Red Sea Coral Reef

276 Natural Reef Aquariums field trips to collect lab materials, and giving student help sessions that often extended far into the night, I was also expected to take a course or two myself. This afforded me the chance to sample subjects in other life sciences departments. My interest in seaweeds, for example, was kindled by a course in phycology, and soon aquariums in the biology labs contained seaweeds that students would otherwise have seen only in books.

Best of all, Prof. David Etnier invited me to team up with him and another professor to teach what was planned as a new, improved version of "Coral Reef Ecology." To my delight, we were soon headed to the Florida Keys, scene of my original romance with marine biology.

Etnier had based his career on breaking rules. When most fishery biologists were concerned with game and food fish — "pounds per acre people," Etnier used to call them — he chose to study the tiny, rarely seen fishes that inhabit the creeks, streams, and rivers of the southern Appalachian region.

Doing field work with "Ets" always resulted in unanticipated adventures. One day off Pigeon Key, for example, some of us were collecting fishes in shallow water with a beach seine. Each end of this 20-foot-long, fine-meshed nylon net was secured to a sturdy pole about 8 feet in length. Two students managed the poles. Others were stationed along the leading edge of the net, elbow to elbow. Their job was to keep the net's edge close to the bottom and to guide it over obstructions, walking backward, as the seine was towed forward, guided by the poles. This is muddy, exhausting work, but the only way to collect many of the fishes, crustaceans, and other organisms that inhabit rubble-strewn or heavily vegetated areas. We were bringing up quite an assemblage of animals and seaweeds, and Etnier's enthusiastic interest in the unfamiliar creatures was infectious. He exhorted us to use all our senses to explore every crawling, flopping, wriggling form that turned up.

"Look at the colors on this little goby," he would exclaim, "What a handsome animal!"

"Feel those ridges along the back of the carapace." He held up a brownish crab. "The other ones we collected don't have those."

"Smell that! Nothing else smells like this sponge." It was a far cry from lifeless line drawings with arrows and labels.

We moved into a bed of Turtle Grass. Silt oozed up and filled our tennis shoes. A few feet further in, the sediment was above our knees. It was becoming difficult to walk. About then we began to notice that our legs were being stabbed with hot needles. People began to jump and splash about, slapping at their calves and hips as if being bitten by a swarm of aquatic gnats. We were churning up the silt, stampeding like a herd of spooked cows, headed anywhere, as long as it was out of that grass bed. Etnier, towing the abandoned seine by one pole, was headed, inexplicably, away from shore. I plunged after him. The pockets of my shorts were full of sand, mud, and Turtle Grass stems. My legs were on fire.

"Come on!" he shouted. "There's bound to be neat stuff on the other side of an obstacle course like this!" I followed him into a sandy patch. The stinging demons (most likely Pennaria hydrozoans) that had chased us from the grass bed remained, thankfully, behind. The two of us seined the sandy area for about 20 minutes before giving up. There was nothing out of the ordinary, just a few beer cans. Later, when I asked him why he thought that sand may have held something worth investigating, Ets revealed one secret of his success in discovering new species:

"You don't find undescribed species by looking where everyone else has looked before. Most of the descriptions of North American fishes are based on specimens caught within a few yards of a bridge — places, basically, that are easy to get to. If you're looking for something new and truly interesting, you have to go further upstream."

Part 3 - Introduction 111

The idea of going further upstream is what encouraged me to move in new directions with the design of the aquariums back at school. I brought back numerous specimens, grouping them in tanks according to their habitat preferences, much as I had done in the water tables at the Pigeon Key lab. Students began to comment on how much more interesting these exhibits were becoming. To my pleasure, the course supervisor asked if I would like to turn an empty storeroom into a living museum, and there were more trips to Pigeon Key.

