The Past and Future of the Hobby

The Past and Future of the Hobby

At this time of year, we often look back on what has transpired in the past year both good and bad and think about it. For me, it was for the most part a good year in aquarium terms, as I wrote a fair amount, most of my tanks did well and I traveled more than I had in along time and as a result learned a lot and made more friends all over the world. But in thinking about this article I did not want to just write about where things are or were, but also how things may be in the future. In this regard I hope to discuss not only where things are going, but also where I hope things may be headed. I know that some of this is wishful thinking, but from being in the hobby so long, I know that hope is probably one of the things that has kept me in it all this time. So as I look back and look ahead I am hopeful that while many good and great things happened in the past year, many more are on the horizon.

The first of the many positive things that happened in the past year came on the breeding and reproduction front. This past year probably saw more successful breeding achievements with important and different fish and coral than any other. From the hobbyists standpoint finally seeing successful breeding and raising of blue hepatus and yellow tangs was significant for a number of reasons.

blue tang.jpg

It is interesting that when Finding Dory came out captive bred blue tangs also came out. Now if we could just breed them to be ick free

It was important as it not only marked the first time these fish were bred and reared in large enough numbers that they could actually be sold to hobbyists, but it also showed that even here to for difficult to breed and rear fish could be bred and raised to saleable size. It was significant in that these fish are also two of the most popular fish in the hobby that previously had only been wild caught for our tanks. Having these fish available from a captive source hopefully will mean that at some point the need to take them from the wild will eventually be reduced or even eliminated. Currently a little over 14% of the fish we keep in our tanks are being reproduced. This may not sound like much, but most of these fish are the most popular in the hobby like clownfish, dottybacks and gobies. Hopefully this will remove some of the ammunition from those who do not want us to keep any wild fish in our home aquaria. However, I doubt this, as my guess is they will simply move from demanding we stop keeping wild caught fish to demanding that we keep no fish.


Yellow tangs like this one are now being bred and offered for sale. hopefully soon this will also occur with Achilles and other tangs

The successful breeding of these fish can also be a watershed moment in the hobby not only because it shows what can be bred successfully, but also if we buy these fish, they will probably be slightly more expensive than their wild caught brethren, it will justify the time and expense the breeders incurred. Thus if the time and cost is justified, it will hopefully lead to even greater strides in breeding rare and expensive fish. From my own greedy little standpoint as a result of this, I would love for breeders to start breeding fish like rare Debelius or Kingi Angelfish, rare fairy wrasses like the Claire’s or Cherry/Magma or DeJonghi basslets. While all of these fish are available from time to time in extremely limited quantities, their cost is prohibitive for most of us. Thus it is my hope that at some point these fish will also be captive bred and as a result more widely available and with a lower, even if only slightly, price tag.


Some of the coral colonies Jamie Craggs induced to spawn in captivity. Seeing the offspring thrive and grow is the next step in this process

While the successful breeding of these fish as well as several others has captured most of the attention in the hobby, the work that Jamie Craggs at the Horniman museum in London has done this year to successfully get sps corals to not only spawn in captivity, but also to have the larvae successfully settle out and grow is to me as equally noteworthy. To me it is impressive as he and his colleagues not only have seemingly mastered the art and science of providing the conditions necessary to get corals to spawn and settle out, but they have also worked on providing something many of us neglect, proper coral nutrition.

I say this as I know from my own experience and observation that most of us provide enough nutrition to our animals that most of them grow. However, unlike what Jamie has been working on, few of us provide enough nutrition to allow our corals to devote the necessary energy to reproduction. As a result, while we can now grow corals large enough that they could reproduce, we do not provide enough nutrition so that they will. This is at least in part why despite there now being literally hundreds of thousands of tanks housing sps corals, few if any of us have seen or reported spawning events in our tanks.


Some of the wild colonies Jamie induced to spawn

Hopefully in the future as we understand more and more about what proper nutrition is for our corals we will see more successful spawning events in our own tanks. Think of the implications this could have if suddenly we could produce hundreds if not thousands of coral offspring without fragging. And obviously if bleaching events and other afflictions continue to plague the wild reefs, our having a repository of threatened corals that we could spawn could at some point help us to restore some of these damaged reefs. In this regard the possibilities are limitless.


A small colony showing eggs within the branches, the small colored spots in the white skeleton

I should note that one of the most interesting pieces of new equipment I came across this past year was actually designed to provide better coral nutrition. This automated zooplankton and phytoplankton reactor by Planktontech, fed the tank it was on nightly with a mix of cultured phyto and zooplankton. When I saw the tank and the health of the corals and the impressive polyp extension I couldn’t help but think that this may be one way to provide for the nutritional requirements of the corals in my tanks. I am looking to try this methodology in the new year.

But getting the corals to spawn was just one aspect of Jamie’s work, I was lucky enough to visit Jamie this past Fall and was able to observe two other aspects of his work that I think will also impact our hobby. While the first goal was to simply get the corals to spawn, Jamie is also now doing work to maximize successful settlement of the planula. So while getting the corals to spawn was amazing, it would have been kind of pointless if all of the offspring had immediately perished. So in this regard, they have been working to find out which substrate provides the best place for the planula to settle on and also which allow for optimum growth once they have settled.

