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Change Is Good!

Change is Good!

Developing A Sustainable Coral Farm

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 hobby.

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” business.

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.

Another issue, 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.

Ultimately though, 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


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