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International Coral Workshop - By Steven Pro

revhtree

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My Trip to the International Workshop on the Trade in Coral Reef Species:


Development of International Guidelines for Environmentally Friendly Stony Coral Mariculture
I recently had the pleasure of attending the International Workshop on the Trade in Coral Reef Species: Development of International Guidelines for Environmentally Friendly Stony Coral Mariculture. This workshop was conducted in beautiful Bali Indonesia. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration organized it in conjunction with a non-profit organization called The Ocean Foundation.

In attendance were representatives from the US government, non-profit organizations, US ornamental industry, and academia. The host country was also very well represented as most members of AKKII were there (Asosiasi Koral Kerang dan Ikan hias Indonesia, also known as the Indonesian Coral, Shell, and Ornamental Fish Association). In addition, representatives from Papua-New Guinea, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Timor Leste, and Malaysia came along with two importers from Canada and a gentleman from the UK/European Union who deals with CITES regulations there. It was quite an impressive gathering to say the least and I learned a great deal during my time there.

The purpose of this workshop was to work together towards developing a best practices manual for coral mariculture. While much was covered during the week there, for now I am going to limit my discussion to the country reports as I feel they would be the most interesting to my fellow hobbyists and the most telling for the near future of the industry.

Papua-New Guinea

Most hobbyists know something about Papua-New Guinea and the EcoEZ and SEASMART programs. Think Lightning Maroon Clownfish. They had a hugely successful showing at MACNA 2010 in Orlando, Florida where they created a lot of buzz for the country and their forthcoming products. Unfortunately, soon thereafter there was a falling out between EcoEZ/SEASMART and the government of Papua-New Guinea.

I wish I had some concrete good news to share. It does seem like they are still interested in creating an ornamental marine industry in PNG, but the politics of the situation still seem up in the air to me. I could equally believe that we will see exports from PNG in mere months, as I could believe that a year from now there would still be no progress. This is all very unfortunate because there was such a great buzz surrounding PNG last year. All of this turmoil has certainly damaged the “brandâ€.

The Philippines

While the Philippines have long been known as a major supplier of marine fish for the trade (in fact on a per unit basis, the Philippines is the largest supplier of fish to the US per recent research by Dr. Andrew Rhyne), they do not permit any collection or export of corals or liverock for the trade. They do seem to have a nice program to mariculture corals, but they do so mostly for research and reef restoration efforts. These efforts include both fragmentation methods and more importantly collection of gametes via sexual reproduction in the wild, similar to the SECORE program. The larval corals are settled out and grown in captivity until they are large enough to be successfully relocated out in the wild. These maricultured corals are then placed in areas that have otherwise been damaged and need new coral cover.

It is my understanding that they are at least discussing the possibility of selling some of these maricultured corals. The idea being that the revenue could be channeled back to subsidize or possibly even pay for all the research and restoration activities.

Since the Philippines are the major fish supplier for the trade, there are plenty of facilities already available for export. With a little training on the difference on handling and packing corals for shipping, the Philippines could quickly become the 800-pound gorilla of coral mariculture.

Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has long been known as a supplier of high-quality fish and mobile invertebrates. The fire shrimp (Lysmata debelius) is the quintessential Sri Lankan export, but they are also well known for having good fish too. That said, there is currently no coral (or liverock) coming out of Sri Lanka. Right now, at least one company is seriously pursuing coral mariculture and obtaining permits to export the same. They have brought in outside consultants to help build a case for the government that mariculture is viable and can be done in an environmentally friendly fashion. Additionally, they are looking at setting up a breeding operation for the fire shrimp, so one day there might be captive bred fire shrimp coming out of Sri Lanka as well.

Timor Leste

US hobbyists might be more familiar with the name East Timor, but at the conference they went by Timor Leste, so I will continue to use that name here. Currently, they have some seaweed and fish mariculture for food purposes, but nothing for ornamentals. It seemed they were on more of a fact-finding mission. I would be surprised if maricultured corals are available coming out of Timor Leste anytime soon, but you never know.

Malaysia

It was a surprise to me, but there is already a coral mariculture operation working in Malaysia right now. I have not heard anything specifically about Malaysia corals. Perhaps they are all going to Europe and Asia or if they are coming into the US, they might not be getting promoted as Malaysian. That said, they exported approximately 1,000 pieces in 2008 and then almost 8,000 pieces in 2009. They didn’t specify any subsequent years, but that does show a nice ramp up in growth. Additionally, they have hired a well-known person from the industry that has operated other coral mariculture facilities overseas. He is supposedly helping them develop guidelines for harvesting mother colonies and production of commercial coral fragments.

