A Philosophy of Reefkeeping, Part 2

In this second part of my thoughts of reefkeeping as a hobby, I go over how we know just enough about what marine life requires to survive to make ourselves a dreadful, deadly nuisance.

I’m housebound right now – some SPS frags I ordered from a fellow hobbyist got hung up during the snowstorm in Philadelphia, so I’m fairly sure they are frozen and dead but I’m still waiting for them to arrive and see if they can be saved.  In the meantime, let’s review Part I: in reefkeeping, conservation is a philosophy in which humans cultivate their marine aquariums through strategies that conserve the reefs, while preservation is a philosophy in which marine aquariums are cultivated using procedures that separates humans from the reef.

Now on to Part II, wherein I Bum People Out and admit that a terrifying amount of fish and coral have needlessly died because We Don’t Know What We’re Doing.

I am a discus. Aren't I pretty? I will die if you sneeze.

I am a discus. Aren't I pretty? I will die if you burp.

Most hobbyists who come to saltwater make the transition from freshwater aquariums.  We tend to assume that freshwater tanks are easier to keep than marine tanks, but this is a bit of a dodge… what we should say is that freshwater tanks are harder to kill.  A stable freshwater ecosystem is almost as difficult to establish and maintain as a saltwater system; maybe more difficult, as I won’t touch discus with a twenty-foot pole.  Keeping (most) tropical fish alive, however, is pretty easy since they evolved in smaller bodies of water that were subject to seasonal change.  Even if they aren’t aquacultured and were wild-caught, (most) tropical fish will be able to adapt to alterations in water quality, water flow, and so forth.  (Most) marine fish in the aquarium trade evolved on the reef, which is a remarkably homogeneous environment.  When we attempt to recreate these environments, the freshwater fish might glare at us from one big bubble eye and wonder what the hell we’re doing, while the marine fish quietly dies.

Participants in the reefkeeping hobby are still trying to puzzle through what it takes to recreate this homogeneous environment and make a happy reef: we’re asking ourselves why some species survive and others do not.  And we’re doing this almost exclusively through trial-and-error, and a lot of the time we’re not so hot with the answers.  The misinformation that exists is in books and online is incredible; recommendations for care, stocking options and compatibility, what should be permitted in a tank and what should be eradicated on sight… it’s a cold and hideous horror show of guesswork.

Worse, this misinformation is almost always a hundred percent accurate for some people.  Take zoanthids, a coral that most hobbyists think prefers low-level light with moderate-to-slow moving water.  I’ve seen some zoanthids thrive under those conditions,… then again, I’ve seen some thrive when placed high in the tank next to high-water movement SPS and under MH lighting.  What questions are we supposed to ask when this happens, anyhow?  Is the common practice wrong?   Did the colony gradually acclimate to different conditions? Would the colony die if moved? If I stick another colony of zoanthids beside it, would the new colony die?  I know what dogs need – should I just get another dog?

The Flowerpot Coral.  AKA: the Living Dead.

Flowerpot Coral - AKA: the Living Dead.

Here’s the real tragedy of this… everyone recognizes that they are participating in an ongoing learning process, which makes them willing to take risks.   Take goniopora sp., a lovely little colony coral that is commonly referred to as a flowerpot coral.  It comes in a full spectrum of colors from red to purple, and is a true showpiece in the tank… for maybe six months.  That’s about as long as the majority manage to keep it alive, and then the colony “crashes,” or experiences a failure that wipes out most or all of the individual organisms in that colony.  Poof, dead.  There’s something that it needs that doesn’t exist in most artificial reef systems.  But there are the exceptions, the handful of goniopora sp. that survive.  It’s almost a shame that these do survive, because everyone thinks, “Well, I know that the majority die but I have a great tank and a great system, so I know I’ll be the exception.” And six months later they inevitably log on their favorite forum and yet another MY FLOWRPOT IS DYEING HELP! thread is born.

So when you get right down to the heart of it, reefkeeping as a hobby is a participatory learning process and is brutal on the wild reef, the livestock collected from the reef, and the wallet (mostly the latter two if you buy from companies that embrace a conservation philosophy).  But this is running long and I’ve got stuff to do, so I’ll get back to the philosophic and  economic bosh in the next post.

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~ by KBSpangler on March 4, 2009.

2 Responses to “A Philosophy of Reefkeeping, Part 2”

  1. This is interesting. The last saltwater tanks I was around were in the Invertebrate Zoology labs in undergrad, three years ago now, and while they were well cared for there was the assumption, spoken and not, that everything in them was going to die. The big tank, with the crabs and occasional snails, was impressive for size; the little tank, ten gallons of not much plus a Big Fat Anemone, was more fun to look at. The catch-all tank, where we kept specimens most of the time, was really a catch-all. Some things were kept separate, but they could escape if they really wanted to. The moon snails ate each other until there was only one left. The sponges slowly reconstituted themselves from their cheeseclothy disintegration.
    And just about everything was expected to die. Not always from dissection– we lived in hope that the anemone halves we put back in would do more than mucus up the place– but they’re specimens. Specimens die. That’s how we get enough urchin tests that we can smash them up with helmet snail shells.
    I still feel bad about the lovely soft nudibranchs.

  2. […] an earlier post, I mentioned I was waiting on some frags that had been delayed by the snow; in a follow-up post, I noted the frags had arrived dead.  Well, […]

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