Tropical Depression: Your Saltwater Fish Tank May Be Killing the Ocean
Tropical fish tanks in restaurants, hospitals and homes evoke feelings of tranquility and beauty. They even lower stress levels prior to medical procedures and encourage Alzheimer's patients to eat sufficiently. But what's good for humans may be bad for the sea.
Most tropical fish sold in pet stores come from reefs in Indonesia and the Philippines, where fishermen stun the colorful dwellers with squirts of sodium cyanide. The potent nerve toxin causes the fish to float up out of the reefs so they can be easily scooped up, but it can also injure or kill them as well as trigger coral bleaching.
"What I find ironic is that people love the ocean. They want to keep a slice of it in their living room. But they're killing the coral reefs," says Søren Hansen a co-founder of Sea and Reef Aquaculture, LLC, in Franklin, Me., one of only a handful of tropical fish farmers in the U.S.
Why not breed the saltwater fish on farms everywhere? Most fish in freshwater tanks—which are much more common, less expensive and easier to maintain—are indeed farm-raised. But breeding saltwater fish in an industrial aquaculture facility requires re-creating the coral reef ecosystem, a technology that is just moving out of its infancy.
Improvement is urgently needed. Tropical fish sales are estimated at $ million to $ million a year worldwide. The U.S. imports about 11 million of the fish annually, out of 20 million sold globally. Estimates suggest that 70 to 90 percent of captured fish die before they ever reach a tank, and more perish within their first six months in captivity. "It's an overlooked industry," says Frank Baensch, a tropical fish farmer in Honolulu, adding that "If I wanted to, I could bring in species on the Red List [of endangered species] and nobody would know."
The demand for tropical fish soared in , when Finding Nemo—an animated movie about father and son clown fish, Marlin and Nemo—prompted a buying frenzy. "Every kid wanted a Nemo and Dory [a regal tang that also stars in the movie] in their fish tank," recalls Andrew Rhyne, a marine biologist at Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I.. No one thought to measure the change in the number of wild-caught fish, Rhyne says. But clown fish sales at the world's largest fish hatchery—Ocean, Reefs & Aquariums in Fort Pierce, Fla.—jumped 40 percent.
Retailers are preparing for another sales spike this fall, when Finding Nemo 3-D will be released.
Luckily, clown fish are among the few tropical fish that breed in captivity. Like most demersal fish—those that spawn on hard surfaces—parents stick around to care for their young. Demersal larvae also emerge as fully formed miniature fish, making them relatively self-sufficient. Hobbyists have been breeding clown fish by trial and error for decades. These days, Hansen says, clown fish account for about 80 percent of all tropical fish sales.
Yet almost all of the other 1, or more species of tropical fish sold in stores are caught live in the ocean. That is because farmers have had much more limited success in breeding pelagic fish, which account for 90 percent of all tropical species. Pelagic fish spawn and then abandon their young. Larvae lack mouths, eyes and guts and are so fragile that colliding with an air bubble could kill them.
A key challenge has been figuring out what to feed young saltwater fish. Unlike freshwater tank fish, which readily devour processed flake food, tropical fish prefer to eat their meal while it is still flapping. Luckily, breeders found that many demersal fish eat freshwater rotifers—microscopic animals that clone themselves every 24 hours and require little space. The demersal fish fare even better when the rotifers are soaked in nutrient-rich fats and proteins found in the sea.
That research has led to the successful raising of clown fish on farms. Intriguingly, the fish are also being selectively bred. At his farm in Maine, Hansen shows off his morphs, which include chocolate-brown Maine mocha Nemos, snow-white blizzard Nemos and mind-bending Picasso Nemos. Designer Nemos look cool and retail strong, Hansen says, with hobbyists paying hundreds of dollars for the newest hybrid iteration.
The tools developed to breed the clown fish have recently been successfully applied to several dozen demersal species. But breeders are not anywhere close to domesticating pelagic fish. Because pelagic fish larvae are so tiny, they can only ingest food smaller than 80 microns. (A micron is one millionth of a meter, or about 40 millionths of an inch.) Identifying and cultivating these microscopic food sources has proved difficult.
Several years ago, Baensch bred the pelagic pygmy angelfish by feeding the larvae with copepod nauplii—copepods in their earliest life stage. Besides being extremely small, copepod nauplii are packed with digestive enzymes, an essential ingredient for the gutless larvae.
Baensch initially fed the larvae wild-caught copepod nauplii from the Pacific Ocean. He now cultures the nauplii for the larvae's earliest days, but then switches to wild copepods. Copepods are a challenge, however, because unlike rotifers, they avoid crowded conditions and need time to reproduce sexually. The nauplii also outgrow pelagic larvae within a few hours.
To scale up production of pelagic larvae, farmers must learn how to breed food for them on a large scale. They are making some headway. A team in Italy shrank the copepod's space requirements by raising nauplii in a large tank and then concentrating them in seawater. Hansen, meanwhile, is tinkering with novel nutrition options. In unpublished work, he has cultured a species of zooplankton and successfully reared angel fish larvae on it for 15 days, the duration of his first experiment.
Hansen and others hope that identifying and rearing food for pelagic tropical fish will finally allow farmers to replace the wild-caught fish sold to retailers with species raised in captivity. That change would protect reefs from further cyanide poisoning. "Aquaculture, the way I see it, is the future," says Gayatri Lilley, founder of the Indonesian Nature Foundation, a group dedicated to developing sustainable fisheries in Indonesia. "But [currently] the biology of these reef fish remains too complicated to culture all aquarium species."
Aquaculture is therefore only a partial solution. Lilley dedicates her time to training fishermen to use underwater nets instead of the cyanide method. But the fishermen need to know that buyers will pay a higher price for fish caught using sustainable practices.
