Rich Ross

Do you run ozone, brah?

Skeptical Reefkeeping 14: Everyone Can Do Science

From Reefs Magazine

By Richard Ross

In reefkeeping, there are a million products and techniques, each claiming to be a necessary ingredient for a successful reef tank. The problem is that many of these claims have little, if any, evidence to support them – so how are we supposed to know which ingredient, product or method is useful and which is bunk? Well, we can bellyache that someone else should figure it out and let us know, or we can get up off our collective butts and start producing evidence ourselves by doing some simple experiments. 

If “Joe Yaiullo’s Magic Juice” existed, it would do whatever Joe said it would because Joe would test it. Joe rolls like that. Photo by Rich Ross.
 In previous installments, we discussed how real science takes time, resources and money. Real science is a pain in the butt to do. Real science is a formalized method for answering questions about the natural world in a way that can be explicitly shown to be wrong (falsifiable), and then subjected to reproducible tests (experimentation), the results of which are interpreted and shared. In a hobby like reefkeeping, we don’t necessarily care about undertaking the formal scientific process in the same rigorous way that professors, research scientists, and graduate students do. Asking scientific questions, securing funding, designing experiments properly, interpreting and writing results, and then subjecting them to sometimes punishing peer review literally takes up entire careers. Most of the time in our hobby, we just want some practical evidence of claims that we can use as a guide for what to do for our reef tanks. All we want to know is if “Joe Yaiullo’s Magic Juice” (a product that doesn’t exist … yet) actually reduces phosphate and nitrate. While it would be nice to know how it works in detail, we just care if it works, and some simple experiments might tell us. 

What Happens in our Hobby 

Here is what happens all too often with new ideas and products in reefkeeping: Someone makes a claim about a product or methodology with little or no evidence to support the claim. People argue about the claim with various theories about the claim working or not working. Some people put the claim into practice. Some report incredible success, others report gut wrenching disaster, all based on anecdote (my corals look better, the ich went away, my fish seem happy). Most report no change at all, but they are ignored while the anecdote is embraced, and people argue the merits with startling emotion. After a year or two the idea fades into background noise, only to pop up again in 5 or 10 years when someone runs across it in a old online discussion, and the process grinds back to life with little new understanding reached. 

This simple experiment will give us actionable evidence, even though a more formalized experiment would give us more information. Mostly, in our hobby, we want actionable evidence. Photo by Google Images.

Human-behavior expert Keith Johnstone calls this kind of discussion with lack of evidence the problem of the “red car in the parking lot.” You can argue all you want about if there is or isn’t a red car in the parking lot, but all someone really needs to do is go look and see. Why don’t we look and see? In our case, why don’t we just do some tests? Because we think testing is hard and needs to be perfect, but for the bulk of our pressing reefkeeping needs, I don’t think this is the case. 

We are Scientific Creatures

We start testing things almost the instant we are born. Toddlers stick everything in their mouths to see what they can eat. If it tastes really bad, they learn not to stick it in their mouths, but if it tastes good, they stick more of it in their mouths. Though this isn’t academic or planned out, it is basic scientific testing. As they get older, children do start to perform more deliberate tests. We have all seen kids sigh and make a sad face when they are told no about something. Why do they do this? Because often, after they are told no, a sigh and a sad face gets that no converted to a yes. This action is based on the evidence that they have compiled through performing experiments, even if the child doesn’t know they are running experiments. Building structures with blocks is a great scientific experiment, and through experimentation with different blocks in different orientations, children quickly learn about basic structural engineering. Throwing a ball teaches physics. By participating in team sports, they learn what helps and doesn’t help in social situations. We don’t tend to call these things scientific experiments. We call them play. But, the act of play is learning by trying things out, and this is what an experiment is at its core. 

The problem with these kinds of experiments is that they are anecdotal. Being the experience of a single person clouds them and often leads to incorrect conclusions. For instance, a child may incorrectly conclude that because whining gets them what they want from their parents, whining will get them what they want from all adults. (It doesn’t.) Thus anecdote, while it has its place, also sucks because it gives us unsupported, unreliable evidence. 

The point of this section is that we all have been doing science all our lives, and there is no reason we should ever think we couldn’t continue to do science. The more we understand about the science we’re trying to accomplish, the more useful our results can be. Science need not be overly rigorous and complicated to be useful and practical. If we do some basic experiments, we can get reliable evidence, and evidence is always better than anecdote. 

Performing experiments doesn’t have to cost you an arm and a leg – or eight. Illustration by J.R. Zuckerberg (

Simple Experiments 

In our hobby, often all we really want to know is if there is any basis to believe a particular claim. One of the most common claims discussed in our hobby is that a product or methodology removes phosphate or nitrate from our reefs. Though it seems like using the product on a reef tank and reporting the results is a good idea, this is really just anecdote and is fraught with all kinds of problems: our tanks are uncontrolled soups of chaos with all kind of processes going on, changing over time, and many other ways to lower nitrate and phosphate have been put into play in the recent past and sometimes they take time to have an effect. Attributing success to the new product is really just post hoc ergo proptor hoc (it happened after, therefore was caused by) reasoning – see Skeptical Reefkeeping 1 for a more detailed discussion about this and other fallacies. Anecdote is fine as a jumping off place for further experiments, but it is not a good place to look to determine if a claim or method really does what it is supposed to do. 

