[Coral-List] Worst places to harvest coral for aquarium trade?

Coral Morphologic coralmorphologic at gmail.com
Thu Apr 6 13:11:06 EDT 2017

Damien and Sarah,

Most hobbyists who are aquaculturing corals in their homes feel very
passionate about preserving the coral reefs, and want to help stem the
losses. Captive corals don't get 'loved to death'... if they are
properly-cared for, they will grow until they need to be pruned (like a
plant), and then those fragments can be given/traded/sold to another
hobbyist to perpetuate the wild lineage. Anyone investing thousands of
hours of time, and then thousands of dollars of money into keeping a
miniature coral reef ecosystem in their homes should be seen as an ally,
not enemy. Furthermore, the information and understanding that hobbyists
have provided about coral husbandry over the past 3 decades has provided
scientists a major base to work off in the 21st century. Don't forget that
the first/most important coral restoration non-profit, the Coral
Restoration Foundation, was founded by an ornamental marine life collector
and aquaculturist. Not by a scientist, or an environmental group. Sometimes
the best ideas come from unlikely allies and outside the box thinking.

Between global warming, coastal pollution, acidification, eco-tourism
over-use, and rampant diseases on reefs around the globe, how can we
justify NOT collecting corals in order to propagate them infinitely (as
their clonal nature allows)? After several back-to-back years of bleaching
worldwide, isn't 'arking' *living* coral biodiversity an important element
of conservation at this time? The asexual nature of coral reproduction
means that only a portion of a wild coral needs to be removed to create an
ongoing perpetual lineage of clones which can then be grown elsewhere...
either in the ocean, or in a captive system. Coral aquaculturists are now
nearing the point where they are finally unlocking the secrets to captive
coral sexual reproduction. The groundbreaking work by Project Coral is
heavily informed by hobbyists and industry with decades of experience
behind them. In fact, many of the biologists working in coral husbandry in
public aquariums today were aquarium hobbyists (perhaps even as kids/teens)
before they were professionals.

Furthermore, without the aquarium hobby, it is unlikely that scientists
today would be doing much research on corals in landlocked closed systems.
Without the  economy of scale, and decades of entrepreneurial tinkering in
basements and sharing of ideas over the internet that hobbyists have
provided, today's scientists would lack the critical equipment needed to
keep corals healthy, like protein skimmers, spectrally-tuned lighting,
chemical additives, foods, water pumps, etc. When I entered the University
of Miami's marine biology program in the year 2000 I had already been
aquaculturing corals in my bedroom during high school. You can imagine my
surprise (and disappointment) when I asked my academic advisor if he kept a
reef aquarium at home, and he looked at me side-eyed as if I was crazy to
be growing corals, suggesting that corals were too difficult to keep alive
in captivity, and maybe even immoral to attempt to do so. At that time, the
school's lab had nothing but dead skeletons and preserved specimens in
formaldehyde. Not very inspiring to a student like me who was more
interested in propagating animals, rather than killing them. By my
sophomore year I helped install the first coral aquaculture system at
RSMAS, and my junior year I donated a 100 gallon fully stocked reef tank to
the undergrad MSC lab. Now more than a decade later, the tank is still
there and those seeds have developed into an Aquarium Club with scores of
active members. In October 2015, Coral Morphologic donated a 300 gallon
coral aquaculture system to Coral Gables Senior High School here in Miami,
and the students do almost all of the maintenance work themselves.

In the past several years, STEAM (science, technology, engineering, math)
has become the buzzword in educational circles. I can think of no other
activity that is more STEAM than reef aquarium keeping... in fact, I'd go
so far as to say that it adds an 'R' for 'responsibility' to make it
STREAM. These students understand that they are 100% percent responsible
for the life of the organisms in this tank. Their corals are on 24/7 life
support. Just ask them about the time the school's AC failed in the science
wing the weekend before school started last summer... a hard lesson on
bleaching was learned and it took many months for the system to equilibrate
again. Conveying science and math is one thing... but teaching a sense of
responsibility to teens is no easy task.

