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Curing Live Rock

By Bob Fenner

Cured live rock

     Of all the advents of the modern reef keeping aquarium hobby; more important than all high-tech. lighting, filtration advances, the promotion and use of “live rock” has served to advance the successful keeping of near-shore marine tropical life the most. I make this bold statement right up front to emphasize LR (Live Rock) importance.

            This being stated, there are several types and qualities of LR, and in particular a need for understanding what “curing”, “cured” LR is… and for unfamiliar/newer hobbyists how they can procure, assess, and get their LR to this useful state.

What LR is and Isn’t:

            Live rock is a mix or blend if you will of living organisms and non-living matrix. The “live” part can be a very diverse assemblage of nearly all marine invertebrate fauna and algal groups. The “non-living” part is made up of minerals, mostly aggregations of biominerals (calcium, magnesium… carbonates et al.), with life often bored in and through the “rock” as well as occupying, attached and otherwise, the hard outer surfaces. These very properties, living and non-living are of tremendous utility to us as aquarists, providing hugely effective stabilizing influences, foods, water quality boosting, and yes, tremendous interest period.

            Importantly, what LR is not is static, or permanent in its make up and chemical-physical properties. This point needs to be fully – appreciated, as with time, biodiversity and abundance of the live component greatly diminishes, as well as the capacity of all types of live rock to positively interact w/ water quality. Some percentage, 10-20, of LR should be added, or replaced in captive marine systems after a year or so in place every six months or so to re-set the diversity and provide soluble components.

What is Curing and Why?

            Live rock for the most part is “wild-collected”, with a small percentage cultured from placed man-made or terrestrial-mined materials (See Side-bar). Both types typically have too much biota on them to sustainably ship and use. Coral colonies, large macro-algae, sponges and so much more rot and add to waste weight in shipping, hence, most all larger life forms are “whacked off” with hand tools ahead of further processing. <Photo>

            Commercial preparation of LR can be minimal, with little more than picking up said rock at low tide, placing it in boxes and shipping, to more elaborate, and better processing, allowing for a majority of necessary die-off and removal of likely-to-die organic constituents. A favorite supplier and old-time friend Walt Smith (Fiji) pioneered a standard operating procedure including the hand-removal of much macro-life already stated, with a few days “spritzing” of the rock in open-bottomed V-shaped wooden troughs <Photo>, allowing for removal pesky worms, Brittlestars… even moray eels!


Pre-Cured? Really?

            Even with such pre-curing, or further pre- pre-curing by your local fish store, you are strongly encourage to do your own curing checks ahead of placing new LR in your systems. Isolating new live rock will guarantee both the integrity of the cure, and give you time to observe, and hopefully removed the majority of unwanted hitchhikers. These last, including Mantis (Stomatopods), Crabs, Pistol Shrimps, Aiptasia/Glass Anemones and more can prove a real bane once introduced into your main/display tanks. Far better for you to expose these pests, trap, otherwise remove them ahead of time.


Curing Processes, SOPs:

            There are a few variations on the Standard Operating Procedure of how to go about curing, that is starving out, eliminating the majority of dead, dying matter on live rock. Some modes are faster, others not quite so wasteful in terms of water and energy use; but basically all aim to make the rock safe for use, permanent placement in with your purposeful livestock systems.

            In or Out of Tank? I’m a bigger fan of curing “in-place” if you have the space, time, and tolerance for this. Having the rock in a tank allows you to see how it is all going, more easily remove unwanteds, and get good water circulation all about the pieces. This is of course, most easily accomplished in bare-bottom tanks w/ no livestock present. Alternatively, folks use most any chemically inert container, including plastic bins and trash cans to cure their new LR. These are cheap/er and can be more easily utilized outside of human spaces… to get away from smell. Their downsides include having to provide other circulation, slower and more die-off of photosynthetic life… and likely the use of much more water to remedy the aforementioned during curing. 

            Lighted or Not? There are proponents of not-lighting a system during the curing of live rock; mainly to avoid promoting the growth/profusion of undesirable algae. I take the opposite point of view; encouraging this thallophytic and other photosynthetic life by providing a regular daylight photoperiod. I’ve found that this greatly expedites the curing process, saving time, energy, water and desirable life forms.

            When to change water: When it’s “bad”… depending on how much “stuff” is dying, and taking other life w/ it, how much you and your cohabitors dislike bad smells… this might range from 1-2 ppm of free ammonia, up to a few times this in nitrite and unbelievable levels of nitrate. A good idea in all cases to have a good deal of new, ready-made seawater to switch out.

About Terrestrial and Man-Made Live Rock

Some folks argue for the land-mining and placement of carbonaceous rock and cement/sand et al. “man-made” rock that has been cultured/placed in shallow marine environments to grow life in and on them, rather than naturally collected LR. The former supposedly being “better for the environment”… I would point out that the energy required to make such faux LR, including hauling it to/from sites, the displacement, use of habitat to culture… make this not a simple “good vs. bad” proposition. Further, it should be noted that cements in the tropics are almost all made from “cooked” reef in the first place…

My “pro” wild-collected stance comes from realizing the work and revenue that such collection brings in the countries where extraction occurs along w/ the reality that this material is entirely sustainable in its natural production. The best that can be presented in favour of unnatural LR is the actual paucity of “climax” community biota make up; and therefore reduced need to cure such products.

  Description: D:\Images\Aquatics\Marines\LR LS\WSI Rock Tank sprayer2.jpg Description: D:\Images\Aquatics\Marines\LR LS\WSI Rock Tank sprayer.jpg
Description: D:\Images\Aquatics\Marines\LR LS\WSI Raw rock clean area.jpg Description: D:\Images\Aquatics\Marines\LR LS\WSI LR wash tanks.jpg



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