It should be easy to show, without relying on anecdote, that “Yaiullo’s Magic Juice” (don’t forget that it doesn’t actually exist) removes phosphate or nitrate. Get a sample of saltwater. Test the nitrate and phosphate. Add a known amount of phosphate or nitrate (or heck, even just add some food). Test the nitrate and phosphate again to be sure the levels have risen. Add the product or apply the method. Test the nitrate and phosphate again. Voilà, you will have some actual evidence of the veracity of the claims. 

Of course, this super simple way to test has its own problems, because it takes place in such a minimal situation, but by removing as many variables as possible, and by repeating the test several times – we start to generate some real, useful evidence about the efficacy of the product or method. If you share the way you did your experiment, others can try it to, and you get an even bigger pool of evidence to draw from, or perhaps even constructive criticism of your methodology. I would be much more likely to use a product with that kind of evidence over someone saying “I added the product to my 6 month old tank and the corals look better!” 

We can make the experiment more robust for the real world pretty easily: Instead of a water sample, set up a small tank like a reef. Test the nitrate and phosphate. Add a known amount of phosphate and nitrate. Test the nitrate and phosphate. Add the product or apply the method. Test the nitrate and phosphate. Already, this is different from the water sample test, because it’s being done in an active reef tank, which we know is a dynamic, changing system. Maybe we’ll find out things we didn’t expect. Perhaps the nitrate and phosphate levels only go down temporarily, or maybe they only go down after a few days or weeks. We also need to consider if the results seen in one tank are due to something unique in that particular system. Perhaps the live rock or the sand is doing the work we are attributing to the method or product we are testing. 

Science is fun, but it is work. In this picture, biologists from several public aquaria are doing the fun part of science – we just collected gametes from spawning corals and are cross-fertilizing different genetic lines. What is not in this picture is all of the notes and paperwork that converts this fun (but exhausting) lab work into real science. Photo by Rich Ross.

To rule this out, we make the test slightly more comprehensive: We set up two tanks as identically as possible. One tank is the experimental tank, the tank in which we implement the product or method as described above. The other tank is the control, the one to which we do not add the product or method. Having a control helps us determine if it is the product or method being added that gives us our result or if we get the same result, without the product or method we are testing. If we get the same result in both the control and the experiment, we may be able to conclude that the method or claim being tested doesn’t have a significant effect. 

The experiment can be made even more complicated with more tanks and replications to rule out other testing issues. The only thing limiting you is time and resources, but the take home message is that even such a simple test will give us some actual evidence about the claims being made. 

Real World Simple Testing – The Case of Inland Reef and the Eco Aqualizer

In the early 2000s, a product called the Eco Aqualizer hit the market and was supposed to have a plethora of beneficial effects for both fresh and saltwater aquaria. The product claims struck many as over the top. The explanation of how the device was supposed to work left many feeling that the product couldn’t possibly do anything, while others swore that their tanks benefited from the device. Even though a lot of the claims were hard to pin down, and there was much “red car in the parking lot” discussion, at least one claim was clear: The manufacturer said that the device would “improve system redox.” (

Inland Reef Aquaria, sadly no longer in business, decided to test this claim with a very simple experiment. 

Since the product was supposed to affect water run through it, they set up a single tank with a closed loop and a bypass so that the water could be passed through the device sometimes and not other times. Then they put an ORP probe and Redox Meter on the system, and ran the tank water through the device at different intervals over two weeks and tracked the results. They found no difference in ORP between using the product and not using the product and had a ton of data to support their conclusion: The product did not “improve system redox” as claimed. 

A diagram of the Eco-Aqualizer experiment done by Inland Reef Aquaria. Photo by Inland Reef Aquaria.

Write It Up

Inland Reef Aquaria didn’t just do the simple experiments. They wrote up what they did and put it all on the web for everyone to see. This is the critical part – like Adam Savage says “Remember kids, the only difference between Science and screwing around is writing it down.” You can still see everything that Inland Reef Aquaria did because the Internet is a wonderful thing. Check out this cached version of their website. 

Writing up your results and methods can be intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. The best advice I ever got about this kind of thing was from the Senior Director of the Steinhart Aquarium, Bart Shepherd: “Just write down what you did.” It really is almost that easy. I mean, make it cogent by breaking it down into sections that make sense like “The problem”, “The claim”, “My methods”, “My results”, and “What I think it means”. Write it with good grammar and stuff (ha!) so it is easy for people to read, understand, and copy. It is actually really fun to put something like this together, and when you are done, publish it somewhere – like your own website, your club’s website, or even in Reefs Magazine perhaps? This will all help everyone that comes after you in the hobby. 

No Matter What You Do, People will be Angry 

No matter what kind of experiment you do, someone will find fault with it. This is the nature of humanity – people don’t like to have their beliefs questioned. The makers of a claim or product that you test may be especially unhappy if your results show something different than what they have asserted and “red car in the parking lot” discussions tend to create polarized “fanboys” who will fight against anything that makes their side seem wrong. 