Full disclosure, I am one of the speakers at the Reefapalooza event in NY.
The subject of my talk is on the formation of a 'human-coral symbiosis in
the 21st century'... a relationship I believe to be critical for the
sustainable future of all life on Earth. I would be happy to talk to anyone
that has any questions or concerns about the ethics of coral husbandry. I
will be the first to admit that the aquarium hobby is far from perfect, and
there are still needless deaths and environmental impacts that can and
should be mitigated. But one of the first things a visitor will notice at
Reefapalooza or any other 'frag swap' are that most of the coral vendors
are selling 1-2cm 'frags' of domestically-grown, hyper-fluorescent
corals.The advent of G/RFP-activating blue LED lights in the past decade
has put a tremendous amount of demand for the most colorful morphs. In
other words, hobbyists want clones of only the best and brightest. Unlike
the late 1990's when almost all the corals sold in the US were fist-sized
wild colonies of basic brown or greenish coloration, today hobbyists want
100% aquacultured corals that come with a pedigree lineage... and are
willing to spend hundreds of dollars on a pinky-nail sized coral nubbin.
Almost counter-intuitively, the smaller the fragment, the more money they
are often willing to pay. Coral hobbyists know that these aquacultured
corals are not only more colorful than that average wild coral, but they
are also proven to be adaptable in captivity, making them more reliable to
buy and grow than their wild coral counterparts. Many of the most expensive
and sought after corals in the US are grown domestically, however, there
has been a revolution in mariculture (ocean-based aquaculture) in Indonesia
and other coral exporting countries in the past decade. I strongly urge
people to look into the great work that LINI (www.lini.or.id) is doing in
Indonesia to promote this activity. A revolution in coastal coral
mariculture is providing local fisherfolk with a much more sustainable
alternative to make an income than using dynamite or cyanide for short term
monetary gain. Not only does coral mariculture provide a sustainable
income, it also directly highlights the importance of one's coastal water
quality when the health of your coral garden depends on it. In short, I can
think of no other aquacultural practice that is more sustainable and
pro-active in conservation than coral mariculture. Too often, well-meaning
conservationists come into a developing country and try to dictate what
should and shouldn't be done with their wildlife resources... without
providing any economically sustainable alternative. This is not the case
with coral mariculture. And furthermore, these same coral farms that are
exporting ornamental maricultured corals to hobbyists worldwide could
easily be producing corals for 'adopt-a-coral' programs in Indonesia
itself... but sadly I haven't seen nearly the support for this eco-tourism
restoration activity as it compares to the support by the aquarium hobby.

The issue of over-collection of certain solitary and fleshy polyped stony
corals, is a valid concern. More research should be done, as many of these
coral species have minimal background data on abundance and distribution
(which, ironically, marine life collectors are in an ideal position to
provide). However, of all the coral exporting countries, Australia lags
behind others when it comes to promoting ornamental coral aquaculture or
mariculture as a domestic product. There is plenty of opportunity for
Australia to leap-frog ahead in the world of coral aquaculture and champion
the sexual reproduction of its solitary, valuable species like Homophyllia
and Cynarina (and colorful Acropora etc). However, when the Australian
government supports dredging coal and natural gas ports through the GBR, I
won't be holding my breath that they will be taking the pro-active lead on
the world's coral conservation and reproductive efforts. The scale of coral
removal from the GBR for the coral trade is a drop in the bucket compared
to what has been lost in the past two years from global warming alone. And
furthermore, many of those corals removed from the GBR now have an infinite
life to look forward to in symbiosis with humanity (while others will sadly
die along the way). But from an evolutionary standpoint, these highly
colorful wild coral morphs are standing to gain a significant boost to
their survival in the hands of humans. Even if they aren't reproducing
sexually, their clones are still capable of colonizing tanks the world
over. There are in fact strains of corals that have been aquacultured in
captivity continuously for over 3 decades (google 'Stuber's Acropora'). And
with advances in lighting technology that can now mimic the seasonal and
lunar light cycles needed to induce synchronous spawning, it appears
imminent that many of these corals will eventually have the opportunity to
reproduce sexually in the future.

Banning the coral aquarium hobby because of a severe decline in global
ocean health would be one of the most foolish and short-sighted things
someone who is concerned about the future of corals and reefs would do. Can
the industry behind the hobby improve? Absolutely. But in the 20 years I've
been aquaculturing coral, I have seen a lot of incredible advances and
improvements already made. And in that same time frame I have also observed
catastrophic die-offs and declines in the health of beloved coral reefs
here in South Florida (where all stony corals are protected form harvest).
In fact, stony corals are protected from harvest in every single Caribbean
nation, and sadly these reefs are some of the most degraded reefs on the
planet. Banning coral collection outright anywhere else on the planet will
not stem the tide of death on the reef.