Indonesia

The host country had some interesting developments as well. I saw artificial liverock being developed that was indistinguishable from the real thing. I also learned that they continue to increase CITES quotas for maricultured corals while simultaneously lowering those quotas for the same wild collected species. They envision a time when they are doing nothing but maricultured for some species. At the same time, I witnessed a lot of work being put forth to develop new genera of maricultured corals, particularly LPS corals. It should only be a matter of time before we start seeing maricultured LPS coming out of Indonesia with the regularity that we see all the SPS.

Summary

What does this mean for hobbyists? Well, if even just a few of these countries start large-scale mariculture programs, we could see a significant increase in quantity and variety of maricultured corals for sale. That would be a good thing. Different species, different growth forms, different colors. But, it has a downside as well. As with any supply and demand situation, if the supply increases dramatically, we could also see a drop in prices, particularly out of current supply countries such as Indonesia and Fiji.

The new, “hot†locations will come into vogue and be popular commodities for aquarium coral collectors to covet. I can envision many hobbyists clamoring for corals coming from the newest country to begin exports, if marketed properly. The release of corals from a locale where previously collection and export was banned should create many advertising opportunities and help drive demand for those corals over ones that are currently available. Eventually though, things should settle down and the prices of corals should equalize.

The downside to all this is if the supply does go up significantly, the price everyone gets will necessarily go down. While that might be good news for consumers, it is not great for producers. The price per unit will go down and could encourage bad practices to make up for the lost revenue. We might see some companies trying to save money in shipping costs, which could be detrimental to the health of the specimens or other money savings practices that might be harmful. I hope that things shake out quickly, that everyone can make a fair living, and that the reefs we all love are protected in the process.

Steven Pro has had an aquarium for as long as he can remember, but didn't get into marines until sometime in the early 1990's. He started working full-time in the ornamental aquatics industry in the summer of 1995, primarily doing design, installations, and on-going maintenance of aquariums. He has also worked previously for Red Sea and IceCap Inc. Along the way, he was a contributor to WetWebMedia, had over 40 articles published with more on the way, spoken at over 60 clubs and conferences, and co-hosted MACNA 19. He is currently the President of MASNA.
 

Tenacious716

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Great write-up, Steve. It sounds like a very informative event and I'm excited to hear that the wells are in motion in Malaysia.

Such a shame regarding PNG, hopefully sooner or later it will all work out and the SeaSmart program will resume. Thanks for the info!
 

melev

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I enjoyed it to Steven, and put a link to it over on R.A. today.
 

Steven Pro

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Great write-up, Steve. It sounds like a very informative event and I'm excited to hear that the wells are in motion in Malaysia.

Such a shame regarding PNG, hopefully sooner or later it will all work out and the SeaSmart program will resume. Thanks for the info!
I don't think there is a snowball's chance of SeaSmart starting up again in PNG, but private companies might pick up where they left off in time.
 
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revhtree

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Bump for this great article!
 
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Ricardo Pinto

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Great article Steve,

Thanks for sharing. I think events like this are the only way for the hobby become self-sustainable.
 

seareefrun

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Great article and warning. I was driving 500 miles round trip to long beach once a week to hand pic my salt water from one of the largest wholesellers of the Philippines in the late 80s and early 90s and the owner talked about to much being taken and the goverment was going to clamp down(same thing happend to Florida) and we all know the rest of the story.
With a Reef information site like this one. Novice or Pro's can share information with lot's of ways that work or not. Without Bias.
I only Dance at R2R
 

Alpha Aquaculture

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Great writeup Steven! Sounds like an awesome trip. Very good news about the aquaculture projects overseas. It sounds like they are starting to realize that sustainable mariculture is better than mother colony harvest. Thats very positive for the reefs. A few considerations... Will diseases that are always possible with maricultured corals continue to keep aquaculture prices higher? Will the stressful transition from ocean to captive environments keep captive grown most desirable? Will the very probable long term increases in oil prices drive the coral economy toward local production due to high cost of transcontinental air freight? I think its great that the local populations near the most amazing reefs in the world are changing their habits for the better. I also think we should encourage local production and highlight some of its benefits :) I believe that solar and wind sustainable electricity in the US is more realistic in the short term than sustainable energy for transcontinental air travel. Until the day of planes that can continuously fly around the world using solar or another sustainable energy source, local US coral production might still be economically feasible.
 