Better monitoring of the industry is also sorely needed, such as a labeling system for all fish entering the market that would indicate how they were caught or whether they were farm raised. Right now, says Rhyne and his colleague Michael Tlusty, most tropical fish entering the market simply get coded as "marine tropical fish." That, Tlusty says, "would be like bringing in salmon, pollock and tuna and calling them all seafood."
Perseverance will be key to expanding tropical fish aquaculture. Baensch recalls an experiment in which he started with trigger fish, only to have their numbers dwindle to 12 overnight. "Everything was fine," he says, "until the fish started killing each other." Trigger fish, it turns out, grow up to be highly aggressive adults. But work in clown fish suggests that innate tendencies can be bred out during the domestication process—which can also lead to better pets. Back at his farm, Hansen shows me a tank filled with hundreds of clown fish. They would never school like this in the ocean, he says, adding: "Wild-caught fish come in skittish. They won't eat. They hide in a corner. My fish are used to the captive environment. They'll eat anything you throw at them. They're bulletproof."
Yesterday we posted about Central Pet nixing the Oceanic brand but it turns out that they are really only streamlining the Oceanic product line. Oceanic and Aqueon are two brands owned by Central Garden & Pet which both produced a similar catalog of aquarium sizes and shapes. After a few years of selling times mroe Aqueon tanks than Oceanic tanks, the decision was made to curtail production of the higher-end aquariums. As many of you may remember, back in the day if you wanted a better glass tank in the U.S. it was pretty much Oceanic or bust. The Oceanic brand as a tank-manufacturer is basically what is being skinnied down.
Central Pet still has the capability to produce higher-end custom aquariums with premium features like Starphire glass, beveled edges and nicer trim that we came to expect from Oceanic aquariums, but they simply wont be pumping out the big Oceanic tanks like they used to. Instead the Oceanic brand will be streamlined to include all of the products which are packaged: Biocubes, Biocube accessories, Oceanic Salt and Chillers and the Illuminata will still be marketed and distributed to the aquarium trade.
We are glad that popular aquarium products like Oceanic Salt and the Biocubes will continue to be available nationwide and we apologize to Oceanic and Oceanic dealers for the error in our reporting. Thanks to Central Aquatics and Oceanic for reaching out to us to clarify the changes.
In the late s, Walter Adey, a paleobiologist and coral reef researcher at the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), wanted to build a tank that would make it possible to monitor and experiment on a coral reef ecosystem in the laboratory—what scientists call a microcosm.
The first challenge he encountered was building a tank that successfully simulated natural processes. To mimic nature as closely as possible, Adey invented an Algal Turf Scrubber (ATS). In an open reef system, corals rely on a delicate balance of water chemistry; this balance is maintained through the actions of members of the ecosystem—especially corals, plankton, and what Adey named ‘algal turfs’—dense, low lying algal communities that take up the byproducts of other reef species (especially nitrites and carbon dioxide) and produce oxygen. Most aquarists at the time used a variety of filters to keep remove nitrites and small particles, including algae. However, Adey felt that these filters depleted oxygen and plankton (both required for coral growth) and let a lot of undesirable material pass through. Adey’s ATS instead harnessed the energy of algae by placing a large screen covered in algae above the tank. The water from the tank was continuously pushed over the algae, and as the algae grew it filtered excess waste materials from the water, added oxygen, and maintained a healthier level of plankton in the tank.
After success with a smaller laboratory tank, Adey unveiled a gallon Caribbean coral tank at NMNH in This tank was the first multispecies experimental coral microcosm in the world. Adey hoped that the use of microcosm reefs would result in studies of coral in the laboratory and the ability to understand—via controlled experimentation with his system—the impact of separate variables on coral health.
While visitors enjoyed the tank, which was displayed amongst the regular museum exhibits, they often mistook the murky water for a poorly kept aquarium. But by the early s, the tank had been refurbished and new signs and training of volunteers helped educate the public about the importance of the system. Eventually, however, the cost of upkeep and the dual nature of the display—it functioned as both a live display and a place for scientific modeling and experimentation (which didn’t mimic anything in the museum at that time)—led the museum to find a new space for the tank.
That new space is in Fort Pierce, Florida at the St. Lucie County Aquarium, where it remains on display today. In , the tank, including many of the original corals and the ATS system, was moved into the facility built across the street from the Ft. Pierce Smithsonian Marine Station. With the move, the tank underwent small, but important, changes. While the ATS maintained corals, Bill Hoffman, the director of the Aquarium, and his staff in St. Lucie have found that additional chemicals and nutrients are required to help coral thrive in the system. The additional nutrients have resulted in a healthier tank and increased growth for a variety of species.
With its location change, the tank’s purpose has also shifted. Instead of an experimental system, the tank is now largely used to educate visitors about coral reefs and the perils that they currently face. But the tank still offers value to the scientific community, especially as researchers and environmentalists work to save coral in the wild by breeding it in captivity.
Hoffman has been incredibly successful in maintaining many species, including staghorn coral. Staghorn are listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN so learning how to maintain and breed them in captivity is important for their survival. The St. Lucie Aquarium has had success growing staghorn and sends fragments to aquariums throughout the U.S. While breeding staghorn in captivity has proven difficult, the specimens successfully spawned in the St. Lucie Aquarium tank in the summer of , showing that this system can still offer much to those hoping to understand coral systems both in captivity and in the wild.
While Adey’s goal of his tank functioning as an experimental microcosm has been largely replaced by educational goals, the tank is still incredibly important to coral science and has inspired the creation of microcosms around the world.
Tags:Smithsonian scientistsNational Museum of Natural HistorySmithsonian Marine Station at Ft. PierceCoralsTechnologySours: http://ocean.si.edu/ecosystems/coral-reefs/evolution-reef-aquarium
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