You might get angry when people question your test or your results. If that happens, fight off that anger and be intellectually honest with yourself because it is possible that others will point out real problems with what you did, and if they do, it is a good thing! The point is to get good and usable evidence, not to defend our own work. 

How was the Inland Reef Aquaria test received? Most people were happy to have some evidence, even if they thought the experiment was super simple. Others were not happy at all and pointed out all the flaws in the experiment. The most interesting part of this is, to the best of my knowledge, no one has done any experiment to show how the test was flawed or, even more important, to show that the product actually does what it is claimed to do! The little support that remains for this product, though I don’t believe it is still in production, is still all anecdote and “red car in the parking lot” discussions. 

At the Steinhart Aquarium, we wanted to know the actual PAR distribution for different 1000 watt Metal Halide lamp reflectors. Instead of discussing what we thought that distribution should be, we set up many different reflectors the same way and took measurements. Simple science that helped us make decisions about what reflectors to use. Photo by Rich Ross.

Don’t let the possibility of people not liking your work scare you from doing the experiment. The experiment is about making the hobby better. The work is important to move the hobby forward more efficiently. How many products or methods have you tried that didn’t pan out? How much time and money and coral could you have saved had someone done the simple experiment before you tried the product or method? 

Side Note

I should point out that it really does seem like it is the responsibility of the people making the claims to support their claims. Actually, it doesn’t seem like that, it is like that. If someone makes a claim, it is up to them to support that claim, because, well, it is their claim! As the late, great, Christopher Hitchens said, “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.” At the same time, I understand why reef companies might not have comprehensive testing for their products. Thorough testing is hard, and often the margins reef product companies run under are tight. This can result in a rush to market leaving little time for thorough testing. Even worse, as we have discussed in previous installments, we as a community simply don’t demand such testing (though we really should).

In Conclusion

Performing simple experiments allows other people to build on your work. Any simple testing you do makes it possible for people to do more complex testing more easily, and that kind of rising tide does float all boats. If you are met with people not liking something about the experiment you have done, encourage them to do their own experiments instead of just bellyaching. 

So, we should all be running experiments to make the reefkeeping landscape more solid. Does this product/claim work to get rid of hair algae? Do corals color up better if you do X? Do corals grow faster? Do fish like one food more than others? Do bananas cure ich? The sky is the limit. 

Design a simple test. Come up with some simple metrics to help make it more compelling. Write it up. Get your local LFS or club to help you do it. Do the best you can, but don’t get mired down in trying to do it perfectly. Your results will help inform future tests and the need for future tests. If we all get off our butts and do some work, things will get better faster. 

How fast do cuttlefish grow? We did a set of simple experiments to try to find out. We measured how much baby cuttles weighed at different stages of growth. The study was ultimately not published, but this work can still be built upon. Photo by Rich Ross.

What is Skeptical Reefkeeping about?

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 are trustable 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. 

Special thanks to Chris Maupin and Jim Welsh and Scott Meltzer for their help with this article.

Skeptical Reefkeeping 13: Is the Hobby Morally Justifiable?

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: ) 

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.

 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 are trustable 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.

Is the Hobby Morally Justifiable? 

Let’s get this party started. 

Nathan Hill: 

Is this hobby morally justifiable? Is it intrinsically good for, bad for, or indifferent to the interests of the fish involved? Will future enlightened generations look back on us phlegmatically, or with vitriol? Will they consider us good? 

I think a case might be made for a good hobby, if I consider its de-facto purpose. But there are hurdles. The greatest is a recent mode of thinking, devised and ossified into some European culture that runs as follows: “All animals – fish included – have one inherent right, and that is the right to not be the property of humans.“ This is a somewhat concrete obstruction to anyone taking the life of another animal in to their care – if it is both valid and sound. To me, at least, it seems an argument as well rounded as a snooker ball. I even asked the founder of modern animal rights, Peter Singer, what he thought of the hobby and he responded that: “…it is always possible to imagine circumstances in which one could keep sentient beings captive – essentially, where it is for their own good, and where efforts are made to give them the best kind of life that the available resources permit. If… humans get enjoyment from looking at them, and this does not harm them, that’s an addition.” 

Singer alludes to a good hobby, as I do, though the caveats are apparent. 

I’m keen to avoid a tit-for-tat style of conversation. If we just resort to trying to trump each other with specific incidences of good or bad, then we’re in PETA territory. Let’s look at the hobby as an individual entity beyond the sum of its parts. What is the purpose of fishkeeping, and is that purpose morally well intentioned? Do I have a right to do it?” 

Rich Ross: 

I think the hobby is good, bad, and indifferent to the interests of the fish involved. The hobby is good for generating interest in aquatic habitats that might otherwise be ignored by the general public and good for overall understanding in general, which is good for all fishes. It can be bad for particular fish like the fish that are poorly cared for, or shipped badly, or that go to hobbyists that fail to take care of them properly. Perhaps both of those two add up to a sum of indifferent. 

