3 things fishkeeping has taught me about the environment

I took up fishkeeping as a hobby two years ago. At the time, I became randomly fixated on getting a pet goldfish. As with every project I take up, I needed to start with research. During my search I came across online fishkeeping forums and I realised I had no idea what was necessary to take care of fish. However, I was up to the challenge and so I kept reading and learning, eventually picking up a 33 gallon tank and starting a community aquarium.

Along the way taking care of a mini ecosystem taught me loads about our environment. Here are the three key lessons:

1. It shows you first hand the effect chemicals such as nitrate affect our bodies of water and the creatures living in them.

When you get into the hobby, one of the first things you learn to keep your fish healthy is the nitrogen cycle. Basically, fish waste produces ammonia which is then transformed into ammonia, nitrites and nitrates. Nitrate is the least harmful, but can still have adverse health effects in high doses. In an aquarium, too much nitrate causes serious stress on fish, making them more vulnerable to diseases and death. In real life, nitrate seeps into water through the use of fertilizer, manure, livestock farming. Excess nitrate causes “dead zones” in water bodies and has been linked to cancer and blue baby syndrome in humans.

Nitrogen cycle. Source: Wikipedia

2. It teaches you how fragile ecosystems are.

All it takes is over feeding to throw your whole nitrogen balance off. Uneaten food decomposes in your tank and pollutes the water. Fish distressed from high nitrates made me realize that we have to be careful about what we dump in our oceans and lakes. Sure, an aquarium is much smaller than a lake or an ocean, but it is not only uneaten food polluting our oceans/lakes. It is chemical waste from so many different sources. Just think of what products you pour down the drain everyday – face cleansers, dish soap, disinfectants, dyes. Imagine what industries dump in the water. Scary thoughts.


3. There is no quick solution once the damage is done.

In an aquarium, if your nitrates do go off the charts, you do a thorough tank cleanup and a water change. You add a few drops of treatment to your new water and nitrate levels should start to lower. Even in that case though, balance take a while to come back. There is no immediate cure-all from the damage we are inflicting on our environment. The longer it takes us to get our act together, the longer it will take us to heal the Earth. And I don’t think we always consider how interconnected all parts of our ecosystems are. Just think of what would happen if bees went extinct.


Oil spill. Source: The Guardian

Regarding the hobby in general, while I will maintain the tank I have, I won’t be buying any more fish. In those two years my views have changed and I’m not as enthusiastic about the hobby as I once was for a few reasons.

First, when you have an aquarium, you are playing God. It’s not the same as caring for air-breathing pets. With fish, if you get lazy about cleaning your tank, you cause them lots of stress,the water they “breathe” becomes toxic and you see them gasping frantically. If your water quality is not suitable whatever reason, these creatures pay for it with their health and/or life.

Fish with “ich” disease

Also, fish deaths are pretty much inevitable, at least at first. They can get sick from diseases they brought from the pet shop, they can attack each other, they can succumb to poor water quality. I feel we let this go a lot more with fish because they are small, cheap, and there’s a large supply. However, once you observe them carefully you see that each individual species and each individual fish has its own personality/behaviour. This has made me be much more careful of how I take care of them, as I see them as beings who want to live and who feel pain.

Lastly, we are very misinformed about fishkeeping. The stereotypical pet fish is a gold fish in a one gallon bowl. He lives for a few years and then dies. In reality, a single gold fish needs at least 30 gallons of water, and can live for 30 years. However, pet shops are still all too happy to sell a goldfish it will be kept in a too small tank. For the goldfish, the best scenario is a  shortened lifespan and stunted growth. Imagine how many goldfish are abused for aesthetics or company.

With this said, it might be confusing why I’m choosing to keep my aquarium. The way I see it, being aware of all these things mean that i have a greater sense of responsibility towards my fish than the average owner or pet shop. Whether with fish or with the environment, it makes it much harder to justify neglect when there is the awareness and the strong moral obligation not to do so.


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