While I was there Jamie spoke briefly about how substrates covered in coralline algae were found to be one of the best substrates, but even these varied. They varied in that initially all coralline algae covered substrate pretty much looked the same, but once the planula settled out, if the coralline was a fast growing type it would quickly overgrow the planula and smother it. So just finding which coralline covered substrate is best could be tricky. So knowing this could also be helpful to us once we get our corals to spawn. In addition, another unexpected development may be occurring and that is that some of these sps corals may be producing unexpected hybrids in this captive setting which may also indicate that this is also happening in the wild. Jamie suggested that while they were harvesting the spawn they thought they had observed the possibility that some different species of Acropora may be able to fertilize one another. However, they weren’t able to completely verify this and need to wait until the planula start to grow into colonies that can be identified more easily. However, if this is the case, as some suggest, then the many different speices of Acropora that we see and name may be more the result of hybridization between different species than we thought. Again, as he better understands this and conveys this information it could have implications throughout the hobby.

As I mentioned, one of the aspects that this work has piqued my interest in is nutrition. After seeing what he was doing, it is my opinion that it will bring into focus our need to be much better at providing proper nutrition to not only our corals, but also to our fish as well. Even though many of us can now get our fish and corals to have extended lives and now often even longer than many do in the wild, there are still many fish that are not as colorful in our tanks as they are in the wild. Granted there are many factors that go into coloration, both in fish as well as corals, but in my opinion the one that I think we need to focus on is providing better nutrition. I say this as in addition to loving corals, I am also a fairy wrasse addict. Unfortunately, it has been my experience and observation that in most tanks over time the coloration of many fairy wrasses fade significantly. I know that part of this is undoubtedly due to there not being competitors or mates present which results in colors fading. However, I have also observed that even when competitors, subordinates and mates were present colors still often faded over time. As a result, I feel we need to work on improving what we feed our fish so that not only their health, but also their colors are maximized. And as mentioned above the same with our corals to maximize spawning.

While the above mentioned things that occurred last year were good and good for the hobby a few negative things occurred as well. The biggest of these was the massive bleaching event that occurred on Pacific Ocean reefs and especially on The Great Barrier Reef (GBR). Due to the massive El Nino event that occurred an unprecedented amount of bleaching occurred on the world’s largest reef. In speaking with several of my friends who could see it first hand, the amount of bleaching, especially in the northern portion of the reef was significant. Fortunately, the GBR is the most closely monitored reef in the world and despite the huge area of reef that suffered, a significant portion of the reef was unaffected and even portions of the north remained relatively healthy. While there is cause for concern that if another major bleaching event occurs soon it will be even more devastating, the hope is that because there is still significant coral that can reproduce and these bleached sites will be prime spots for the recruitment of their planula.

It is hoped, that if no more major bleaching events occur the reef could be close to full health again in 8-10 years. This is also more likely in that unlike on some reefs, the herbivore population has not been decimated so this will keep algal overgrowth from inhibiting the the corals from regrowing. Also from what I have read and heard from my friends the Australian government has found that the removal of corals for the hobby has not had a significant impact on the reef even during this event, so collection can continue. This is very good news, since as I said the GBR is the most government controlled and monitored of any reef, so for them to find this is good new to us hobbyists as well as to the countless people of Australia who make a living off of the reef.

As the hobby has progressed and more people have started keeping tanks, so too have more people in the areas where we get our fish and corals increased and made their living supporting the hobby. Unfortunately, this is often lost on the people who want to stop or reduce us from keeping fish or corals. In this regard several articles came out this past year condemning us for not knowing the practices that go into the collecting of the fish or corals for our tanks. And while some harmful practices are still employed in this collection in some of these countries, significant research and collection of data to assess if our hobby is sustainable was done last year, with most of it showing we actually have little impact. As noted above, the Australian government found that our hobby has little impact on the GBR which is closely monitored.


Bangai cardinalfish made the endangered species list despite their being one of the most easy to breed fish in the hobby. Most of these fish for sale come from captive bred stock. I first bred these over 15 years ago

Unfortunately this data often means little, with a case in point being that the Bangai cardinalfish were put on the endangered species list early in the year, thus becoming one of the first marine fish to make the list. While this fish is one of the most popular fish in the hobby, it is now also one of the most aquacultured owing to how easy it is to breed and raise. The petitioners who got this fish put on the endangered species list did so knowing this, but it did not matter as their goal is seemingly to stop all of us from keeping any marine animals, regardless of whether they are aquacultured or wild caught. So unfortunately this past year showed how far some groups will go to try and reduce or stop our hobby from continuing to grow and understand life on the reefs.


