Over the years I have been fortunate enough to attend or speak at just about every large show, frag swap and meeting that occurred throughout North America. From MACNA to Reefaplaooza, IMAC, The Southwest Marine Conference and ReefStock – I have gotten to be at all of them.
And actually I thought I had run out of new venues when I spoke at ReefStock earlier this year. So when Aquatic Experience asked me to speak, I jumped at the chance to fill out my dance card. I had heard about this conference since it’s inception a few years ago, but had not had the opportunity to attend.
I was interested, because unlike all of the other national shows this one is similar to a couple of the European shows I have attended in that it included not just manufacturers and shops, but it also catered to beginners and most importantly our freshwater brethren. I have always found it curious that all of the other shows for the most part only focus on the saltwater side of the hobby, despite the fact that the majority of us started in freshwater.
Also over the last few years I have seen many of my reefkeeping brethren go back to the dark side and set up high end freshwater plant tanks to go along with their reef tanks. Sanjay Joshi, Jason Fox, Jake Adams, Joe Caparatto, and Julian Sprung to name a few all have freshwater plant tanks, so I do not think it is sacrilege if we have both tanks in our homes.
As I have noted in past articles, I think learning what I have from keeping reef tanks has significantly helped me with my freshwater plant tank. So I thought going to this show and seeing if this type of show would work or at least would work for me, would be fun. And since this is still my main hobby, I do want to have fun doing it more than anything else.
So last weekend I headed off to the Chicago suburb of Schaumburg, and the Schaumburg Convention Center for the show. The first thing that was apparent, was that this hotel was one of the nicest hotels that I have been to a show at. The hotel and the exhibitor’s hall were both large, but unlike some shows I have been to in the past, the hall was spaced so that the exhibitors did not seem overwhelmed by the size of the hall.
There were a lot of exhibitors in a large space, but it was not overwhelming. Upon walking around the hall for thirty minutes before it opened, allowed me to visit and closely inspect many of the exhibitors before the crowds overwhelmed them. As a result, I got to see how everything was laid out and how it compared with similar shows I have seen in Germany and Italy.
The first thing that was apparent was that freshwater was not taking a backseat to saltwater in any way. There were significantly more freshwater exhibitors than saltwater and over the course of the weekend I also realized that far more freshwater hobbyists attended the conference than did saltwater.
It was also interesting that many of the saltwater hobbyists I met and talked to were beginner to intermediate hobbyists rather than the “hard core” or old time hobbyists that attend the many saltwater shows that occur throughout the year.
Also significant by their absence, was the lack of saltwater equipment manufacturers, which were replaced in my eyes by freshwater competition in different areas as well as displays by freshwater suppliers. I should also note that this show tried to cater to the kids that were there by having a sea lion show and other things just for kids.
While not something I enjoy, the kids who attended seemed to enjoy this a great deal and the seal lions themselves appeared well-treated and happy in their surroundings. As has been my focus the last couple of years, I think bringing more of our kids into the hobby is something that needs to be done in order to insure the long-term survival of the hobby. So their having things like this as well as having other fun things specifically for kids to do is a start.
So what did I see that made this show interesting and worth visiting. To start, the thing that amazed me and the fellow reefers I hung out with, Cruz and Rico, was how much space and exhibitors were focused on freshwater shrimp. While I have kept shrimp in my freshwater tanks in the past, I had no idea what a phenomenon freshwater shrimp have become.
One of the largest sections of the whole show was a section of tanks devoted to a freshwater shrimp competition. There had to be at least 70 small tanks housing groups of these little beauties, none more than an inch in size. And while I have to admit that some of them were attractive I was impressed that we reef keeping aficionados have not cornered the market on crazy prices.
I say that, as some of these shrimp gave frags a run for their money as they were over $500 per shrimp. And since I’m assuming most of the people buying them were looking to breed them, an investment of at least $1000 for two that would hopefully turn into a breeding pair makes what we pay for frags look reasonable. Well that’s what I would tell my significant other if they questioned the price of corals.
While the freshwater shrimp stole the show for me, there were a lot of other impressive displays present as well. First among these was the freshwater planted tank competition. Sadly, unlike reef tanks, which do not really allow for a quick set up so that they can be competitively judged, these tanks looked great even after only being set up for a few hours.
For me one of the main reasons to go to shows, after getting frags, is to learn, and seeing how impressive these planted displays were, and watching them being set up definitely was a learning experience. The thing that impressed me most was how many of them were using the less is more concept.
That is, unlike many of my tanks, the builders of these tanks used empty space and contrasts in color and texture between plants and rocks to great effect. So after viewing these tanks I am reevaluating some of the aquascaping I have done in my tanks and grateful I have gotten many new ideas to work with.
In the same vein, I also learned some new things at the various talks that were given. Considering how the hobby is changing, it was appropriate that the first and most well-attended talk was on the State of the Aquatic Industry with a focus on legislative action. It was good to see that it is not just the saltwater side of the hobby that is worried about the recent legislation that was enacted in Hawaii to effectively ban the collection of all fish for the ornamental side of the hobby, while taking fish for food is not affected.