Those collecting expeditions left me with a real appreciation for the abundance and incredible diversity of life available from the environs of a coral reef. Fortunately, there are many healthy reefs, in both the Caribbean-Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific regions, and pristine areas of special beauty or scientific interest are increasingly receiving official protection as wildlife reserves or parks. Yet reefs are not inexhaustible stores that can be exploited with abandon, year after year. Many reefs have been overfished, often by destructive methods that leave them unable to recover. Oil and chemical spills, ship groundings, sedimentation, and pollution from shoreline development have all exacted a toll from the worlds reefs. In some areas, less than 20% of the original reef remains, so severe has been the impact of these perturbations of the environment. Many more reefs will be irreversibly damaged in the coming years if immediate remedial steps are not taken.

With media attention turning to the plight of coral reefs, the marine aquarium hobby and the industry supporting it have increasingly come under fire. We are often accused of contributing to reef destruction through our continued demand for specimens collected from reefs worldwide. Despite the fact that the hobby of reef aquarium keeping has probably contributed to people s awareness of the need to preserve reefs, not destroy them, the worst examples of reef exploitation by unscrupulous collectors have been held up as typical of the hobby and industry. While these abuses need to be resolved (and I explain in Chapter Fourteen what you can do to help resolve them) there is also an urgent need to recognize the extent to which modern trends in the marine aquarium hobby hold out the potential for great strides in the conservation of reefs and their biota. The trend toward aquariums that faithfully recreate nature and the ongoing serious dialogue between hobbyists and the scientific community have made possible discoveries that could not be made through direct field observations. Most exciting, however, is the possibility that damaged reefs can someday be repopulated with organisms cultivated in aquariums. In the meantime, captive propagation of a multitude of specimens for the aquarium trade is a developing industry.

The hobby of reef aquarium keeping will have matured when its practitioners are able to cultivate all of the species that are now collected from the ocean. On a commercial scale, there are only a few species of marine life under production. All are suited to the reef tank. About 10 species of anemonefishes and perhaps 20 species in various other families constitute the only commercially available captive-reared marine aquarium fish. Many more species of fishes could be produced, however, if economic considerations did not make their culture infeasible. It is heartening to know that a few home-based hatcheries are being constructed by dedicated enthusiasts. These are capable of producing enough fishes to satisfy local demands and are a source of income for their owners. As one might expect, the quality of the fishes produced by tiny operations like these is very high. To my knowledge, only anemonefishes are being produced by these home-based operations.

With invertebrates and macroalgae, however, the story is somewhat different. A dozen or so species of macroalgae are routinely cultured, and no doubt a great many more could be, with ease. Giant clams are probably the most pop-

278 Natural Reef Aquariums

As for sexual reproduction, aquarium release of larvae that were sexually produced in the wild has been reported many times, often with subsequent successful larval development. Sea hares, a group of shell-less, herbivorous mollusks, are cultured for laboratory use, as are various echinoderms (the group that includes starfish, brittle stars, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, and feather stars). Propagation of some species of crustaceans has been problematic, but I am willing to bet that a commercial aquaculturist specializing in food shrimps could succeed with the aquarium shrimps as well. The Peppermint Shrimp, Lysmata wurdemanni, from Florida and the Caribbean, is readily amenable to sexual propagation in the aquarium. The future, therefore, ular invertebrates currently in production. The number of looks bright for tank-cultured aquarium animals. I would species that might potentially be cultured, however, is re- like to see more hobbyists involved in this aspect of the markable. One of the best consequences of the interest in hobby. If one has the space, growing soft corals for a local reef tanks has been the discovery that the reproduction of dealer could even become a secondary income source.