I have no idea how to assess the moral status of fishkeeping. On the one hand, there are so many other uses of animals (food, development, labor, etc.) that it seems very difficult to make a true assessment. To complicate this further, it is hard to make a moral assessment of any hobby – is recreational fishing moral? Is riding motorcycles though the country side moral? Is air travel to far off destinations moral? Every activity has negative effects on the world, so doing anything is a moral trade off. 

The view of the world may be very different from the other side of the glass. Illustration by J.R. Zuckerberg. 

The inherent rights question is interesting. Society in general doesn’t seem to agree with the statement that animals have the right to not be the property of humans. Nature itself seems to disagree with the statement, as meat is often a natural part of the human diet. To the Singer quote (and I love me some Singer), the “does them no harm” seems to be the major sticking point; harm to the individual or to the group as a whole through the chain of custody? I might look at it from the other direction: “Is it a right of humans to have animals in an aquarium?” as is sometimes asserted by people who want to keep animals. 

Nathan Hill: 

Assuming that the hobby itself is amoral, and only the actions of those engaging in it constitute the values, are we not lapsing back in to the war of attrition I alluded to earlier? This seems to lack something fundamental, if all we can do is weigh the merits of one action against the detriment of another, to see whether the overall aggregate is a gain or a loss. I think that a moral basis for this hobby exists, but requires teasing out. 

Regarding the point of nature over rights, I see no reason to regard an amoral entity (i.e. the wilderness) as a guide for moral acts. The idea that nature is good invites the corollary position that unnatural = bad, instantly placing the unnatural act of retaining livestock in aquaria in a negative position. Nature used this way can justify incredible cruelty. If a pet owner deliberately infects a dog with parasites and watches it die in agony, then surely his defense is as simple as,“dogs get parasites naturally.“ But I’ll wager that neither of us will dispute that this is a bad thing. I’ll even bite the bullet here, and say on this line of reasoning, recreational fishing might be classed as immoral. 

Rich Ross: 

I don’t think I was weighing actions against each other, more sorting out the universe of discourse. All too often in the hobby the justifications are something like, ”I breed fish, so fishkeeping is morally justified, morally good,” which ignores all the other aspects of the hobby that are/may be problematic. Looking at moral justification for specific parts of the hobby seems easy, looking at it as a whole seems harder, and I am not sure how to morally justify, “it’s pretty and I like it in my living room, so the ends justify the means.” It’s a fine justification, but I’m not sure it has any appreciable moral standing. More fundamentally, there is a moral justification for anything, but that doesn’t mean it is good justification. Animal testing on cosmetics seems like an odd thing to justify, and may be a good parallel to the hobby, as cosmetics seems to ultimately share the same justification the hobby does: “It’s pretty and I like it, so the ends justify the means.” 

Recreational fishing is a favorite example of mine that I like to bring up when the Hawaiian Aquarium collecting legalization comes up. Collecting live fish for the aquarium trade is portrayed as bad, while recreational fishing that kills animals is, if not portrayed as good, simply accepted as something not to be questioned. To be logically consistent, if taking animals off the reef for home aquaria is bad, then it seems that taking them off the reef for sport is also bad. It isn’t that sport is intrinsically good and aquariums are bad, it is that sport is a widely accepted activity (and it brings a ton of money into the local Hawaiian economy). 

Does it make moral sense to try to make ethical regulations regarding fish in the hobby when recreational fishing has no such regulations? Photo by Google Search.

I’m trying to avoid a larger moral discussion, but perhaps it needs to be mentioned that I don’t think there are any objective morals. Morals change over time and are set by society which may mean I am confused about the ”something fundamental” you mention. If you think that a moral basis for this hobby exists, lets get to it. 

Nathan Hill: 

I’ll take the last point first, and I’ll take it as I think I’ve unearthed the first fundamental difference between the American and the English mindset (very, very broadly speaking, that is). I’ll firstly agree that accepted (or acted-upon) morality is progressive and shifting within societies, but in the UK we are ebbing towards a “standard candle” of ethics regarding animals, and that candle is the emphasis on pain perception and sentience. To wit – causing pain is bad, increasing happiness is good – a variation on the classic utilitarian stance. This is what I mean about something fundamental and inextricable from the hobby. Is the hobby itself promoting good in the sense of reducing pain and/or increasing happiness for all involved? I’m more than happy to cite references to support the pain theory in fish, I should add. 

That leads me to the point on the recreational fishing/aquarium trade equivalence. This is where I think there’s actually a paradox (which you loosely allude to). Following from my pain bad/happiness good approach, fishing should be held to moral scrutiny, and aquarium keepers…? Well, this is the point I’m trying to establish. I think that aquarium keepers, in being a part of the hobby, are trying to keep fish happy, but I might be wrong on this. That, I think, is what I am interested in exploring – whether the hobby itself is purposefully geared towards happiness. Because if it is geared around some other factor (such as the more pragmatic talk of money you hint at) then might it not be morally wrong, yet defensible on (and only on) a human level of happiness? 