Shop owners, manufacturers and high profile individuals in both the fresh and saltwater side of the hobby voiced their concern about what this could mean in the future. There was an air of worry that if this legislation is allowed to remain unchallenged and fish collection is forever banned, it will just be the start of the move to eventually eliminate the hobby.
Several individuals voiced their opinion that this legislation could eventually impact much of the hobby beyond saltwater. I must agree as from following the writings of the groups pushing this legislation the goal is just not to ban saltwater fish collection but rather the goal is to make the keeping of any aquatic organism against the law. This however, was just part of the discussion as the future of the local fish store was also discussed and how to stay relevant in the age of the internet.
There were also discussions on fish diseases and treatments, reducing stress during acclimation, (for fish not for owners), reducing aggression between corals and new discoveries. Actually this last topic always amazes me as despite how small the world has seemingly now become, every year there are new discoveries of even more beautiful fish, corals and plants, which continues to amaze me and keep me and many others excited about the hobby.
Despite there not being the buzz about new products or innovations as occurs with MACNA or Reefapalooza I still saw some new things there that I had not seen before. Julian and Two Little Fishes showed a new type of stackable rock that can either be used to hold frags to grow out or that can actually be used to aquascape a small tank and allow for the frags to grow in.
He also is now bringing in a one-piece overflow/return unit that returns the water in a pulsed manner while maintaining a continuous siphon. I have been using this piece of equipment now for over five years when I brought one back from Europe and it does perform both functions flawlessly. Lastly, Julian has also perfected his salt and now has it available for the hobby.
It took him quite a while to get a formula that met his specifications, so I am sure it will do precisely what he expects it too. In addition to these products there was also several tank manufacturers showing tanks and stands that are much more aesthetically pleasing than the standard glass box on a pine stand.
There was reef themed clothing and jewelry, almost a full wall of tanks housing schools of great-looking freshwater fish but these paled compared to my two favorite things at the show. The first was a full collection of the Lego saltwater fish collection that came out in England a few years ago. While a bit on the expensive side, it nonetheless gave me something else I may want to collect down the line.
The second was Tetra’s app for keeping track of everything going on in your tanks and keeping it in a format that is easy to follow. While I understand that everything will eventually be on an app, for us technologically less gifted this is often an overwhelming process. When watching and playing with this app, for one of the few times I have done and messed with technology I was not overwhelmed. So to them I say congratulations on making something idiot proof for a technological idiot like me.
So after talking about all of this and sharing my pictures the last question is: so what did you get. Sadly, I must admit that I have been to few shows where I did not bring something back, but this was not the case here. So this was not an exception in that I did bring a few things back. First, I got a pair of powder coated coral cutters from Tamsco Aquarium Tools.
Over the years, no matter the grade of the stainless steel cutters I have gotten they all have rusted. And sadly many have rusted quickly. So I bought these with the hope that this type of coating will enable these to last significantly longer than my last pair. I also got a pair of rainbow acan socks. I am not a wild sock fan, but I thought these were well done, and since I am back on the acan collecting bandwagon I wanted to show my regained enthusiasm.
Lastly, I got frags, of course. I got a beautiful green chalice with yellow eyes from Fabio Seven Seas Aquatic Life, and I got a host of frags from Julian and Cruz at Elegant Corals. I must admit that I got these at their shop and not at the show, as unfortunately there were not a lot of sps frags to be had at the show.
Most of the frags available at the show were lps or zooas. This is a trend I have seen at more and more of the shows I have attended where sps seem to being sold more and more online and less and less at shops or at shows. This is unfortunate as I appreciate seeing the frags I buy live rather than online as seeing them under lighting, even if it is blue lighting, makes me more comfortable with what the color actually is.
Lastly, and I hate to admit this, I actually liked several of the displays that only included garishly colored freshwater fish and decorations. While I would not have a tank like this myself, I thought that these tanks were fun to look at and made me appreciate the true colors we have in our saltwater tanks.
I also enjoyed talking to and getting to know the freshwater hobbyists who this show was starting to push into getting into the saltwater side of the hobby. I was a bit concerned however, when every one of them I spoke with all told me that the reason they hadn’t jumped in yet is that they still were being told that it was much harder than freshwater. So obviously there is still work to be done.
To me Aquatic Experience was a success in that it was well-conceived and organized and everyone who attended regardless of where they are in the hobby, and it was well-attended, seemed to have fun. From my point of view there was something for pretty much everyone at this show.
I also liked that, unlike the other big shows, it is in the Midwest, and since Dennis Gallagher’s IMAC shows ended, there really have not been many shows in the Midwest. So for me it was an opportunity to meet with old friends and make new friends in an area that I do not get to very often. Hopefully, in the future this will prompt more shows to be put on there.