Being in a somewhat contemplative mood as I enjoy my third cup of coffee this Friday morning, I’ve posed to myself the philosophical question, what does it mean to be an “expert” marine aquarist? In other words, when I write something like, “That challenging species should be kept only by expert hobbyists,” who exactly am I referring to? As I mull it over, I’m coming to the realization that the answer to this question isn’t as obvious as it might seem.
Years in the hobby?
Is expertise a simple a matter of years in the hobby? If that were the case, someone who has been a hobbyist for 20 years but has never kept anything other than a single ocellaris clownfish would be considered an expert—when in reality, that individual is experienced only in keeping one specimen of a relatively bulletproof species.
Further, there are plenty of long-time hobbyists out there who repeatedly exercise poor judgment, never learn from their mistakes, and make irresponsible stocking/husbandry decisions no matter how many years they keep at it. So time in the hobby can’t be the sole answer.
Variety of species?
What about the variety of species the individual has kept? No doubt having kept a diverse array of fish and invertebrates representing many different genera and species could qualify one as an expert, right? Ah, but what if many or all those specimens were poorly maintained and survived only a short time in the individual’s care? That certainly would not constitute expertise—or even meaningful experience—with all those animals.
Experience with a challenging species?
How about someone who’s kept a notoriously challenging species, like the Moorish idol or ribbon eel? That has to count for something, no? Here again, that depends on the level of success the individual had with the species in question. If the fish was kept alive and in good health for something close to its potential lifespan, I suppose he or she could be considered something of an expert on keeping that particular species. But not so much if it held on for just a matter of months to a year or so before perishing (as is so often the case).
A formal degree?
Okay, then let’s move on to formal education. Surely someone with a degree in the marine sciences would qualify as a marine aquarium expert, right? Well, maybe yes, maybe no. Not everyone who pursues this course of study has an interest in keeping home aquaria. So, some may have a good theoretical grounding in the subject matter but no practical experience whatsoever.
What is it then?
So, if none of the aforementioned attributes qualify one as a marine aquarium expert, what does? Perhaps expertise in this hobby stems from some combination of the aforementioned elements—a record of long-term success with a variety of different fish and invertebrate species, including some of the more challenging ones. I might also toss in there someone who has taken on and conquered a particularly difficult aspect of the hobby—such as breeding a challenging fish species and successfully raising the offspring or finding an innovative way to sustain an exceptionally finicky feeder.
Or, who knows, maybe it all comes down to mere wisdom. Maybe expertise is simply about recognizing one’s strengths and weaknesses as well as learning from the successes and failures of prior experiences and then finding ways to apply that knowledge whenever novel situations present themselves. I really can’t say.
What I do know is that my lone functioning brain cell is hurting trying to answer this on my own. So help me out, fellow salties. How do you define a marine aquarium expert? Let us know in the comment section below.