say they do or which claims or which expert to believe. The goal is to help you make those kinds of determinations for yourself, while developing your saltwater expertise in the face of sometimes overwhelming or conflicting advice. Introduction: Why We Don’t all use ICP Testing Already When reefkeepers daydream about water testing, they tend to imagine testing their aquarium water with a university or research institution’s complicated and expensive inductively coupled plasma (ICP) mass spectrometer or optical emission spectrometer, because, when properly calibrated and used, these instruments can produce incredibly accurate and precise results. However, a request to test tank water often is met with the response “Get that the hell out of my lab” from the lab technician, or by a seemingly outrageous price from a commercial lab. Saltwater presents ICP testing with special problems. Most notably, it can be detrimental to the instrument’s components, and the saltwater itself can help produce unreliable results. Compensating for these issues makes the testing expensive and time consuming. Sometimes months are required to get results, and at considerable financial cost: sometimes hundreds if not thousands of dollars per analysis of each individual element. However, Triton Lab is now offering ICP OES testing of 321 elements in a saltwater sample for a reasonable cost and a fast turnaround2 – a service that no other ICP-OES lab seems willing to provide. In the Skeptical Reefkeeping series, we often quote They Might Be Giants – “Are you sure that that thing is true, or did someone just tell it to you”3, and in that spirit we looked at some of the Triton Lab claims and are sharing our results. It is important to note that that being skeptical is not the same as being cynical, and that nothing would please us more than an inexpensive, accurate and precise water test providing values for 32 elements in a single report at a relatively inexpensive cost; however, understanding traditional ICP-OES and the numbers from our experiment tell a more complicated story. How ICP-OES Works In chemistry class, many of us became familiar with a flame test, where you put some stuff in a Bunsen burner and watch what color the flame burns, indicating what elements are in the stuff you burned. Table salt, for example, turns the flame yellow/orange (fun fact – both authors suffer from poor color perception) due to the presence of sodium in the salt. This test is the beginning of many a mad scientist – Muhahaha! Colored flame! An ICP-OES, when distilled to its most bare fundamentals, is a sensitive, quantitative means of performing a flame test. Instead of a natural gas flame in a Bunsen burner, it uses an argon plasma torch to burn the ions and record the colors they produce, and how brightly, which tells us what elements in what amounts, are in the sample. Muhahaha plasma! The ICP in ICP-OES is the inductively coupled plasma, while the OES stands for optical emission spectrometer.  More »

In our hobby, there tends to be mostly a super market approach to purchasing animals – you go to a store and select the animal you want from an array of holding tanks containing animals waiting for a new home. While such a selection seems great, it also creates an environment that may engender impulse buys rather than considered choices, makes us feel that instant gratification is the norm, as well as making us feel that somehow, for various reasons, any animal is worth a try in any tank. As people who say we love the reefs, and the animals that live on them, perhaps we should spend more time considering, and getting others to consider, which animals are appropriate for which tanks and which reefers. In Skeptical Reefkeeping 7 we took a general look at ethics and how they relate to our hobby. In this installment, we’ll look at some of the “how”s and “why”s we choose animals for our tanks, why we might think all aquarists are on the same page, and some ideas about how we might make more informed choices regarding the creatures that we put in our glass boxes.

New fish are always exciting, but are more exciting when forethought is put into the fish before purchase. Photo by Rich Ross.

A Brief Reminder to Set the Scene

Skepticism is a method, not a position. It can be defined as a method of intellectual caution and suspended judgment. As a Skeptical Reefkeeper, you decide what is best for you, your animals, and your wallet based upon critical thinking, not just because you heard someone else say it. The goal of this series of articles is not to provide you with reef recipes or to tell you which ideas are flat out wrong or which products really do what they say they do or which claims or which expert to believe. The goal is to help you make those kinds of determinations for yourself while developing your saltwater expertise in the face of sometimes overwhelming, conflicting advice.

Who Should Get What, When?

Everyone seems to agree that a brand new hobbyist shouldn’t purchase deep water fish, cephalopods, or non photosynthetic corals for their first tank, or that someone with a 50 gallon tank shouldn’t get a Blacktip reef shark, Giant Pacific Octopus or a Goliath Grouper. Besides obvious examples like those above (1), there is a huge grey area around what animals keepers should purchase and in which conditions it is appropriate to keep them in. Is it ok to keep a small tang in a small tank with the intention to transfer it to a larger tank when it gets bigger? How many fish is too many fish for a certain sized tank? No one has ever seen this fish before I better buy it before anyone else does! This situation is further complicated by the idea that there is a steep learning curve to keeping animals in glass boxes during that learning curve mistakes are made, and animals are lost. As a keeper’s experience goes up, they often start trying to keep more and more ”difficult” animals, and still there is a learning curve, and animals are lost – even to the best aquarist on the planet with the most resources. How do we cope with that idea? More »

By Rich Ross and Ret Talbot
From Reefs Magazine

Most marine aquarium hobbyists purchase animals for their tanks without much thought to those animals’ origins. This is understandable since most local fish stores and online retailers don’t make that kind of information easily available to customers. Point-of-origin does matter, however, because not all animals are collected sustainably and not all fishers are treated equitably.

Local divers in Solomon Islands harvest aquarium fishes and corals in what is generally considered a sustainable fishery. In part, sustainability is insured through limited cargo space for exports and long-standing traditions of resource ownership/rights. Photo by Ret Talbot.

The marine aquarium hobby and its practices are increasingly scrutinized by anti-aquarium trade activists and environmental advocacy groups, wildlife managers concerned about invasive species introductions and legislators interested in pleasing constituents. A sustainable and equitable trade is a defensible trade; the status quo is not. More important than defense, however, we argue that purchasers of wild animals have a responsibility to know where their animals originate, how they are collected and handled, and what the trade’s effects are on reefs and reef-side communities. It seems that aquarists have a responsibility to treat the animals collected from the wild as the precious commodities they are instead of curios traded for pennies on the dollar.

If you know where your animals originate, you often have a better idea of howthey were collected and treated through the chain of custody. This should be important to every aquarist because a poorly treated animal is less likely to live or thrive.  More »

From Reefs Magazine

by Rich Ross and Chris Jury

The Editors Note: In Skeptical Reefkeeping IX, Rich Ross is joined by our old friend Chris Jury as they try to come to terms with the “impossible” yet confirmed PO4 readings in Rich’s gorgeous reef. The analysis is thorough, thought- provoking, grounded in science and suggestive of a far more complex picture regarding PO4 and its role in our aquariums.

There are many standard parameters in the reefkeeping world that aquarists strive to match in their home reefs – water quality, light spectrum and intensity, and water flow, just to name a few. Rarely do we stop to think where these standard parameters come from, and even more rarely do we consider calling into question the utility of these parameters. This can lead to aquarists ‘chasing numbers’; tweaking water parameters to hit a standard goal. Often times, people think that hitting a magic number will inherently result in a better, healthier tank. In the past few years, dealing with phosphate in saltwater aquariums has become one of the most talked about ‘must control at all costs’ parameter, and in this installment of Skeptical Reefkeeping, we will look at some evidence which calls into question the reliability of testing, the generally accepted target phosphate concentration, and general control of phosphate in reef aquariums.


Rich’s 150 gallon display, on a 300 gallon system, is running a phosphate level of 1.24 ppm, a level at 24.8 times higher than the often recommended .05 ppm. Photo by Richard Ross.

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