A Philosophy of Reefkeeping

This is the first part of my thoughts on reefkeeping as a hobby.  This section describes the philosophies of preservation, conservation, and responsible purchasing habits as a hobbyist.

There’s a new 65-gallon reef in my immediate future, and as soon as I can take some pictures I’ll start documenting the setup.  In the meanwhile, let’s review my personal perspective on keeping marine aquariums, which is that right now, today, this is a harmful hobby.  It is exploitative, and it is not self-sustaining at a level desired by most hobbyists.  Roughly 80 to 90 percent of everything in a marine aquarium is taken directly from the oceans, mainly taken from the coral reefs themselves, and if you read the news you are already aware that these reefs are in danger of collapse from climate change and declining water quality.

But that’s today.

We will be able to breed fish like this in the next ten years.

If things proceed swimmingly (a-hah), I think we'll be able to aquaculture fish like this in the next ten years.

As hobbies go, this is a relatively new one.  The most experienced hobbyists have been doing this for, what?  Twenty or thirty years?  And the industry that has gradually emerged to sustain these hobbyists is much more recent.  For the most part, the large players in this industry were divisions of manufactures and suppliers of freshwater aquarium supplies who saw saltwater tanks as the next step in their product line.

The philosophy of preservation, where wild reefs and their inhabitants must thrive in the wild before they thrive in the living room, is new.  Let’s quickly separate the idea of preservation from conservation, as reef hobbyists and the businesses serving them have always endorsed conservation.  In conservation, limited quantities of a specific organism are removed from the reef, but these are not harvested to an extent where the species becomes threatened or can no longer reproduce.

In preservation, the idea is that human beings should get off of the reefs as much as humanly possible; considering that we haven’t actively lived in the oceans for several million years, this isn’t really too much to ask.

Unfortunately, today, the philosophy of preservation and reefkeeping as a hobby are almost absolutely incompatible acts.  As I said, the reefs are still the source of the majority of biological life found in the trade.  But I also said that these are almost absolutely incompatible acts,because right now it is possible to create a reef tank from livestock that has never been in the ocean.  The aquascaping might start out as concrete and agronite, and the selection of fish might be limited, but we now have reached a stage where we as hobbyists can create a tank that doesn’t just conserve the reefs but literally preserves them by removing them from the hobby altogether.

This is… really, take a second to stop and think about how massively cool this is.  It’s not like finding two small fluffy cute things and deciding to make more small fluffy cute things by putting them in a wire box in the backyard.  Over time and with trial and error, we have gained the ability to create thriving ecosystems that exist independent of the parent system.

Blaine Perun's Purple People Eaters

Blaine Perun's Purple People Eaters

The only reason that this is possible is that hobbyists have chosen to support businesses such as ORA, who endorse a strict preservation philosophy, and by trading coral and rock between themselves to cultivate new strains.  Aquaculture is done in part to preserve the reefs but is also done because corals and fish cultivated in the aquarium have proven to be hardier and prettier than those in the wild.  And who wouldn’t love to have a colony descended from Blane Perun’s original Purple People Eaters?

This is why anyone who keeps a marine aquarium should be extremely aware of their purchasing habits.  What we purchase and the governing philosophy behind why we purchase it will influence the business model of companies that serve the hobby.  If we give them money for their aquacultured products, they will give us aquacultured products (as the man said, it’s the economy, stupid!).

Now, does this mean that we need to dedicate our living room reefs to exclusively aquacultured products?  No.  Not in the slightest, maybe tomorrow but not today, and more on that and basic economics in the next essay.

~ by KBSpangler on March 3, 2009.

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