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The History and Development of Aquatic Habitats for the Marine Fish Hobbyist



Joseph E. Lupo


Delaware Technical and Community College, 3 May 2004


The History and Development of Aquatic Habitats for the Marine Fish Hobbyist.

Fish and marine life have been kept in captivity for thousands of years. The earliest record of this is in China and Sumeria about 4,000 years ago. Modern aquarium keeping began in the mid 1800's in England where the first public aquarium was opened. Various methods for chemical and biological filtration were developed over the years. A more natural approach is the most current direction the hobby has taken.


The History and Development of Aquatic Habitats for the Marine Fish Hobbyist.

Fish and marine life have been kept in captivity for thousands of years. The earliest record of this is in China and Sumeria about 4,000 years ago (Tetra Holding, 2003). The Chinese farmed carp for food (Stime, 1999). There are those who believe the practice started well before that date. The ancient Romans had a thing for eels, and not only to eat. Many kept them as pets and bred them. One emperor even erected a statue to his favorite eel when it died. (New England Aquarium, n.d.). It wasn't until the Victorian era that the keeping of fish just for fun became popular and widespread among the masses. Godey's Lady's Book, July 1857 says, "The aquarium is the toy of the day". It was considered a curiosity of nature, a decoration and an educational item for the children in the house. These are not far from the reasons that many people keep aquariums today.

Little, if any thought was given to the well being of the fish, and there was only very sketchy anecdotal scientific information as to why some things worked and some did not. England was the place in the early to mid 1800's where fish keeping and public display first rose to prominence in the west. The first public aquarium in the world opened in Regent's Park in London in 1853 (Tetra Holding, 2003), although England had been importing goldfish for decoration since the late 1600's. This is not surprising for an island nation that had the world's largest fleet, at that time. Aquariums were considered an extension of gardening; therefore, tanks and supplies were purchased at the local greenhouse.

The only approach at this time was the "Balanced Aquarium" (Stime, 1999). That is to say, that the owners were looking to create a world where the environment would mimic the natural world. Plants, invertebrates and fishes from a given area would all be put into the tank since this is what they saw in nature. Filtration and aeration were not to appear for many years for the home aquarist; only large public displays used extensive water changes to keep their specimens alive. The fish that were kept were most often local in nature, since there was no way to keep them alive during shipping over long distances.

It is important to understand about the keeping of pets at that time. Today, the average person keeps pets for a variety of reason and chief among those is just for fun. In fact, it has been proposed that the modern dog is actually a parasite. In the mid 1800's most "pets" were kept for a purpose. Security, controlling vermin, herding livestock, hunting assistants, pulling carts, war, police, garbage disposal and food were all common uses for domestic pets. This is the period in history when doctors had very little idea what caused an infection or how to cure most things, even things that we now take for granted. Except for livestock, which produced income, there was virtually no veterinary care.

If an animal got sick, was injured, attacked or did not get enough to eat, it suffered and died. In this environment, it is easy to understand the kind of care a fish or snail would get. What did, or did not go on under the water was unknown since there was very little assisted diving. So, it would have been impossible to find out where the fish really lived, what (or who) they really ate and what (or who) ate them. These are things the modern aquarist takes mostly for granted. The mortality rate for livestock was very high for a variety of reasons. Lack of oxygen in the water, improper water temperature, toxins from the container the fish were housed in and even starvation. In some cases, it was even suggested that you not feed your fish, as it was unnecessary.

Godey's Lady's Book from November, 1870 had this to say about the feeding of goldfish," Never give the fish bread. In good condition they require no feeding; but a pinch of dry vermicelli, broken into minute pieces is good for them. They are very fond of it, and will soon take it from the fingers when called. If forgotten, no harm will follow." We know now that almost all of this advice is completely incorrect. The first major "pure" aquarium in the United States is widely regarded to be the Old Boston Aquarial Gardens, which opened in 1859. P.T. Barnum, who had been traveling in Europe had visited the Regent's park aquarium in London and realized the idea could be a success in the United States.