(Where coral collection is allowed in certain Indo-Pacific countries, the
harvest and export of stony corals is covered under the UN's Schedule II
CITES protection, and the enforcement of laws by US Fish and Wildlife
Service upon importation is strict.)

In my opinion, the only way we can engage the public with the importance of
corals and reefs is if they are enchanted by them. People shouldn't just be
motivated to save the coral reefs because they protect coastlines from
storm surge, or that they harbor a cure for cancer, or there is a monetary
benefit from tourism. People really need to care personally and deeply.
That is a big part of Coral Morphologic's mission; to build empathy between
humans and corals. But how do you build empathy with an animal lacking a
face or a brain? Cuddly pandas and seal cubs are adorable icons of wildlife
conservation because they are easy for humans to build empathy with. Corals
aren't exactly 'cute', but fortunately, corals are blessed with fluorescent
proteins. If corals were only colored in earth tones, I'm certain that the
reef aquarium hobby would be 1/10 the size. While scientists are still
unsure what evolutionary benefit this fluorescence has provided the coral
in the past, I can say through my experience working as an
artist/filmmaker, that this fluorescence might just be their saving grace
now and into the future. It is the fluorescence that captivates people,
makes their jaws drop and makes them think that aliens are right here
amongst us. Fluorescent corals induce biophillia and an awe for our planet.

Based out of a city known for its artificial neon nature (Miami), Coral
Morphologic is reminding people that corals were its original fluorescent
citizens, whose fossilized skeletons we have literally built the city atop,
and who are now resiliently pioneering into the artificial habitats of
Biscayne Bay (and who may recolonize Miami's buildings post-sea level
rise). As the only other animals on Earth that build colonies visible from
space, perhaps we humans can learn a thing or two about adapting and
surviving from the corals.

Most scientists agree that the biggest risk to coral health worldwide is
global warming due to fossil fuel emissions. But this isn't the only issue
worth tackling. We can take steps at the local level, while at the same
time working on the global level. The fact there there are now hundreds of
thousands of people in the US that are clued in to the delicate nature of
corals, and engaged with ecosystems halfway around the globe, seems to me
to be a positive thing. Curbing CO2 output is a much more tangible thing to
grasp when you are trying to keep your pH at 8.3 in a home environment
(where CO2 levels are higher than the atmosphere). Coral scientists and
hobbyists should be allied together. Dead oceans are no good for anyone,
particularly the aquarium industry, or the fisher folk that currently
capitalize off it.

I firmly believe that coral aquaculture can be a highly educational and
environmentally aware activity. In fact I'd go one step further and say
that coral husbandry is the sexy gateway to the much less sexy field of
food fish aquaculture. While food fish aquaculture also has its share of
environmental problems, it is clear we are going to need a lot more people
developing and practicing sustainable forms of aquaculture in order to feed
our planet's burgeoning population. It is foolish to think we can continue
to fish the world's ocean at the rate we are going. In other words, that
high school kid growing corals today might just wind up as the fish farmer
of tomorrow.

In 2017 it is now possible to stock a reef aquarium with 100%
aquacultured/maricultured organisms (come to Reefapalooza, I'll show you
how!). It might cost a little more, and the selection of organisms is still
limited, but the option definitely exists. And new species are being
cultured for the first time every year. Rather than laying blame on easy
scapegoats, I think it is important that we (scientists, hobbyists,
politicians, industry leaders) all work together to minimize the negative
environmental impacts of wild ornamental reef collection, while maximizing
the educational impacts of these organisms. If we want to encourage
children to become the curious marine biologists of tomorrow, we should be
empowering them with the opportunity to engage with coral reef organisms
regardless of whether they live in Florida, Nebraska, or Alaska. It should
be all our goal to ensure that our children and grandchildren will have
that opportunity, both in aquaria and in the wild.

I welcome everyone out to Reefapalooza so you can see why thousands of
people fall in love with coral aquaculture every year and dedicate a
significant portion of their lives (and wallets) to their perpetual

Colin Foord
Coral Morphologic

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