Breeding marines: a success story

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Travels with your fish
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A graduate in America has succeeded where most other marine labs have failed by making a successful business from breeding tropical marine fish from eggs produced in captivity.

Where many companies only sell wild-caught marine fish, Soren Hansen a University of Maine graduate student runs 'Sea and reef Aquaculture' a company which sells captive-bred tropical marine fish to pet stores around the country. Among the fish he breeds are Tomato clownfish and the Maine Blizzard clownfish (pictured).

The whole enterprise started 10 years ago when Soren decided together with a fellow student Chad Callen that he wanted to overcome pressures on wild marine fish by breeding captive bred ones. He was told that the weather in Maine was too cold but managed to prove people wrong when he bred 400 Tomato clownfish in an aquarium he kept in a wardrobe, feeding them on zooplankton grown in another closet.

"Ninety-five percent of the fish you find in the pet store are wild-caught," says Hansen as he inspects the health of some iridescent Purple dottybacks in one of the huge culture tanks at Maine's Aquaculture Research Center (ARC). "One of the primary collection methods involves divers who use squirt bottles full of sodium cyanide to poison the fish in the cracks and crevasses where they hide so that they can be collected. This is incredibly stressful to the fish, and can damage the health of the fish being collected and the other creatures on the reef as well. (Our) whole project started as a possible way to solve the problems caused by traditional wild-capture methods.

Hansen studied the life history of the fish from egg through to adult and found suitable live food which needs to be smaller than the larvae. He now sells 14,000 fish a year of 14 different species. This includes dottybacks and seahorses as well as a number of exclusive hybrids such as the aforementioned Maine Blizzard clownfish and the “Mocha” clownfish, (a cross of a regular ocellaris clownfish (Amphiprion ocellaris) and the Black or Darwin variation of ocellaris).

Flame angels next?

He has been given various grants including one of $200,000 to extend his lab to a 12,000 square foot facility and another to develop a new type of captive-bred live prey to feed Flame angelfish, Centropyge loricula. Much of the details are a trade secret, but Hansen said that the prey is found in the ocean and reproduces faster than food sources developed by others working with pelagic spawners. He has also done studies on angelfish larval development and believes that within one to two years, he will have developed his first generation of pelagic spawners. Pelagic spawning fish have never been bred in large quantities before so Hansen hopes he will be one of the first to do so.

Vance Peters, owner of Vance’s Tropical Fish in Bucksport, Maine, was among Hansen’s earliest customers. In more than 20 years in the business, Peters says, he was often disappointed with the fish caught in the wild that he got from other companies.

"Whenever we’d bring in wild clownfish, many of them would get sick, and no matter what we did, they would die," Peters said. "But we’ve never lost a single fish that came from Soren’s company."