The Pros and Cons of Aquacultured vs Maricultured vs Wild Coral Colonies

The Pros and Cons of Aquacultured vs Maricultured vs Wild Coral Colonies

Visiting MACNA or any of the large frag swaps or shows 10 years ago the vendors present for the most part displayed large wild colonies of coral under metal halide lamps. IN the last five years this has changed dramatically as now almost all of the vendors show frags of corals under blue LEDs. So this begs the question: why have things changed so dramatically in such a relatively short time? Have hobbyists become more conscientious in terms of not wanting to take colonies from the ocean and are they also more patient to let things grow. Or if they were present would wild colonies still be in high demand? And what about maricultured colonies, don’t those offer the best of all worlds? Having been around for a bit and having gotten to see the changes that have occurred I realize that the answers to these questions are not simple and there really are not right or wrong answers to which type of coral one purchases. But there are a lot of things that should be taken into consideration when one considers purchases a coral: beside the obvious, can I keep it alive?

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A top down shot of Jeff Leung's tank filled with colonies grown from only maricultured frags after 4 years

From my point of view, I find it quite positive that today one rarely finds a wild coral colony the size of a dinner plate or basketball for sale anywhere today. They are not at the shows or in any dealers tanks I come across or online and they are not even at the wholesalers. This is good for a number of reasons in that first it means we are now at least thoughtful enough that we know taking corals this size off the reef does have some impact. It also means that we have also finally realized that the high mortality of these big colonies just in shipping and holding is not worth the cost and the risk. But probably more to the point it also now means that all of us in the hobby know we no longer need these big colonies as we can grow our own big colonies in a relatively short time from small colonies or even frags So why buy a big colony for the price of a major kitchen appliance that may not be that brilliantly colored when we can buy a small colony or a named frag and have it grow into something magical instead. And let’s face it, we all want everything we do to be sustainable, and since we all love the reef, we want what we take from it to be sustainable. Right? And obviously taking these big colonies like we used to do was not a sustainable practice. So not harvesting any wild colonies from the reef is good for everyone, Right?


A nice selection of aquacultured corals being grown out


A group of wild colonies of Acanthatreas, Scolymias and Acropora from Australia

Well not so fast. First, it should be noted that when corals are taken from the reef they are taken by someone. They don’t just pop up in a collector or wholesaler’s tank. And the people who take them often make their living by doing this and/or collecting fish for the hobby. As a result, the corals and fish for the hobby that are on the reef have significant value to these individuals and their families. And when thins have value they take care of it. Considering that fish for the hobby have been estimated to have 5 to 10 times the value as fish taken for food it makes sense that the fish we have in our tanks along with the corals have significant value to the people who collect them and make their living by doing so. So considering this, one would expect that since they have value they would take of and protect the reefs they collect from. So if all fish and corals were no longer taken from the wild, these resources would become less valuable and at least to my mind I would not expect the individuals that make their living now off of these resources to take as good a care of them as they currently do. Also it should be noted that at present Australian corals are for the most part still wild colonies and that the Great Barrier Reef is one of the most analyzed, studies and regulated reefs in the world. I am reporting this, as the Australian government has done several studies and found that the taking of fish and corals for the hobby from the reef has had negligible impact on the reef. While I am definitely not one to say hey then let’s take all we want, but I am happy that an entity that understands how vital the Great Barrier Reef is has looked at the impact of the hobby on this reef and found for the most part that it is sustainable. Also considering the impact that the major bleaching events of the past two years have had on this reef, and seeing the miles of corals destroyed I am confident that we do indeed do little damage compared to these. And more importantly the knowledge we gain by keeping corals will go a long way in helping to protect this and other reefs in the future.

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One of the best ways to protect "rare" corals is via aquaculturing them like these Leng Sy cap frags


A selection of wild Aussie Acros. Note their large sizes

So while the Great Barrier Reef has for the most part not been significantly impacted by the collection of coral for the hobby, what about the smaller reefs around the world? In regards to these it is my opinion that the hobby is having less and less impact on these reefs for a couple of reasons. First when I see wild colonies coming in from Fiji or Indonesia I no longer see huge colonies, but instead I see colonies the size of golf balls or are worst baseballs, but even these are rare. But, unlike Australia, where maricultured corals are still for the most part not cultivated, the coral colonies coming out of Indonesia are now at least 60% maricultured with Fiji not far behind. And from what I have read, it appears that corals being maricultured are increasing as a percentage of what is shipped out by approximately 10% each year. So while the hobby and the demand for corals, especially colorful corals is increasing, so too are maricultured corals from the two biggest suppliers of corals.


A nice selection of maricultured corals from Indonesia


An aquaculturing facility in the basement of a home aquaculturing facility

So if you do not want to use wild corals to fill your tank then the next possibility seems to be pretty clear, just fill it with maricultured corals. There are a lot of positives to using these types of corals to stock a tank, but there are also few issues to their use as well. These types of corals have been around for a long time so they have been used in our tanks for quite some time. As a result, most of us know the positives. First among these is that there a wide variety of coral being grown for the hobby this way, and we all know how much we love variety. And because they have been cultured this way for so long, a lot of the corals grown this way are now several generations old, so few or relatively few if any fragments need to be taken from wild stock. Also because the people cultivating them know them so well, for the mot part the corals they grow this way grow fast and are robust and colorful as there is not much profit in trying to grow slow-growing or unattractive corals. In fact, if you come across a brown maricultured coral for a good piece buy it. Odds are it has browned out due to the conditions under which it has been kept and if you can put it under the right conditions you may come across a prize you did not expect. Lastly, and probably most importantly, maricultured corals are corals that really do take a village to grow. For any of you that have been to a mariculturing “facility” can attest lots of people are involved in this production. Often women mount the frags in the substrate, which have been brought to them by young divers or collectors. Older males mix up the substrate, while still others place the mounted frags in the grow out facilities. While still others clean and clear these areas to keep algae or pests from overgrowing or destroying them. And lastly, others harvest the colonies and deliver them to the holding facilities. So needless to say, having a lot of hands touch these corals keeps lot of individuals at least partially employed, which is a good thing in these areas. But it is also good as it also helps demonstrate how valuable the reef and its coral are. As I mentioned earlier, when one can make a living off of something it I more valuable and less likely to be taken for granted. So all of this is very positive for using maricultured corals.