Ending with your first point, I’m in a position now to not have to draw a parallel on animal testing for cosmetics, as I can assert with reasonable confidence that it fails the “increased happiness” element of my proposed moral basis. With all of this is mind, what can we say of the hobby?

Rich Ross: 

This is good; now I know better where you are coming from. If we accept the stance that causing pain to fish is bad (we can ignore coral for now), then I don’t see how recreational fishing or aquarium keeping can be considered moral. It is important to note that I am not sure that I agree with this stance. 

Of course we need to define pain and determine if the brain power of the fish involved means that pain is significant to a conscious creature – in other words, sure a fish experiences pain, but does that pain matter in the same way it matters to a human? Given the idea that causing pain is bad, the reasons why recreational fishing should be abandoned are obvious – hooks in the mouth, grabbing with gloved hands, ripping hooks from lips, heads cut off while alive, tossed on the deck to gasp for air until death, etc. – all seem like incredibly inhumane things to do to an animal that feels pain. 

In aquarium keeping, we would have to be quite dedicated in considering all aspects of the chain of custody, and not simply look at a good hobbyist with a good set up. There currently seems to be no hard data, but there is some amount of death in the chain of custody, and that is clearly bad – even without the context of the current discussion, more should be done to ensure that there is less death in the chain of custody (it may not be possible to get to 0% mortality in the chain of custody, but constantly striving for that percentage seems like the moral thing to do). So, how much “pain causing” to animals in transit is acceptable? A difficult question from any perspective. More worrisome to me is the thought that unskilled hobbyists outnumber skilled hobbyists. Unskilled hobbyists, almost by definition, kill animals. This seems to be a natural part of the learning curve. Biological cycles gone wrong from rushing or improper set ups, over feeding, equipment malfunction, inappropriate species housed together, too many animals too soon, etc., are all ways that aquarium animals are routinely “caused pain.”

I am not sure that intent matters here. Does it matter if new, inexperienced hobbyists are “trying to keep fish happy” don’t due to lack of experience or being steered toward poor practices by merchants which causes animals to suffer, and die? The dedicated hobbyists seem to be interested in keeping their fish happy, but even they fail from time to time and animals die. If we are accepting that the idea that causing fish pain is bad, I am not sure that that intent can override the moral justification for the hobby. Again, how much good intent can override the idea that actually causing pain to animals is bad? <

It appears that your “standard candle” of the UK being different from the US based on ethics regarding animals seems not that compelling, given that the UK allows recreational fishing and hunting and factory farming. If the UK is going to start legislating aquarium fish based on the idea that causing pain to animals is bad, this seems to simply be a case of going after the low hanging fruit rather than actually addressing the broader issue of animal welfare.

I don’t know if I can accept the “pain is bad” idea as discussed so far. Since morals vary over time, and since other forms of causing pain to animals are acceptable in both the US and the UK, I am not sure we can hold aquarium keeping to a different standard. Well, we can, but I don’t know if that is a consistent stance that I would feel good about holding. Surely there is much we can do to reduce the amount of pain and suffering to animals in the aquarium hobby, and I think that should be done, but I don’t know if we can possibly justify or demonize the hobby based on the idea that animals feel pain. 

Nathan Hill:

Though I say that causing pain is bad as a moral premise, my implication is not that fishkeeping as a hobby is geared in such a way to intentionally promote pain. You rightly highlight that degree of perception should considered when making relative statements. I do not dispute this, and will make no further comment here on recreational fishing, for reasons I’ll come to. 

These fish look cute on their underwater soccer field, but is there any way to deterring if such activity is good for them? Photo by Google Search. 

You mention the chain of custody, and of the cut-off point for an acceptable degree of suffering during capture and transportation, and the hobbyist learning curve. I consider these points as contingent to the hobby – fishkeeping in aquaria is not predicated on the suffering, nor do I think it necessarily relies upon it. Is suffering of livestock an inevitable consequence of fishkeeping? And would it influence a hobbyist if he or she knew the extent of potential suffering? Regardless, I don’t believe the intention is to cause mortality and distress at any stage of the supply chain, and wager that aquarists, given transparency about such a scenario, would boycott fish moved this way. This, of course, plays in to your point about balancing pain-and-gain, but I’m willing to concede it, as I hold that it’s still only a contingency; nothing written so far is implied as the intention of the hobbyist. It happens, yes, but it is not the desired outcome. 

This leads me to where I think we may be opposed. I’m unashamedly sticking with “intent.” You ask if it matters if new aquarists are intentionally good even when they kill things. I say yes, yes they are. If they could have avoided those deaths, then they would have. 

For me this is the very point to be resolved. If intent is key, as I believe it is, then I claim a case can be made in defense of a morally good hobby. If, however, it could be shown that the intent was to cause the problems you allude to, then we’re fighting very different battles. My approach is teleological, from the top-down: I see the ideals we have and then wish to explore if they’re attainable. I think they are. 

Forgive me if I misrepresent you, but you appear to be moving from what I’d call the ontological: You see the realities of the industry and hobby from the bottom up, and explore where they inevitably lead. If I’m correct here, then your measure of the hobby is to see if the gain is equal to, or greater than, the sum of its parts. My worry with this approach is that it is liable to lead to a “minimum standard” of care, at which point anything above might be considered ”good”, and anything below it ”bad”. I think the stance ignores the fish as an entity deserving of consideration in its own right, rather, it becomes a numbers game.

