Change is Good!
Developing A Sustainable
By Jim Adelberg
Photos by Richard Ross
An exposed reef flat at low tide in
Tonga. Yes, those corals are all alive!
For years, I’ve had
the distinct feeling that there was something very wrong with the marine
aquarium hobby and the industry that supports it. While I strived to maintain an
attitude of eco-sensitivity and social responsibility in my own life (not always
easy, I might add), I got the impression that the money I was spending on fish,
coral and live rock was supporting ecological, social and cultural
devastation. I knew that the “traditional” models of plunder and
exploitation that usually accompany indigenous people selling their limited
natural resources to foreigners were firmly entrenched in my hobby.
A beautiful specimen of Montipora back
at the holding station.
I have been a
professional accountant for much of my adult life and I know that private
business, left to its own devices, will be responsible first to its shareholders
(“the bottom line”). This is not an indictment of private business- for this is
what it is created to do. The problem is that in the face of a limited resource,
it’s an all-out race to the feeding trough with no thought of where tomorrow’s
dinner is coming from.
Let me stop here
and explain, lest I be labeled a “Coral-Hugging, Business- Hating Hippie”, that
I believe very strongly that these natural resources can be sustainably managed
for the benefit of the wild livestock, the local people, AND the private
businesses relying on the industry for their survival.
I’ve also recently
spent a few years in and dealing with NPO’s (non-profit organizations), and
while most are primarily concerned with fulfilling their mission statements,
they often suffer from a lack of direct experience in balancing the needs of a
private industry with a desire to achieve a higher social good. Therefore we see
that it’s far easier and maybe only possible for them to attempt to regulate
from without instead of affecting change from within the industry itself.
The correct basis
for a new model, I felt, would be respect. Respect for the animals, the people
who collected them, the businesses involved and the hobbyists. So, when my
friend Eddie Hanson told me he was thinking of starting a coral farm and
collecting station in Tonga, we discussed how this might represent a way to show
all parties involved that there was a better way to supply livestock to our
Using a hammer and chisel allows the
collector to remove target colonies of coral with minimal collateral damage.
There are a few
basic factors that, from the beginning, made me feel we were the right people to
try and demonstrate the feasibility of the new model. First, we are both
hobbyists with a genuine love for the animals involved. Also, we both are
particularly sensitive to issues of culture and the need to supply a sustainable
revenue stream to the local economy. Finally, all snobbery aside, we were both
Northern California businessman and well-schooled in the basics of “green”
On a specific
level, it became immediately clear that without major funding, we would have to
continue wild coral and fish collection to move the project forward. However,
even this aspect of the business was made as responsible and sustainable as
possible. The education we had received about responsible resource gathering as
hikers and campers was immediately transferred to our divers, and they were in
full agreement, as there is a deep love and respect for the ocean and its
creatures within the to Tongan culture.
“If there’s only 1
or 2 corals of a certain type, leave them be. If there are more than a few, take
only part of one. If there are many in the immediate area, take a few but not
all from one place.” This directive immediately set us apart from the typical
exporters who will direct the divers to take every last piece of coral from an
area, not only destroying the coral population, but the very biome upon which so
many associated animals depend.
which is well known in Tonga, but less so in the hobby, is the incidental coral
damage caused by the collection of marine aquarium fish. Many of the fish that
live on the reef, when chased or threatened, will retreat into a coral colony
for protection. Divers are relying on their ability to bring these fish to
market to put food on their families’ table, and in the past, they have done
what was necessary to catch the fish. This has typically meant taking the “claw”
end of a hammer and breaking up the coral colony to make it possible to catch
the fish. Needless to say, this not only destroys the hiding place for that one
fish, but the coral colony is likely to die- and in any case, it destroys the
habitat for any number of fish for generations to come. Of particular concern is
the collection of certain fish which live near large colonies of ancient
Pocillopora colonies (50+ years old in some cases) and retreat into these
colonies whenever they are pursued. These fish are extremely popular in the
hobby, and hundreds are exported monthly from Tonga with the predictable damage
to the Pocillopora stands.
A colony of soft corals.
Our divers have
been trained on the technique of “tickling” these fish out of the coral colony
which causes very little damage to the coral itself. The yield is lower (our
dive team is salaried and therefore not motivated to collect by piece count),
but the collateral damage from this method of collection is almost none. We
continue to use our experience as hobbyists and naturalists to make every aspect
of our wild collecting as eco-sensitive and sustainable as possible.
it is through the production of high quality farmed animals that the need and
demand for wild livestock will be reduced. To this end we have begun phase 2 of
our project, which I will detail in the next installment of these articles. As
always we wish to thank the people and businesses who believed in our dream and
helped get us this far.
A gorgeous colony of Montipora
surrounded by Acropora and other corals.
Thank you for
caring. -Jim Adelberg