Failure to Launch: 5 Reasons New Marine Aquarium Hobbyists “Crash and Burn”

A misguided and hasty approach often leads to a failed aquarium and exit from the hobby

A misguided and hasty approach often leads to a failed aquarium and exit from the hobby

It’s a tale as old as the hobby itself: A novice marine aquarist sets up his or her first system, runs headlong into every conceivable obstacle and pitfall, responds with a series of misguided decisions, loses a whole tank’s worth of fish and corals, and finally chucks the entire hobby in frustration and despair, all the while cursing Neptune and that silly enchanted trident of his.

Just as this scenario is all too common (with the possible exception of the Neptune part), so too are the reasons many novice marine aquarists fail and drop out of the hobby. A post-mortem analysis of the average hobby failure would likely reveal one or more of the following five underlying elements:

1. Failure to research

I’m including this point first because it’s the most significant contributor to hobby dropout and encompasses many of the major oversights that newcomers make. Failing to cycle, skipping quarantine, overstocking/overfeeding, combining incompatible species, and choosing inappropriate life-support equipment (skimmer, lighting, etc.) are just some of the bad decisions new hobbyists sometimes make due to lack of prior research—and all can have hobby-ending (not to mention budget-breaking) consequences.

Without ever reading hobby literature, perusing informative websites, seeking advice from more advanced hobbyists, studying up on the habits and demands of various species, etc., newcomers don’t even know they’re supposed to be concerned about these things—or, as Caribbean Chris and I like to say, “They don’t even know that they don’t know.” And that’s a recipe for certain disaster in this hobby!

2. Having no coherent strategy

The best way to get started on the road to success in our crazy pastime is to establish a set of long-term goals—a strategic vision of the type of system and livestock you’d like to keep—and then implement the appropriate tactics, equipment purchases, and stocking approach to help you achieve those goals. You have to keep in mind that what is necessary or even desirable for achieving one type of system may not apply to another.

Unfortunately, many hobby newcomers randomly pick and choose different products and techniques without any clear vision of where they’re headed or how these items/methods might impact their system for the better or worse. They’ve just heard they’re supposed to be somehow beneficial. Of course, just as quickly as they adopt different practices or products, they abandon them and move on to the next latest, greatest thing, all the while failing to get the results they seek.

3. Cheaping out on vital equipment

There’s no question that quality equipment can set you back quite a few bucks in this hobby. For those of modest means, it’s only natural to look for cheaper alternatives. However, when seeking ways to cut costs, keep in mind that cheaping out on vital equipment—your reef lighting, skimmer, heater, return pump, etc.—may end up costing you a great deal more in the long run if lower-cost also means lower-quality.

When a piece of equipment doesn’t perform the way it’s supposed to, your livestock suffers and you’ll ultimately end up shelling out for the better product anyway. So now, instead of saving a little money, you’re way over budget—and probably contemplating dropping out.

4. Rushing things

If there’s one adage every novice should memorize forwards and backwards, it’s this: “Only bad things happen quickly in the marine aquarium hobby.” All the processes we’d love to short-circuit, such as quarantining new specimens, cycling, and adding livestock, require the patience of Job, while problems such as algae outbreaks and water-quality issues seem to pop up in the blink of an eye (though, ironically, they take a long time to resolve). A good way to look at this is, the more you rush things with a marine system, the farther you get ahead of biology/chemistry and the more problems you’re going to face.

5. Overcomplicating matters

This often dovetails with having no coherent strategy and basically involves the assumption that in order to succeed in the marine aquarium hobby, one must acquire every bell, whistle, gadget, and gewgaw on the market. This approach is not only costly but can also be highly confusing for some. Coordinating all that gear and understanding what each piece is supposed to accomplish can be overwhelming for someone who hasn’t even mastered the basic concepts of marine aquarium keeping yet.


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About Jeff Kurtz

Jeff Kurtz is the Co-founder/Editor of Saltwater Smarts, former Senior Consulting Editor for Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine, and the aquarist formerly known as “The Salt Creep.” He has been an aquarium hobbyist for over 30 years and is an avid scuba diver.


  1. The best way to start is to find someone with a nice looking tank that seems healthy. A healthy tank is one where the owner is not constantly tweeking and buying new things or adding all sorts of snake oil. Snake oil is sometimes hard to find now anyway. After you find such a person with the nice tank, and not one that was started last Tuesday, Get to know them. Move in with them. Cook breakfast for them and if they don’t wear sneakers every day, shine their shoes, wash their car, maybe bring in the paper. But all the while, watch what he (or she) is doing. How and what do they feed. What is on the bottom of the tank. What type of lights do they have? To have healthy fish you should learn where the fish comes from and how it makes it’s living. Not all fish can live together and it’s not always about their religion. Different fish have different feeding habits and we should know this before we buy something then ask: what does it eat? This hobby is not that hard. Dating a Supermodel is hard but this hobby can be very easy if you can resist some beginner urges and use some common sense. I hope I didn’t confuse you, because I confused myself a little.

    • GREAT article!! And I love what Paul B is saying… so true!! Find a good friend with a tank and help out to get some practice!! Smart 🙂

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