Regarding my standard candle point, I’d argue that as we (UK) become more aware of pain and suffering as a population, so the trickle down is that there is a continuous, newly forged revulsion toward formerly accepted policies. To be recidivist on my (much) earlier policy of not tit-for-tatting, certain practices such as fox hunting have been banned, along with various intensive farming methods. There have even been high profile prosecutions of people who have ingested live goldfish, with the suffering being a decisive point when the cases came to court. My contention is that aside from some poorly handled ‘rights’ groups in America, the top-down influence there seems (to my anecdotal experience) to be less, though this is to stereotype a nation on my part. 

Emphasizing on utilitarian ideals (in one form or another), I think using “pain is bad” as a basis of morality is an excellent starting point. Here we will argue. That suffering happens elsewhere, and may or may not be accepted, is only to say that the moral standard in those other cases is presently too low and needs addressing. Pain can only be justified in cases of necessity over luxury. If a Danio needs to be subject to painful testing to cure an agonizing illness in a dozen people, then that balance is unfortunate but necessary. If a Danio needs to die painfully to give someone a cheap thrill, then this is not necessary. 

I will agree that it might seem disproportionate to focus on fishkeeping over the myriad other pressing woes, but I’d still say that all cases of suffering, where they can be addressed, should be addressed. To say we shouldn’t feel bad about something because worse events are happening elsewhere is as inconsistent as me saying to you that you should stop having fun, because somewhere a millionaire playboy is having an even better time than you. Low hanging fruit is still fruit, and sometimes good practice before picking the trickier crop. 

I claim that pain should be a very real basis for deciding whether the hobby is good or bad. Currently, I declare that it is good, and inherently so. 

Rich Ross: 

The easy part first. I absolutely agree that low hanging fruit is still fruit and is good to pick. I bring up the other trickier ideas not to discount the low hanging fruit, but rather to put the low hanging fruit in context.

I don’t know how much of any of the discussion I actually hold to – I am more of a practical philosopher (which got me in a lot of trouble in college) and I am often more interested in the reality of a situation rather than what could be. For instance, I am not sure how much it matters if the intent is not to cause pain if the practice in reality is causing pain. I agree that the hobby is not predicated on suffering, but the reality seems to be that there is at least some suffering; there is at least some pain being caused to animals. 

I don’t think it can necessarily be said that the general intent of hobbyists is good, because there are a decent percentage of hobbyists that really just want pretty animals in their tanks. The tanks are decorations, not boxes of intended goodness . Of course it could be argued that the intent is good because if it wasn’t, the decoration would be sub par, but there still seems to be a good amount of the cut flower mentality – if the animals die, get new ones, or just replace the aquarium with wall art – just follow up the installs from TV show TANKED.

I don’t think the hobby necessarily relies on causing pain and suffering, but I do worry that the general practice of the hobby/industry/trade allows/accepts/ignores at least some suffering because it is ultimately financially expedient to do so. Cost is more often than not the deciding factor in animal welfare, not the ethical treatment of the animal. This applies to any business/hobby that deals in live animals or animal products. 

A fish market in Borneo is filled with dead versions of fish we commonly keep in the hobby. Photo by Rich Ross.

I think there could be a morally justified hobby, I am just not sure if the hobby as it is today can be considered morally justified. Perhaps, perhaps not. Sometimes it seems to be moving that way, but not always and not consistently. Since I was first involved in wild collection, I have often been on the cusp of leaving the hobby based on discussions with myself that mirror the one we are having now. Generally, I lean on the side of the work I am doing as being better for all involved, including the animals, and the hobby in general. So I stay involved.

I think that pain, as a real basis for deciding whether the hobby is good or bad, might be a great way to make that determination, however, I keep getting caught up on the reality of the hobby as it seems to currently stand – we know there is room, perhaps a lot of room, for improvement.

Nathan Hill:

I’ll need to concede the point that a lot of hobbyists are only keeping aquaria for aesthetic reasons. As you state, there are tanks as decorations, and I’d probably have to even accept that these outnumber all other uses of aquaria – biotopes, public, research, etc. – combined. This is a troubling point, and could weaken my hand.

I want to avoid making a “no true Scotsman” type of argument here, so I’m obliged to revise my position; I don’t want to try to argue that only a “real” fishkeeper is interested in enhancing happiness, and that everyone else is a fraudulent hobbyist. I’ll agree that financial expediency is currently king over ethical imperative, though I can see that this is shifting in the case of the UK model at least. 

In fact, there are no points you raise that I want to contest beyond the conclusion. I agree that the current system is peppered with suffering and death, and I, too, have been on the cusp of leaving in abject disgust. 

I think there could be a morally justified hobby, if the trade started working towards it.

