New York Coral Farmer Serves Hobbyists and Scientists, Newsday.com, 07/16/06
By William Kates
DRYDEN, NY - In the middle of upstate New York, famous for its snowy winters and hundreds of miles from any tropical ocean, Steve Lowes is growing coral reefs in his basement.
The 41-year-old English-born Lowes is raising dozens of species of coral for his Web-based coral propagation business, Reef Encounters. He is one of a growing breed of coral farmer who have found a niche supporting the booming hobby of keeping aquariums, which in 2005 was a $6.9 billion market.
But Lowes says he is not only driven by profit, he is helping scientists learn more about coral and raising public awareness about a threatened species.
"It brings the ecosystem to life for people in a very effective way that's much more persuasive than reading about it in a book or looking at photographs," Lowes said.
Many people equate coral with the white rock used to adorn bathroom shelves. But coral are actually tiny, fragile animals called polyps. They are classified as either "hard coral" or "soft coral." It is the hard coral, in coexistence with tiny algae called zooxanthellae, that are the architects of the world's coral reefs. About 2,000 species of reef-building coral have been identified by scientists.
Coral reefs are typically found in the warm salt waters between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. They cover only about 1 percent of the earth's surface but their value to the world economy is projected at more than $300 billion as a food source, for tourism appeal and in reducing shoreline erosion.
Coral reefs, some millions of years old, are among the most diverse and productive ecosystems on the planet. However, coral is threatened worldwide because of disease, natural disasters, pollution, overharvesting and global warming.
Lowes, a chemist for a pharmaceutical company, began growing coral as a hobby more than a decade ago while living in the United Kingdom. In 2002, he turned his "addiction" into a business and became a professional coral farmer.
Lowes raises 50 species and sells about 200 animals a month to upstate New York hobbyists and wholesalers. Depending on the rarity of the species, they sell for anywhere from between $10 to $1,000 or more. He also helps install high-end reef aquarium systems, some of which can cost in excess of $30,000.
"In order to keep a reef aquarium, one has to be a physicist, chemist and biologist all at the same time," said Lowes, a scuba diver whose fascination with the sea began as a child watching Jacques Cousteau documentaries in the 1970s.
"There's something about life under the sea that attracts the human spirit. It starts with children. Look at the popularity of "Finding Nemo," "A Shark's Tale," even "SpongeBob SquarePants," said Lowes, who installed a 300-gallon reef system in The ScienCenter, an interactive science museum in nearby Ithaca, where he volunteers.
Home reef aquariums have been gaining popularity in the United States since the late 1980s, said Joe Yaillo, curator at Atlantis Marine World in Riverhead, N.Y., which features a 20,000-gallon tank with the nation's largest live coral reef exhibit.
"There was a small group of people at first, and the early attempts at growing didn't meet with great success. But reef keeping can become an obsession," Yaillo said.
Through trial and error, and assisted by Internet networking, reef aquarium enthusiasts have refined and improved their techniques, Yaillo said.
By growing coral for home aquariums, hobbyists are reducing the need to harvest wild coral, said Eric Borneman, a professor of coral reef biology at the University of Houston who has written extensively on coral.
"We're losing coral at an alarming rate, and the U.S. is the biggest consumer of wild coral," Borneman said.
Hobbyists have contributed significantly to the growing understanding of coral over the past 15 years, not only assisting scientists but also educating people about their diversity and symbiotic relationships, he said.
"As scientists, we often only get snapshots of the coral we study, whether in the wild or in the lab. Hobbyists are filling in the gaps by looking at coral every day, for much longer periods," Borneman said.
In New York, Lowes belongs to a loosely knit organization called the Upstate Reef Society with approximately 100 active members. Yaillo estimated there are more than 100 such groups across the United States.
Lowes' basement looks like a mad scientist's laboratory, with tens of thousands of dollars worth of lighting and filtration equipment hooked up to a 125-gallon aquarium and three large 100-gallon tanks.
Lowes propagates his coral by breaking off millimeter-sized fragments and growing them in the tanks. They grow to about two inches in six months, when they are ready for sale and shipment.
While its primary purpose is display, the aquarium also allows Lowes to study the interaction among the more than 60 species he keeps.
Investigating the ways corals' anti-fungal compounds could be useful to humans is one of many subjects Lowes is working on with Cornell University professor of ecology Drew Harvell. Lowes also is involved with Cornell scientists in studying the photosynthesis process in coral as part of an effort to develop improved lighting systems _ it bothers him that he must rely on fossil fuel to light and power his tanks.
"Steve and people like him make such an important contribution to our science," Harvell said. "There's so much we don't know about coral. The more information, the more perspectives, the greater our understanding will grow."
On the Net:
Reef Encounters, www.reef-encounters.com
Atlantis Marine World, www.atlantismarineworld.com