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Steven Pro

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Great writeup Steven! Sounds like an awesome trip. Very good news about the aquaculture projects overseas. It sounds like they are starting to realize that sustainable mariculture is better than mother colony harvest. Thats very positive for the reefs. A few considerations... Will diseases that are always possible with maricultured corals continue to keep aquaculture prices higher?
It might sound odd to many of us, but at the country of export, maricultured corals sell for the same or less than wild collected. I am not sure why that is. Perhaps a lingering suspicion that maricultured stock is smaller than wild.

Diseases and pests were a large part of the discussions we had, particularly better screening processes prior to shipping.

Will the stressful transition from ocean to captive environments keep captive grown most desirable?
Most in-situ (country of origin) coral production is done in the ocean. One thing I noticed there is the difference in skeletal strength of maricultured corals versus ones I have dealt with from aquariums. Every skeleton was substantially harder, denser, and hard to cut through than anything I have ever seen out of an aquarium. Could be due to strong currents, more food available, water quality, I don't know. But, it amazed me how different they were from Euphyllia to Seriatopora.

Will the very probable long term increases in oil prices drive the coral economy toward local production due to high cost of transcontinental air freight? I think its great that the local populations near the most amazing reefs in the world are changing their habits for the better. I also think we should encourage local production and highlight some of its benefits :) I believe that solar and wind sustainable electricity in the US is more realistic in the short term than sustainable energy for transcontinental air travel. Until the day of planes that can continuously fly around the world using solar or another sustainable energy source, local US coral production might still be economically feasible.
That is a difficult issue. If ex-situ (production away form where corals naturally occurs) were to supplant in-situ production, what is the incentive to protect the reefs. I understand your concern about energy usage, but if the corals and reefs were to become devalued because the largest consumer of corals in the world was able to produce all our own corals, that would have a negative impact. Like I said, it is a difficult issue.
 
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revhtree

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BUMP for the weekend!
 

Steven Pro

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Here is the summary of the presentation I gave in Bali. It was designed for the audience, which is mariculture operations overseas, but I thought some of you might find it interesting.

Selling Maricultured Corals and Building Your Brand in the USA
By Steven Pro

If one sits back and thinks about it, it is difficult to recall a product that is readily available for end-users to purchase that is not branded. For example, there are no generic cars. We have Ford, Honda, Toyota, BMW, and a myriad of other brands all with a loyal customer following. If one goes to buy a new pair of denim jeans, brands such as Levi’s, Lee, and Wrangler come to mind. The same goes for athletic shoes with Nike, Reebok, Adidas, New Balance, etc. I could name many more product categories and they are all the same. One would be hard pressed to find a category of products sold to the American consumer that does not have a brand name, logo, and accompanying advertising campaign directed at influencing the purchase of their products.

That is until you stumble along and get to live ornamental aquatics. For the most part, live marine fish and corals do not carry a brand name. The only brand associated with those purchases is usually from the dealer (either local pet shop or online vendor) that is selling the animal. In my opinion, that has to change.

Consider for a moment other buying choices. One would never think about purchasing a no name car from Jim Bob’s Auto Emporium. Then why is it the norm in ornamental aquatics?
Some companies in the U.S. are already moving in this direction. They are currently aggressively marketing branded marine fish and corals that are being aquacultured ex-situ. If in-situ mariculture facilities do not follow suit quickly, they risk losing future sales and/or profit margins.

The goal for any brand would be to become the brand that defines the category. There are numerous instances of this. While I prefer Pepsi, I find when I go to a restaurant, I order a Coke. The name Coke defines the category for all colas. I have never asked for a facial tissue when I sneeze. Instead, I ask for a Kleenex, even if it is a Puffs brand. If I get a small cut, I go get a Band-Aid, not a sterile adhesive bandage. And, I don’t ever recall wanting a cotton swab to clean my ears. I have always used a Q-Tip. These brand name products have become the descriptor for the entire product category.