I think that a lot of keepers of aquaria as decorations are currently ignorant to the problems inherent in the current system. If they were aware of certain practices, and certainly of death rates, then I have confidence that a sizeable number would either eschew and abandon the hobby, or look for ethically sound alternatives for supply (price point pending). In this way, I think that the hobby can organically evolve as a good entity, instead of one currently hiding its activities from its own participants in a fog of shame. 

But my distinction is between the trade and the hobby. I consider the two separate, yet inextricably intertwined; the former a by-product of the latter. I think much of the hobby unknowingly supports the nefarious aspects of the trade infrastructure, and I think that that the ignorance of the hobbyist is often the industry’s strength. A lot needs to be reformed on an industry-wide level, though the hobbyists need to be aware of this before it’ll happen. I don’t honestly think that many hobbyists would be happy to purchase one fish knowing that another number had to necessarily die to facilitate it. I trust I don’t need to spell out the dilemma here of how reform can’t come about without the trade having its worst aspects aired in public, which is of course entirely against its own interests. 

I think I might be better placed to liken the hobby to a Golem. It can be a force in either direction – for moral goodness or moral indiscretion – and currently it lacks the information it needs to be good. I suspect that it might benefit from knowing the realities behind the shop fascias and supply lines that bring fish in. On this basis, I still maintain that the direction of the hobby can be morally good, even if the current activities are questionable.

Throughout this dialogue, we’ve both rallied towards the enhancement of fish welfare, and the reduction of pain and suffering. The question I think we might want to close on is how the current system might be fixed. In the above, I allude to transparency, but I fear that I’m only asking the Turkeys to vote for Christmas (or Thanksgiving, for the US equivalent). 

Rich Ross: 

There is much that you just wrote that I am in complete agreement about, and hope that if hobbyists were aware of bad handling practices, that they would seek out vendors that partake in good handling practices. I worry though – there have been several attempts in the US of vendors specializing in truly sustainable and responsible livestock…and all have gone under, seemingly due to not being able to compete in both selection and price. Of course, these may not be the only reasons such vendors have not yet succeeded, but the worry is there. 

While images like this may be overblown, is mortality in the chain of custody unavoidable? Photo by Google Search.

I actually go one step further on your distinction between Trade and Hobby – I see three major arms of the machine that deals in live fish and corals as pets. Hobby, Trade, and Industry. The Hobby consists of the hobbyists, those keeping animals in their homes for various reasons.

The Trade are those that collect, supply, import and export the animal life the Hobby thrives on. The Industry consists of those that manufacture equipment and goods, as well as those that sell directly to the Hobbyists.

I think it is important to make these distinctions because all too often when people talk of reform, that talk is generalized to the point that everyone thinks it is someone else’s responsibility to make the reform. I generally think wanting hobbyists to drive reform has the ladder upside down.

Sure, buying power can be a force for change, but with the lack of data and transparency in the chain of custody, asking hobbyists to choose only to buy ”morally acceptable” animals seems like a virtual impossibility. All hobbyists would have to join forces to drive change and that seems like an unfair and insane responsibility to put on people that are trying to enjoy a hobby – something people do in their spare time for fun.

I feel that the entities that are in the business for profit, the trade and industry, should be the ones making sure that the way they make a living is sustainable and responsible. They have the drive, money, and reason to create change, to get the word out, to educate the hobbyists and stores, and to create a third party certification scheme to make sure that their businesses will be in business in the future. 

I agree the hobby is like a golem, and could be pushed into a direction that would make it morally justified or more morally justified. I think to make that happen, the three branches I described above, Hobby, Trade, and Industry, should each create an organization that helps guide and speak for them, helps disseminate information and acts as a clearing house and a central depository for direction and information. Then, all three of these organizations work together to fund and work for reform together (perhaps creating an independent third party certification scheme) so we can all quickly and efficiently move in the same direction of creating an responsible, sustainable, and morally justifiable hobby. 

I’ll leave the last word to you, because you are English. 

Nathan Hill: 

One morose point I’m obliged to agree on is that of the hobby not favouring the responsible trader. Traditionally, those behaving with the interests of fish and environment over cold, hard profit have almost always dissipated to nothing. There may be other reasons for their demise, yes, but to say that the increased prices required of such a venture didn’t feature would be capitulating to doubt just a shade too much. 

Personally, I think that leverage should radiate from the hobby to the trade and (to honour your distinction) the industry. My suspicion is that in a profit driven society, the profiteering entities have little imperative to try to shape the moral behaviour of the trade. Their role, I believe, has increasingly become one of acquiescing to the desires of the spender. I’ll grant that innovations can steer where the hobby may lead, but those innovations, too, will be founded on principles of cost effectiveness and profitability. Henry Ford would be proud. 

No, I think that if it comes to the crunch, it is the hobbyists as a collective entity that decide the direction of the trade and industry, based on where they choose to spend their money. Every pound or dollar is a disguised vote for one principle or another, and the capitalist system is itself profoundly democratic in this way. The catch, of course, is convincing the lay fishkeeper that welfare (suffering reduction/happiness increase), habitat conservation and sustainability are more important than shopping for personal benefit. The idea of an individual spending more money for no tangible personal gain seems disingenuous at best, and asking people to forfeit financial savings so that they might share in some poorly defined moral integrity may be the biggest challenge the collective of fishkeeping will ever face. To me it seems obvious that increasing happiness is a virtue, but I need to also accept that this view is far from universal. As much as I might want it to be a founding principle for morality, it is, realistically, still wishful thinking on my part.