Soft Coral Reef Tank Pix

A fore-reef slope in the Red Sea: a wealth of challenges for the captive propagator.

many species is not only possible, but sometimes unavoid-

If we wish to continue to enjoy and learn from marine able. Certain sponges have grown in my tanks with no spe- aquariums, we must be responsible stewards of the natural cial care, along with at least three species of sedentary environments from which aquarium specimens originate, worms, one of which is large and showy enough to have Most aquarists appear to share this view.

some commercial potential. Among the cnidarians, aquar-

Once the aquarist has mastered basic techniques and has ists have found that virtually all mushroom polyps, sea mats, a good grasp of the ecology of the reef environment, it is and soft corals, along with many stony corals and at least one time for the most enjoyable and rewarding part of the of the clownfish host anemones (Paletta, 1993), can be veg- hobby: observing the growth, development, and reproduc-

etatively propagated in the aquarium, with unassisted re- tion of the aquarium's inhabitants over time. Marine inver-

production of some species quite commonplace.

tebrates, such as corals and anemones, have remarkably long

Part 3 - Introduction 279

lifespans, and a number of fish species that make good aquarium subjects can live more than 10 years, offering long-term enjoyment of a carefully designed marine habitat.

This part of the book contains information you need to follow the aquarium hobby into the future. As mankind increasingly encroaches upon the living space of other species, more and more organisms will have as their only refuge zoos and aquariums. Several small freshwater fishes now exist solely as aquarium subjects, and this may unfortunately be true one day of some stony corals. Carefully maintained hobbyist aquariums collectively constitute a reserve of captive specimens — and the labor to care for them — unmatched by all public aquariums combined.

Eliminating irresponsible practices, emphasizing captive propagation, and bringing the hobby of marine aquarium keeping to a level of maturity on a scientific par with, for example, horticulture, pose significant challenges to hobbyists and professional aquarists alike.

We aquarists face a peculiar dilemma. On the one hand, by exposing more people to the wonders of life around the world's coral reefs, we are raising the consciousness of a public that seldom or never comes face to face with living marine organisms. Further, we collectively encourage the preservation of reef ecosystems by providing a ready market for sustainably harvested fishes and invertebrates and for organisms farmed in emerging countries. The most noteworthy recent example is the Tridacna clam, now being cultivated by indigenous peoples in various parts of Micronesia and the South Pacific. This constitutes an important step in restoring a group of species that had been, for all intents and purposes, economically extinct. There is growing evidence that cultivated stony and soft corals might be used in restoration of damaged reefs, and aquarium hobbyists are at the forefront of this embryonic aspect of aquaculture.

On the other hand, there are those who see this hobby as a threat to reef ecosystems. Our apathy concerning the use of cyanide to collect aquarium specimens in the Philippines and Indonesia is but one example of behavior that has fueled this point of view. This problem has been confronted in the aquarium literature for over 20 years, but millions of cyanide-poisoned specimens continue to flow into the United States each year because many hobbyists do not care enough to question the sources from which dealers obtain their specimens.

In 1995,1 founded the American Marinelife Dealers

Association in an attempt to gain recognition in the marketplace for those retailers and wholesalers who have made the extra effort to avoid contributing to the ghastly trade in cyanide-caught reef fishes. Since that time, nearly 100 dealers have joined the cause.

I recently went to Washington, DC, to attend a meeting of aquarium industry leaders, public aquarium professionals, and representatives of conservation organizations. This international committee is developing a plan to insure that marine aquarium specimens harvested in the future are collected in environmentally sound, sustainable ways (or are produced in farms and hatcheries) and are properly cared for from reef to retail sale. This is a huge task, but the future of our hobby and industry is at stake.

While acknowledging that we ought to be doing a better job of policing and educating ourselves, we must also remember that captive reef keeping can be part of the solution. In the chapters that follow, I suggest a two-pronged approach for hobbyists to consider: supporting the emergent captive-breeding industry, and helping to educate the purveyors of live reef organisms by refraining from purchasing specimens that have been collected in unsustainable ways or have very little chance for survival in the aquarium. I do not ask that everyone agree with my positions on these issues, only that you consider that your aquarium buying habits can have important consequences for a reef 10,000 miles from your own back door.

Funny Profile Pictures Xenia Reef Plant
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