The love affair with aquariums continued to grow around the world and public aquariums waxed and waned until modern times. It was not until the mid 1970's that several species of clownfish began to be successfully bred and raised in captivity in large numbers. At about this point the keeping of marine livestock become much more popular since the mechanisms for keeping a viable marine tank became better understood by the home aquarist. This is also, what I like to call the birth of the technology age of marine aquariums. For many years the more (technology) is better school of thought prevailed. It appeared as though aquarists were trying to compensate knowledge for equipment. There was almost no problem that did not have its solution in equipment and additives.

Tanks became highly dependent on technology for success. It was not unusual for the plumbing and electrical systems of even a moderate sized tank to look more like a nuclear power plant than something that was supposed to keep a handful of fishes alive. The hobby however, also continued to grow and thrive. The stunning beauty and breathtaking colors of the reef have made many of us gasp with awe. Tanks and their support systems became more complicated as time went on and drove some out of the hobby as a result. It was also beginning to be understood that the method of capture played a large part on both the success of the specimen in the tank as well as the very future of the natural reef.

With the growth of the hobby, there was always a need for more and different creatures to fill the world's tanks. Sadly, this often has meant that highly questionable methods were used to obtain specimens. The worst of these is the use of potassium cyanide to "stun" fishes to make them easy to catch. A diver takes the cyanide down to the reef and pours it over the reef. Then collects the fishes as they float up. This method of poisoning the fishes means that not only don't 90% of the fishes never make it to the store for which they were intended (Fenner, 2001), but also irreparable damage is done to the reef and other creatures left behind. Fortunately, this practice is now illegal in most fish collecting areas of the world.

I believe this is also the time when the hobby gained a reputation for being too hard for the average fish keeper. People with a small freshwater tank had only a small corner filter, an air stone and maybe an undergravel filter, all driven by a small air pump. This same person would look into a moderate size marine tank of seventy-five gallons and see a protein skimmer, a UV sterilizer, a sump, a fluidized bed filter, wet-dry filter, diverse lights, heaters, chillers, canister filters, bio-balls, several small pumps inside he tank and a main pump capable of moving five hundred gallons per hour, or more. Add to that the reputation that marine organisms are extremely delicate and it's easy to see why many shied away from the hobby.

As we begin to move forward into the early 1980's more was learned about how biology worked in the aquarium and the chemistry involved. Several new styles of aquariums such as the Dutch style began to appear. In this style, a "wet/dry" filter used damp media, which was adapted from wastewater treatment technology to deal with many of the chemical and biological filtration issues in a small system (Tullock, 2001). Although this type was a vast improvement over what had been available up until that time, it was only suitable for fish only systems.

At about the same time the Berlin method was under development in Europe. This system used live rock and sand, vigorous protein skimming and activated carbon for filtration. The advantage to this was a more stable water chemistry, less maintenance and the ability to support a much wider variety of marine life. Coupled with advances in lighting and circulation many species that were previously thought to be keepable by only professionals were now within the reach of many home aquarists. The addition of limewater to replace evaporated water also proved highly valuable in stabilizing water chemistry and adding minerals needed for invertebrate growth.

As we approach the present day, there is a greater focus for many in the hobby in maintaining a more natural approach to keeping a marine aquarium (Fenner, 2001). Rather than trying to achieve an unrealistic and unsustainable concentration of fish and livestock, many are instead focusing their efforts on a more realistic habitat. The natural style with its low fish population and heavy use of live rock and sand, skimming and appropriate lighting is bringing many formerly discouraged aquarists back into the hobby and attracting new people every day. Fish are now the second most populous pet in the United States, exceeded only by cats but out numbering dogs. Pretty amazing for a pet you can't pick up, cuddle or sleep with.


Godey's Lady's Book (1857, June) Aquariums no. 1. LIV, 525. Retrieved April 12, 2004, from Accessible Archives online database

Fenner, R. (2001). The conscientious marine aquarist. Neptune City, New Jersey: T.F.H.

New England Aquarium (n.d.). Old aquariums: Boston aquarial gardens. Retrieved April 10, 2004, from http://www.neaq.org/about/history/1885.html

Stime, J. (1999). Marine ornamentals. Retrieved March 13, 2004 from http://www.aquarium-design.com/beginner/history.html

Tetra Holding (2003). The history of the aquarium. Retrieved April 9, 2004, from http://www.tetra-fish.com/aquademics/historyofaquariums.html

Tullock, J. (2001). Natural reef aquariums. Neptune City, New Jersey: T.F.H.

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