To your last point, I remain contrarian to the end and disagree wholeheartedly. I do not trust any organization that derives its profits from livestock to decide with impartiality on the best way of handling that livestock. Regarding an organization to coordinate trade, hobby and industry, I see the only viable option to be a benign but financially disconnected regulatory body, weighing up evidence on all matters within the fishkeeping sphere in an unbiased and arbitrary manner. I think that all information regarding the trade should be transparent, and information freely available to the hobbyist. 

As I see it, I would rather that decisions regarding ethical behaviour were made by an entity who is morally naive to the subject of fishkeeping, and all legislation formed by this entity should be based on data and reasoning. Lobbying on the part of those who draw their wage from the subject should be disregarded, or we will never be free of the taint of greed at some level. 

To summarize my opening query as I now see it: Is the hobby morally good?

In practice, no. The balance of suffering is too great, and from the fishes’ perspectives is unjustified.

As a concept, probably not. I hoped that the underlying intention of fishkeeping was to keep livestock happy, but your counterpoint to this – that many people just want to keep animals as decoration, while the animal’s needs are contingent – is a persuasive one. There’s no moral imperative for the hobby to keep fish happier in tanks than they would be in the wild. <

As an ideal or goal, maybe. With the “right” direction, and with an adequate framework to validate the happiness of fish over a plethora of mitigating circumstances, the aspirations of the hobby might be morally good. But this is entirely hypothetical, and subject to too many variables to be promoted as a good representation of the fishkeeping hobby. That I want people to consider pain and suffering as a basis of ethics is inadequate as a moral foundation, it seems.

I leave the closing passages to you, but from my UK stance, I fear for the status quo, and I fear for the future (as a hobbyist). Most of all, I fear for the unbiased arbitrators I mention above, as my suspicion is that they will be even less sympathetic to the trade, hobby and industry than either of us have been.

So There It Is 

It seems that ”Is the hobby morally justifiable?” is a question that Nathan and I unite both agree is a resounding “Maybe.” Even though that is the case, it is clear that both Nathan and I have hope for the hobby, and think that if we can continue to make improvements, we can all partake in a hobby that we can be proud of.

*Special thanks to Jim Welsh for his spectacular proof reading services. *See more of J.R. Zuckerberg’s illustrations here!

Skeptical Reefkeeping 12: Triton Lab ICP-OES Testing of a Certified Artificial Saltwater Standard

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. 
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. 

Reef Threads covers MACNA banquet and Skeptical Reefkeeping 11

rtheader From Reefthreads “It’s a new week and time for a new podcast. This week we talk about Sanjay’s notification trick,, blogs, the MACNA banquet, Archerfish skill, and skeptical animal selection. Download the podcast here, or subscribe to our podcasts at iTunes. Also, follow us on Twitter at reefthreads.—Gary and Christine”

Dr Seuss eats Nemo

From Advanced Aquarist

The answer to the struggle of what to feed marine predators that require live foods is right under our noses. Fish might be friends, but in the real world the may also be food.
Richard Ross' pair of Dr. Seuss fish, Belonoperca pylei
Richard Ross’ pair of Dr. Seuss fish, Belonoperca pylei

Back in March, I wrote about Chad Vossen feeding a platinum clownfish that was to be culled to juvenile Dwarf Cuttlefish, Sepia bandnesis, and talked about how clownfish destined to be culled might be a great source of marine feeders for predatory marine animals. As a follow up I present to you the below video: Dr. Seuss eats Nemo. In the video I feed my pair of Dr. Seuss Fish, Belonoperca pylei, some captive bred designer clownfish that were raised in quarantine conditions, and were destined for the culling block. These clownfish were provided to me by Bay Area Reefers President, Steinhart Aquarium Volunteer (Thanks David!) and clownfish breeder extraordinaire, David Sheh.

Feeding marine predatory animals can be difficult because finding appropriate live foods can come with all kinds of problems. Availability can be challenging, as finding the right size prey items, in the quantity you need them, when you need them can be problematic. Disease and parasites from wild caught prey items can infect your predatory fish, and quarantine of such animals is and added expense, as well as taking up time and resources.  Worse, the ethical issues surrounding wild caught feeder animals are significant; using animals flown halfway around the world as feeders seems exceedingly wasteful.  Furthermore, with some aquarium fish potentially to be listed as threatened or endangered in the endangered species act, the practice of feeding out wild caught animals can become even more inflammatory. Cultured freshwater prey items don’t offer a great alternative as they can have a different nutritional profile from saltwater prey items, and can present sub optimal results – for example, in my experience Dwarf Cuttles fed solely freshwater ghost shrimp tend to lay much fewer eggs, and fewer viable eggs than cuttles fed saltwater shrimp.

If only there were a whole bunch of captive bred, saltwater animals that nobody wanted, weren’t sellable, and were often culled as a matter of course. Oh wait. There are.