Some maricultured colonies being quarantined before sale


The author's frag tank for aquaculturing corals until they get large enough to add to my bigger tank

However, there are some negatives as well. First among these is that due to how they are cultured, i.e., in relatively close proximity to one another and on porous bases, maricultured corals are a petri dish for culturing coral pests. Even when they are dipped, quarantined and dipped again they still often produce plagues of pests the likes of which we have not seen before, owing to the fact that the eggs of most pests are immune to everything short of a nuclear explosion. As a result, if one wants to have a tank filled with these corals long-term in addition to dipping and quarantining them it may be necessary to completely snip the actual coral from the growth base completely. When this is done in a lot of cases the remaining coral is often not much bigger than an aquacultured frag. Even having done this, I have still missed the eggs of some pests who apparently either lay completely invisible eggs or lay them under the corals tissue so that they are equally invisible. So that is the first and biggest issue with using these corals. Second, at times the variety of what is available maricultured is often limited. Since usually only a few species of coral are grown together on a rack, when it is time to harvest often only corals from this rack and few neighboring racks are taken. As a result, when shipments come in the variety usually is what was taken from that location at that time. And since these mariculturists ship to several suppliers at the same time everyone has the same corals at the same time, so if you want the whole wide variety you have to wait until different areas are harvested. While this may not be that big a deal, most of us, especially me, are not known for our patience. And lastly, for some reason it has been my impression that these corals show more color variability than any of the other types of corals we keep. That is, I have split maricultured colonies with friends and after growing thee corals out you could not tell they were the same coral. Again this is not necessarily a negative but it is something that should be kept in mind.


A section of the tank of Sanjay Joshi that has been grown out from frags. The time frame for this growth from frags was a little over 3 years

Just as there are pros and cons for getting and keeping wild or maricultured colonies, that is also the case with aquacultured frags. After attending many of the shows and frag swaps over the past couple of years it is clear that aquaculturing and growing frags, even in small facilities, is now one of the fastest growing parts of the hobby. So on the positive side of using frags to fill you tank the first positive is that once the original colony is taken from the ocean, there is virtually no additional impact from growing out the resultant generations of corals. In addition to this, these corals by their having been grown in a captive environment have already shown that they are good candidates to have in our tanks. So while all of this I good and is showing how sustainable the hobby one of the main reason why frags are so popular is simply that many of them possess the colors that we find most desirable. And these fabulous colors are not just the result of happenstance. Most of the people aquaculturing frags do so by searching and finding the most colorful corals and then propagating these into mother colonies from which they take frags that are what everyone wants. In some cases, this may take years, until enough of these corals are available for everyone. In the mean time the most colorful and rare corals fetch some of the highest prices. So while being able to get the most amazing colors possible is now an everyday occurrence due to the efforts of these individuals, the downside of this is that due to limited availability and high demand these corals fetch high prices. And as a result to some extent, the high prices of these frags may lead to higher costs and the resultant prices for other corals. This is because the collectors are as internet savvy as anyone so now when they see a frag of a coral they shipped commanding a high price they now know that anything similar is also in high demand and hence the price they charge also goes up. This higher price then is passed on to the wholesaler who then also raises the prices so as a result the price of poker goes up for everyone. In addition to this downside, as I mentioned when the collectors and their villages no longer have any skin in the game, the value of the reef goes down as does their income. So while on the one hand it is good that there is little impact on the reef as a result of aquaculturing, on the other hand it reduces the income for the people involved in the hobby at the primary levels. The other downside of frags that probably is obvious is that starting a tank with all frags also means that for at least some time the tank is going to look at least a little sparse and empty. So besides looking “naked” these bare areas are also places where algae can gain a foothold. So this must be taken into account as does our nature to fill every spot. So if you fill every spot with frags when they start growing a battle ensues where the corals fight for space. So these factors need to be taken into account when using these to fill a tank.


The author's tank being filled with aquacultured frags and maricultured colonies

Picking one type of coral over another to start or fill a tank is no longer the simple undertaking it once was. There are now more choices, types of corals and the chance to fill a tank with the most beautiful undersea jewels imaginable. While I would love to say that one choice is far superior than another the reality is is that each type of coral has positives and negatives to its selection. We now have more beautiful corals available to us than many of us could ever have imagined. Because of all these choices this hobby is now more popular than it has ever been with more people coming and staying in it than ever before. For this reason, the demand for colorful corals is higher than it has ever been, while at the same time the reefs themselves are under greater stress and threats than they have ever been under. It should be noted however, that because of some of the things that we have learned in the hobby we also now have the potential to help the reefs at least as much and possibly more than the harm we cause by taking corals. Because I am confident that I am not hurting any reefs by choosing one type of coral over another I currently use all three types of corals in my tanks.
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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