Over the Counter column

Last month, I wrote about the environmental impact of garden ponds on drought areas (and vice versa) in various parts of the country. This month, to continue in an environmental bent, I?m going to take my turn at a subject long championed in the pages of FAMA ? the health of our reefs. This is by no means a new or original topic, but rather a drum we can?t afford to quit beating.

If you look at back issues from fifteen years ago, the topic of cyanide collection practices and the impact they had both on the reef and the health of our hobby was a major concern. Today, in 2002, it still is, but it is augmented by other threats. The degradation caused by over-harvesting, not just for aquariums, but for food fish is threatening some species with extinction. Coastal runoff is feeding killer algae blooms that kill coral (you didn?t realize when that happens in your reef tank, you?re recreating a true life biotype, huh?). The phenomenon known as coral bleaching, where the sustained rise in water temperature in an area causes the loss of symbiotic zooxanthellae from the tissues of polyps, has had a horrible effect. If you weren?t paying attention at the end of last century, you might check out the episode in 1998 when 10 percent of the world?s coral growth died including colonies up to a thousand years old, according to Reef Check, based at UCLA?s Institute of the Environment. Even those cruise ships dragging anchor as they pull in to the picturesque ports of our dreams are adding to the fight. All in all, it hasn?t been a good last couple of decades for our reefs.

Like our powerlessness in facing the draught affecting much of the U.S., there are some factors affecting our reefs that we as individual hobbyists can do nothing substantial to combat. However, unlike the draught, there are some things we can do to affect change. One of the amazing things about coral reefs is how quickly they bounce back when given a chance. It is well documented how quickly ocean oil rigs get covered with coral and, according to Reef Check, two years is enough time to replenish many species. We can and must pitch in to take part in ways where we can make a difference. In the aquarium hobby/business, this might mean supporting programs such as controlled harvest that rotate collection areas, allowing them time to rebound occasionally.

It is a truism of our world that money talks. The market drives the industry behind our hobby, just like it drives everything. There is a ?who?s got it cheapest? mentality driving most shoppers, and it seems to have gotten more and more pervasive with the advent of big boxes and online price comparisons. Aquatic retailers naturally respond to this pressure for price competition by trying to buy as cheaply as possible, which travels on up the line to the distributors, manufacturers and collectors. This engine is what fuels cyanide collection and most other destructive environmental fallout created by our hobby. I know everyone has heard or read this argument more than once, but it?s the truth. Doing what is right and best for the future just seems to cost more. Whether you?re a hobbyists thinking the store down the block has what looks like the same angel for half the price or a retailer with payroll taxes due and not much money left in the bank to stock the store?s tanks, it?s hard to look at the big picture through the pressures of the short run.

The situation reminds me of a parallel in the pet industry from the early nineties when wild caught birds were outlawed from the trade. The initial reaction of many storeowners was a wailing about what that action was going to do to the business because of the disappearance of cheap birds. What actually happened was a boom for many of us. Domestic, tame, gentle, hand-fed baby birds are such far superior pets that they are much easier to sell and more desirable to own. Once people realized how much better and more fun domestic birds were, the price barrier began to lose its effect. As more people got in to breeding birds, the prices themselves began to drop, and the pet bird industry is all the better for the disappearance of wild caught, biting birds. I have faith that by supporting efforts like the Marine Aquarium Council and by hobbyists and retailers requesting and dealing in domestically farmed marine fish, the market would make them more affordable over time, and the selection would improve at the rate the technology for raising them did.

There is a saying most people have heard, ?the bitter taste of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten.? It is a saying that hobbyists and retailers would be advised to apply when evaluating their marine fish suppliers. Quality fish are worth it. I remember the first batch of tank-raised clowns I ordered in from Oceans, Reefs and Aquariums, Inc. I had visited their booth at a trade show, and placed an order. The fish arrived; we acclimated them per instructions, and released them into their tanks. They all sank to the bottom, and I thought the worst even though ORA had forewarned me of this possible behavior. I turned out the light and left them. The next morning, every single clown was up and swimming beautifully, and I had zero mortality from that shipment. Not one single clown died. To compare that to the wild-caught shipments I had received where we battled acclimation problems, brooklynella, and who knows what other maladies, I factored in the mortality rate and figured the real cost each of the fish that lived, and the tank raised clowns were a bargain. And that doesn?t begin to factor in the negative ripple effect that poor quality fish have once they infect other fish or alienate a discouraged customer.

I know this month didn?t cover any new ground for the magazines regular readers, but I had to chime in my chorus of save the reefs because, like I said at the opening, it?s something we can?t quit promoting, ever, if we want to keep our hobby open and available for our lifetimes.