Making “Blue” Choices When Stocking A Reef Tank

As consumers, we have the unique opportunity to shape the market in which our hobby exists.

The Orange Clownfish is also known as the Percula Clownfish ( Amphiprion percula ). Via CrisisRose/Wikipedia

Planet Earth may be a bit of a misnomer. Planet Ocean would be a much more accurate description of the blue marble we call home. Approximately three-fourths of our world is covered in water and 96% of it is saltwater. On average, the ocean is several thousand feet deep with its deepest point at 6.8 miles (36,707 ft) in the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific Ocean, and contains about 3.1 x 1020 or 310 million trillion gallons of saltwater. That almost incomprehensible volume of water is overflowing with an equally unbelievable amount of biodiversity.

There are more than 15,000 identified species of marine fish, 6,000 known species of corals, and at least 180,000 species of other marine invertebrates, with more being discovered all the time. As marine aquarists we are only exposed to a tiny percentage of these amazing animals, but they represent to us the opportunity to personally connect with the beautiful creatures that inhabit the alien world that exists just beneath the waves. In caring for and breeding the marine species available to us, we are able to maintain our own ocean microcosms by learning about the life histories and requirements of animals we would never normally be exposed to, making our hobby a conduit of information with the potential to promote marine education and drive worldwide ocean conservation initiatives. But only if we make the right choices, and we have a lot of choices to make.

As consumers, we have the unique opportunity to shape the market in which our hobby exists. We choose which equipment to buy, which animals to purchase, and which stores to support with our money. While the plasticity of a market is a positive trait, this purchasing power presents us with a bit of a caveat: the marine aquarium market responds to the choices we make with our wallets whether those choices are positive or negative. Being a conscientious consumer is imperative if we want our hobby to flourish, and in order to make good decisions we have to be educated. An educated consumer knows what his/her buying options are before making a purchase and knows what questions to ask in order to make an informed decision. The rest of this article will address exactly what you need to know and why.

As easy and fun as impulse buying in a LFS can be, it is generally disadvantageous for both the animal and the aquarist. “Understanding the beast” so to speak is an important first step in acquiring a new tank inhabitant. You may want a Naso tang but only have a 55g aquarium, so doing some research and finding a different lively mid-water fish that would better suit your system is a must. Making sure that the animals you buy will have a comfortable habitat that provides them with the proper space requirements is essential to having a healthy and thriving home aquarium. Once a choice is made to buy, for example, a percula clownfish, the real decisions begin to present themselves. Designer or wild type? What color morph do you want? How much money do you want to spend? Online or LFS? Wild caught, tank raised, or captive bred? Anemone or no anemone? All the options can be more than a bit overwhelming, so let’s just talk about a few that can apply to any fish or coral purchase.

Budget is an important issue and will likely shape your other decisions. We all want to spend $150 on that big beautiful Euphyllia colony, but the majority of us will settle on something smaller and probably less satisfying, but more reasonable for our pocket books. It’s important to figure out what you can spend before you spend it so that you’re neither disappointed nor overwhelmed by what you wind up buying. This is particularly true of LFS shopping trips because it’s easy to get overly enthusiastic about the livestock and justify your spending as an exciting and well-deserved impulse buy.  It’s best to resist doing this as it leads to price-driven buyers remorse and worse yet, the acquisition of animals we cannot properly care for long term.

Once the animal has been chosen and the price bracket has been established, it’s time to get into the specifics: wild caught, tank raised, or captive bred. Wild caught obviously refers to animals that have been captured in the wild and brought into captivity, but the other two terms are a bit more ambiguous.  Tank raised means that eggs or larvae have been collected from the wild and raised in captivity, as opposed to captive/tank bred which refers to animals that have been reared from egg to adult in a captive environment. The animals that are most likely to thrive in our home aquariums are those that are already used to that environment, so tank bred animals are preferable for most of us, followed by tank raised organisms.

On the other end of the spectrum, wild caught animals have not been conditioned to aquarium life and should be quarantined before addition to your main system to minimize the potential for disease transfer to the existing population. Upon initial consideration, captive bred seems like the obvious way to go because the fish are hardier and collection pressure is reduced in wild populations, but at further examination that choice is not so clear-cut. Many of the less common species are not even currently available by any means other than wild collection, and sustainable harvesting can often have an extremely positive impact on indigenous people who make a living capturing aquarium animals while being given a strong reason to protect that environment for the future. This exact topic will be the focus of my next piece.

Alex Rose is a biologist (BS and MS Biology), diver (PADI Divemaster), musician, underwater photographer, and lover of all things aquatic. Her driving goal is to find ways to protect our world’s coral reefs through diving, writing, education, and the establishment of a sustainable marine aquarium trade.

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Fish · Reef Tanks