There are even a few companies that have succeeded in becoming verbs for their product category. There was a time when Xerox so dominated the copy machine business that people said they were going to go make a Xerox when they were going to make a copy. Now, one might be more familiar with the phrase, go Google it, when someone is referring to looking something up on the Internet.

While the above are extreme cases, there are some characteristics that can be learned and adapted from them for marine ornamental aquatics. They all use simple, easy to pronounce names. They also have clean looking logos. But most importantly, when consumers hear those names, they have an awareness of what the company stands for, its reputation for quality, and some idea of the pricing of their respective products. These last qualities take time and effort to develop, but you have to start somewhere. I don’t believe continuing to sell no name corals will work in the face of coordinated, branded competition amongst ex-situ aquaculture companies.

I would begin with placing the name and/or logo of the mariculture operation permanently somewhere on the coral. I have heard that some wish to incorporate the company’s name or logo on the tags that are used for tracking purposes, but those tags are routinely removed well before the consumer sees them. This negates the branding attempt since end-users are unlikely to know who ultimately produced their purchases. So, I would encourage mariculture operations to permanently affix their name and logo on the bottom of the concrete plug. This could be embedded or stamped into the concrete plug, either on the bottom or top. I would lean towards the bottom, so that the brand is not too conspicuous when placed into its final position in the home aquarium.

In addition to using the companies’ brand name, it is also a good idea to assign “model” names to the individual corals. Genus and species names are required for CITES paperwork, but a descriptive name should also be assigned. US hobbyists are making up names like Alien Eye Echinophyllia and Bleeding Apple Scolymia. These names are merely flowery descriptions of the color of the corals and don’t really mean anything, but they have caught on with hobbyists. There is a certain segment of US aquarists that like to collect corals like someone might collect baseball cards. To collect something, one needs a way to differentiate the items being collected. Naming corals allows for that collection.

Naming corals also puts a premium on the price paid for the same coral. It is not just any old Acropora tortuosa. This is a Blue Californian Acropora tortuosa, which is somehow distinguishable from a Blue Oregon Acropora tortuosa. A hobbyist might buy a no-name Monitpora for $40-60 for a 4-6” piece, but they are willing to pay that same amount for a 1” square piece of a Sunset Monitpora or a Superman Monitpora.

There are also some U.S. sellers labeling their corals for sale as “Limited Edition” or LE for short. The LE label creates a false sense of limited supply and therefore increases demand and price. The important thing to remember is that these small propagation facilities say that it is limited edition only because their facility is small and they have a limit supply of said coral. It does not mean that the coral is actually rare in the wild. Instead, it says more about the aquaculture facility where the coral is grown and less about the coral itself.

In-situ mariculture operations should not have this constraint, as they are capable of mass production of corals. But, they can still use the LE label on their most highly prized corals and can restrict the number of specimens that one can purchase. Other propagation facilities have placed quotas on buying their specimens. For example, to buy 1 of their premium LE corals, you must also take 10 of their common offerings. In this way, they maintain the LE mystique while continuing to sell their bread and butter offerings.

The last issue I want to discuss is reaching the end-users. As I said previously, the tags that in-situ mariculturists are using now are being removed well prior to the corals being offered for sale to hobbyists. Successfully developing a brand name is going to require that the consumers see those brand names. Permanently embedding the name into the bottom of the coral plug will help. In addition, I would recommend reaching out to the hobbyists directly.

Social media sites are a perfect way to inform end-users about what the mariculture facility has going on. They could begin promoting finding a new specimen in some outrageous color pattern that is going into production and will be available for say in “limited” quantities in 6-12 months. This will create some buzz about something new from this company while also increasing the demand and of course the price.

In-situ mariculture companies could also start their own websites to build brand awareness and increase demand. Pictures of all the corals that are available should be provided. That way consumers and importers will be made aware of everything that can be purchased.

Note, I am NOT advocating that mariculturists/exporters attempt to sell directly to end-users. That would be shortsighted and very problematic in regards to paperwork, proper importation, and acclimation of corals that have been in transport for many hours.

Mariculture operations can also submit press releases to the popular marine aquarium blogs and message boards. These releases can be very much like the social media postings promoting the brand as well as new specimens. This will help get the word out about the brand and help build demand.

The ideal situation after all this work is when consumers start walking into their local fish store requesting that they order this particular coral from this particular facility. That is when you will know the branding the plugs, the company website, and social media initiatives are working.
 

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