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

Steve Coles slcoles at bishopmuseum.org
Mon Apr 10 02:14:35 EDT 2017

Very eloquently stated, and as one who saw for the first time and did his first experiments on corals about 50 years ago, and continue to study them, I couldn't agree more.

Steve Coles
From: coral-list-bounces at coral.aoml.noaa.gov [coral-list-bounces at coral.aoml..noaa.gov] On Behalf Of Capman, William [capman at augsburg.edu]
Sent: Saturday, April 08, 2017 9:33 AM
To: Coral Morphologic
Cc: coral-list at coral.aoml.noaa.gov
Subject: Re: [Coral-List] Worst places to harvest coral for aquarium trade?

Colin (and others) make a lot of good points.

This particularly resonates with me though:

"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."

Speaking as someone who has been keeping coral reef aquaria for teaching
and student research projects in a college setting for about 20 years now
(and we are in the process of expanding in our new science building, where
we will have 7 display tanks totaling about 1000 gallons, and additional
research tanks too), I will say that students (and others) are often
absolutely mesmerized and surprised by live corals (even brown ones!),
especially when I put small colonies under low power microscopes so they
can see the polyps (and the zooxanthellae inside them) up close.  The sheer
diversity I can show them fascinates and surprises them as well (I've have
representatives of almost all of the Anthozoan orders growing in my aquaria
for many years - some individual corals going back about 20 years), and
learning about all that goes in to keeping the corals healthy and growing
helps people to better understand how precarious coral reef ecosystems can
be in the wild.  And yes, the occasional disasters (e.g. the disastrous
overheating event that happened to one of my systems about ten years ago)
make the fragility of coral reefs in the wild much more real (I try really
hard to not have these disasters happen though of course!)

Getting back to this line....

"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. "

I firmly believe that this is the case not just for corals, but for all
biological diversity.  The average person will not care about something
unless they love it (or at least deeply appreciate it and understand its
value), and they won't love something they know nothing about.

Most people have only the faintest understanding of the profoundly amazing
and important diversity of life that we share the planet with, and in my
experience corals are particularly poorly understood.  Most people equate
the word coral with a vision of a white intricately shaped rock (that
somehow has some relationship to living organisms).  The reality of what
corals actually are can only really be appreciated by observing living,
growing corals.

A tank with artificial corals (even if they are good replicas) does nothing
to help people appreciate corals as dynamic living organisms. Such a tank
is a decorated fish tank, which bears very little resemblance to an actual
reef tank with live corals.  I suspect that there are quite a number of
coral scientists who are not aware of how amazingly sophisticated many reef
aquarium hobbyists are in terms of coral husbandry.  Truly, the most
amazing reef aquaria (with live corals) that I've seen have been in the
homes of really experienced, really knowledgeable reef aquarium hobbyists
(and there are quite a few such people now, around the world).

I too worry about the collection of some of the larger polyped stony corals
that in some (but not all) cases are not readily propagated by
fragmentation.  And I have little doubt that some other collecting, both of
fish, and of corals and other marine life, is not sustainable (though in
other cases it seems there is potential for the aquarium trade, in
conjunction with sustainable harvesting, to make intact healthy reef
ecosystems valuable to local people, who then might be more motivated to
protect them).  But increasingly, coral reef aquaria can be stocked really
well with mostly or entirely captive-propagated livestock.  Even some of
the reef fish species that were long viewed as being unbreedable in
captivity are now being spawned and reared in captivity (unfortunately,
only some are currently being bred on a commercial scale).  Just this past
year there were a whole series of amazing breakthroughs in this regard,
starting with the successful captive spawning and rearing of yellow tangs,
not to mention pacific blue tangs, various butterflyfish and angelfish, and
other species (even cleaner wrasses have now been successfully spawned and
reared in captivity).

While pretty much any human activity is likely to be tarnished by greed and
unscrupulous behavior, one should not underestimate the potential power of
captive live corals and other marine life as ambassadors for their wild
relatives and the habitats they live in.  Most people will never experience
an actual coral reef in person, but there is potential for high quality
coral reef tanks with live corals (and a diversity of other organisms) to
transform the hearts and minds of many people who would have no
understanding of coral reefs otherwise.  (Indeed, this is one of the big
goals of the my big coral reef aquarium project at the land-locked college
where I teach.)


On Thu, Apr 6, 2017 at 12:11 PM, Coral Morphologic <
coralmorphologic at gmail.com> wrote:

> 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
> cultivation.
> Respectfully,
> Colin Foord
> Coral Morphologic
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