Coral Farming Catches On, Kennebec Journal, 02/12/07
By Doug Harlow
Source: Kennebec Journal
FAIRFIELD -- A maroon clownfish peers from the waving tentacles of a sea anemone, then quickly retreats, disappearing into a shimmer of live coral.
The sight is intoxicating -- a glimpse into the life of a tropical coral reef.
And it is all happening on a snowy back road in rural Maine and, along the way, is helping to save the wild coral reefs of the world.
"That's Nemo's cousin," Penny Harkins, owner of Aqua Corals, Reef Aquariums, said of the 3-inch fish with the gold stripe. "She keeps backing off because you're new. She's a little bit timid of you."
The scene is played out among the splendor of 60 saltwater aquariums at Harkins' business on Nyes Corner Drive, off U.S. Route 201.
Hard corals and soft corals share space in these glass worlds with exotic clams that fan out like iridescent purple flowers, sea horses and invertebrates that include shrimp, starfish and sea mats. Harkins says she has 200 varieties of coral, 70 of which are for sale.
Corals live in the shallow waters of warm tropical seas. They are listed in three classes.
n Soft coral, which do not build a stony skeletal base.
n Large polyp stonies, which build stony skeletons that become reefs, but have soft, fleshy-tissue tops.
n Small polyp stonies, which are over 90 percent calcium and are the real reef builders.
"Those are corals that are not only on display but they're parents to the babies I make -- I actually go in there and cut those," Harkins said.
Harkins said she binds the cut coral fragments to rocks or to hard, existing coral growths with toothpicks and rubber bands. Over time they attach their tissue to the rock and Harkins releases the bind and offers them for sale.
That practice, called fragging, she said, reduces the stress on the live harvesting of coral from the warm waters of the world.
Coral fragments, which Harkins calls her "livestock" are individually packed for shipping in plastic bags of system water and bound with rubber bands or metal clips. The bags are then placed in plastic foam boxes with heat packs, similar to charcoal hand warmers, taped to the lid top.
The box is then sealed with packing tape and shipped via overnight service.
"Packed in such a fashion the livestock can sustain 48 hours or more in their bags," she said. "The longer they are in the bag though, the lower the success rate."
Fragging is a method approved and encouraged by Reef Protection International, based in San Francisco.
As many as 2 million people worldwide keep marine aquariums, including roughly 800,000 American households, said Reef Protection International president Drew Weiner.
"There are still a lot of people unaware of the plight of coral reefs and how global warming and rising ocean temperatures are affecting them," Weiner said in a telephone interview. "They are living animals."
Weiner said aqua-trade practices of collecting live coral for sale worldwide are contributing to damage to coral reefs worldwide.
Captive breeding, he said, is offering some relief.
"It's a simple math equation. Anyone developing captive breeding of fish or coral, without extracting something from the wild, is reducing the stress on wild reefs," he said. "It reduces the collection pressure and when the supply is local, it is not hurting existing reefs."
With ample aquarium space and electric lighting, the sunrise and sunset of the warm waters off Indonesia, Sri Lanka or the Red Sea are recreated, providing a manmade setting for the fish to live and the coral to grow, Harkins said.
Water in the tanks is maintained at 78-80 degrees.
"The lowest form of animal life on the planet are these corals," she said. "They are actual tissue, not plant."
Corals attach themselves to rocks or to the calcium remains of other deceased corals, building up over years to form reefs. Some corals are shaped like exotic trees, others like fleshy mushrooms, still others like gnarly chunks of rock.
"They intake the calcium that's in the available ocean water and they use that to build their skeletons, just like our bones,"Harkins explains. "As they grow, they are depositing more and more. When they die, that stony skeleton is left and that's what the reef is made of."
Harkins, a marine aquarium hobbyist for about 15 years, said she got into serious aquarium sales about four years ago and recently completed her new store. Last year she did about $100,000 in sales, with customers all over New England and the world, via the Internet.
"It all started with a 15-gallon freshwater tank I had bought for my daughter almost 15 years ago," Harkins recalled. "While shopping in a pet store for more freshwater fish I saw my very first saltwater fish -- it was love at first sight. The vibrant colors, shapes and unique markings. The way they swam seemed like they were dancing."
Corals came next and over the years she said she got better at maintaining a system in which the creatures could grow.
"When I figured how to be successful, how to set these tanks up in a successful manner, the coral started to grow and thrive," she said. "In the ocean, they have a lot of space to grow.
"I had to intervene at some point; they started taking over the tank, competing with each other for space."
Harkins said she then taught herself how to cut the living coral for transplant into new tanks.
"Now I teach people how to do this," she said. "It's cutting them back like pruning a hedge," she said.
One of her customers, Jeanine Brown, of Sidney, said she shops at Aqua Corals exclusively because of the care and attention Harkins gives to her "babies."
"Before finding Aqua Corals, I shopped at local pet stores and online," Brown said. "Literally everything I purchased from these sources perished, sometimes dying overnight. After purchasing a new 72-gallon tank I found Penny, she patiently taught me the correct way to set up a reef tank. Penny has an extensive knowledge of what works and how to maintain healthy reefs."
Another customer, Dan Small, of Auburn, said he doesn't mind the long ride to Fairfield and he likes Harkins' practice of buying back baby corals from his own fragging activities.
"Ninety-five percent of my corals and fish come from Aqua Corals and I have not lost any corals. They are all growing very rapidly," Small said. "I see no difference between corals that are tank raised or wild -- they all are prospering very well in my tank.
enlarge Staff photo by Jim Evans
A freshly cut soft coral needs to be held in place until it can grow onto the rock and hold itself.
"We can all gain great comfort knowing tank-raised helps reduce the need for wild collection and therefore we're actually helping to save the reefs."
Tank-raised corals, fully attached to rock, average around $29 each, according to Harkins. Frags, or unmounted corals, start as low as $5 each and the price is determined by color, size and rarity of the coral. Corals with glowing "neon qualities" command a higher price.
"In the ocean most corals are shades of brown," she said.
"The next most common color is green, then shades of red, pink then blues. Some corals have neon qualities to their color which is brought out like a black light poster when just our blue bulbs are on.
"The colors just pop," she said.
Doug Harlow -- 861-9244