One of the new 24/7 alkalinity monitors

One of the ways we can combat this negative pressure is to continue to improve our husbandry techniques and hence our overall success. One of the things that might help this is by the improved automation and monitoring of our tanks that is becoming available. Foremost among this automation and monitoring, were monitors and monitors/reactors for alkalinity that potentially will give 24/7 readings of the alkalinity in our tanks and keep the alkalinity constantly stable. Just as important this equipment offers the potential to make additions as small fluctuations in alkalinity occur and thus keep the alkalinity levels far more constant than they are now. As someone who tests alkalinity daily and makes small adjustments accordingly I am hopeful that this will be a welcome addition to the automation I am already employing on my tank. The unit I am in the process of adding is one I saw employed in England on the tanks of Martin Lakin and David Saxby among others. This alkalinity reactor by Destaco kept the alkalinity constant even in these large tanks (over 1000 gallons each) which were jammed full of healthy growing sps corals. As a result of seeing this I can’t wait to try it on my own tank.


The Destaco alkalinity/calcium supply system on Martin Lakin's tank in England

In addition to these alkalinity monitors, at least two other monitors that will measure many other critical parameters in our tanks are hoping to become available soon. Unfortunately, these types of monitors have been promised for the last couple of years, but the technology has simply not worked to meet the demands of the manufacturers or more importantly to meet our demands. In my look to the future, this is to me the next big step in the hobby. However, in my opinion, it will only be a big step if in addition to monitoring, this technology will also make the constant small adjustments to our tanks necessary to keep our tanks as stable as a natural reef. Considering the improvements in dosing pumps, heating and cooling equipment and lighting that have occurred in the past few years, I think this is completely possible. But I also realize that this technology will come with a relatively hefty price tag, at least at first. But as someone who travels extensively, to me at least this technology will be worth it when it becomes available simply for my own peace of mind.


The display tank at World Wide Corals using the new G4 Radion lights

While constant monitoring equipment of our tank’s parameters is still in its infancy, LED lighting has now been around for a relatively long time in our hobby. As LEDs have become more common in virtually all lighting applications, these improvements and innovations have been passed on to us. During this past year several manufacturers brought out either new or improved versions of their lighting systems. For my tank, I switched from a 2nd generation Radion LED to the new 4th generation after using it for over 3 years, as a result of their adding a wider array of LED colors and improving the optics and cooling. I did this after seeing the impressive results Sanjay and World Wide Corals were having on their tanks after switching over to them.


A section of Sanjay's tank that was cleared so that new frags could be introduced. Seeing how these corals grow and color up under the new G4s will be interesting since we know how well corals did in his tank under the G2s.


A section of Sanjay's tank under the new Radions

I know that other manufacturers also brought improvements to their lights as well, but I have not tried them personally. To my mind I do not see any major jumps in LED lighting for our tanks on the near horizon, as these light currently can grow most corals at least as well as halides or t-5s, in some instances they may produce even better colors in our corals than those other lights, and with all the new colors of LEDS now available, they can be adjusted to light the tank however the owner likes. The only major breakthrough I hope to see is reduced pricing in the future. But I do not think this price reduction will be significant, in that from what I have seen all of these lights are pretty much made by hand, and since labor costs are unlikely to fall, the cost of these lights are similarly not likely to fall. The only way I can see this cost coming down significantly, is if the the LEDs themselves eventually produce so much light individually that fewer of them are needed and thus less labor is needed to build the fixture. While there has been talk of other “new” lighting technologies coming online in the past, this talk was pretty much on hold this past year.

This article also tried to demonize the hobby by using old and misleading data

While 2016 overall was a good year for the hobby, with some new things finally making it into the hobby, it also marked the first time that a major restriction on the hobby came to fruition. So while we move into 2017 with some potential new technologies finally arriving and with more people successfully in the hobby than ever, we need to be aware that there are some potential roadblocks being attempted to be put in place to slow down or stop the hobby. I am more optimistic than ever as to what the future holds for us in terms of our level of success. However, I am almost as pessimistic that the forces that do not understand how much we love our tanks and the animals they house will continue to focus on trying to stop us. Unfortunately, they do not understand that if events like the bleaching in Australia or similar places continues the best repository for corals may be those that reside in our tanks. And because of the technology that continues to come out and improve our success, we understand more than most what it takes to keep corals alive.
About author
Mike Paletta
Michael Paletta’s actual career is working in genomics in breast and colon cancer for Genomic Health. He has been an avid reef keeper since 1984. He has kept personal reef aquaria ranging in size from 20 gallons to 1200 gallons and has helped set and build other reef aquaria up to 4,000 gallons in size. He currently maintains several reef aquaria including a 300 gallon sps dominated tank and a 75 lps tank. He has also consulted for The National Aquarium in Baltimore as well the Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium.

Michael has published over 100 articles on various aspects of reef keeping in SeaScope, Aquarium Fish Magazine, FAMA, Practical Fishkeeping, and Coral Magazine. He has also published two books: The New Marine Aquarium and Ultimate Reefs. Michael has been invited to speak at various venues around the world and across the country and has given over 200 such talks.

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