What does “sustainability” mean to us?
a) When we think of sustainability, we ask ourselves:
- Can it be done over very long periods of time in the same way with the same results without negatively impacting the subject practice or other processes?
- Does it have a very high yield, approaching 100% would be good, for if the yield is low, the impact on sustainability will be more stressful, and the carbon foot print is increased by yield losses?
- Does the process bring partners into sustainable practices? For example, are natives given economical and practical ways of investing in and maintaining sustainable hatching and growing practices?
- Can the practice improve sustainability in the subject practice and in other processes?
b) When we think of tank-raised or bred at SA, we think of disease-free healthy systems that can run long-term without use of copper, antibiotics or other systemic methods destructive to, or contrary to the methods used by the hobbyist.
This means if one is truly engaging in tank-raised or bred practices, one must be able to sustain healthy animals in healthy systems over a long term. Animals simply cannot survive long in systems that lack probiotic cultures and are being treated with copper or antibiotics or other systemics.
c) We have concluded that we are all engaged in “process” (I was trained as a process engineer in the semiconductor industry so I tend to think as a process engineer, which has been of great value to Matthew who while degreed in EEB, Molecular Biology and Marine Biology (and French) has been working more as a process engineer in biology) and this means one has to benchmark, and work towards definable measurable and constant process improvements. Whether it is tank raised or tank bred, there are measurable metrics on a continuum where process improvement should be achieved. So for instance in tank raised, we struggle with collectors and get in animals from post larval to pre reproductive, and we “raise” them to improve the process while we work with the collectors to optimize. In many cases we are re-educating collectors who have been collecting for 20 or more years.
How is Sustainable Aquatics engaging in and learning about sustainable practices?
1) We are traveling a lot, diving many remote locations and learning a lot. We have learned from travel and diving the ecology and geography of the Indo Pacific Oceans, and they are wondrous! For instance, once one travels in remote areas of the Indo Pacific away from development, where the land is more or less completely undeveloped, on sees in the density, diversity and health of the reefs that reef health is almost completely related to land development. In such areas the fecundity of the reef is shocking!
2) The current industry practice is to collect mature fish and bring them quickly to market. Most of the wholesalers are using systems being treated with copper or anti biotics or both and their goals is to move the fish as quickly as possible through the system before they die and get them to a retailer who moves them just as fast. The yield in this case is often 10% or less. We own the Coral Reef in Knoxville, and we bought it and operate it for years now for the sole purpose of learning. When we bought it we did business just as everyone else, but over time it taught us that we had to do the Sustainable Islands Project, and now our yields are very high, but we do run probiotic systems and supply them with SA and SI fish. So, in this case to promote the trade’s interest and promote the hobbyists success, the first thing we have to do is fix this problem. This is a major aim of SA and SI.
3) So the first level of tank-bred, means a 100% healthy fish, disease free, strong, eating prepared foods and completely prepared to transition to a social environment with the retail and hobbyists. In this sense SA runs probiotic systems and we do not treat our systems with systemics, we prepare their foods, which are full of really important ingredients, and we will begin marketing this hatchery feed later this month.
4) And the first level of tank raised is a fish that has lived in a probiotic system for an extended length of time, acclimated to a social environment, this almost always means large populations of various fish in the same tank eating prepared foods, socialized, adapted, healthy, and ready to adapt to the retail and hobbyists environment. In doing so we increase the yield and retail and hobbyists success by large margins. In most cases there are very significant increases in body mass during this grow out and socialization and acclimation period.
5) One rule we follow is to avoid collecting reproductively mature specimens. I attend the cod farming conference every year in February in Norway, as we hope someday to take our technology to such farming as well and I like to tell the story of the cod. When it is two years old it begins to reproduce, so at that point most of its energy goes to its gonads to fuel reproduction and if you are farming it is really time to harvest it. At that point it makes a few thousand eggs a year. When it is 15 years old it may make 15 million eggs a year. From post WWII through 1994 we took about 200 million tons of cod a year from the Western North Atlantic and the fishery has been closed since then, with no sign of restarting. We killed the brood stock! So we believe that the first level of work in sustainable tank raised is to collect post larval or juvenile fish and leave the brood stock completely alone. However, for the most part, the industry does not want such small fish and as we learn to collect smaller fish, we find that it takes various times to raise the fish. For instance last spring there was a drop of clown triggers and now 7 months later we are selling nice looking animals 3-4 inches long, it took that long to raise them. Blue tangs can take three to four months. Small damsels can take as little as a month! Some animals we have not been able to get in the earliest juvenile form yet, we get older juveniles, but still pre reproductive stage, and we are still working with the collectors, but we believe by keeping them for a month to six week and acclimating them to aquarium life in probiotic systems and teaching them to eat prepared foods we still increase yield and sustainability. The yellow tang from Hawaii is such an example.
6) Sustainability also means the folk doing the collector can sustain, by all the definitions above, and this means they make a living. For instance, we raise clown fish, and we do it as well or better than anyone we know of worldwide. Our costs are very attractive, our yields very high, disease free, it runs very well. However, we buy a certain amount of juvenile clown fish from the Indo Pacific and raise them as tank raised not tank bred, under the SI banner instead of the SA banner. One would wonder, why in the world is SA doing this?!!! Well, in most all cases I have been diving the range of the clown fish, which is an enormous range, extending from the east coast of Africa, up to Oman, the Gulf and Red Sea, north in the Indo Pacific to the far reaches of the Southern Oceans as far south as Lord Howe Island, one almost always finds a pair of bonded clowns in residence, but also a collection of juveniles in attendance around the anemone. The collection of these juveniles is easy and sustainable, they reappear all the time in short time if you leave all the reproductive pairs alone! So our collectors fill out their collection with a certain amount of juvenile clown fish and to keep them making a living we buy some of them, not many, but some. (We gently discourage it because we don’t “need” them, but some always come along!) So, taking care that the natives are making a sustainable living is important too!
7) Shipping smaller fish is very much a process improvement in sustainability in several ways:
- Smaller fish have very low survival rates on the reef compared to the reproductively mature animals;
- Smaller fish require much less water for shipping and have a much lower carbon foot print for shipping;
- Smaller animals have MUCH higher survival rates in shipping and acclimation;
- We are able to raise smaller fish with very high yields, often in the high 90% range from collection through shipment;
- Collecting smaller fish instead of reproductively mature animals assures that the brood stock remains in place, avoiding the cod story referenced above!
8 ) We are also working on sustainable coral farming. In this case we are setting up micro farms with dozens of native villages who are also collecting juvenile fish for us. We set up racks, provide them with masks, tools, expendables and identify and locate “broodstock” in suitable locations. This farming is done in situ in the reef areas and works really well. They use cement to make plugs, they cut very small frags and tie them down to the racks, grow them till ready to ship and ship them to us for us to finish growing in probiotic systems under lights as they will be in the hobbyists environment. This is very sustainable and we believe it works really well. Again, we could locate broodstock here, but then the economic value of the animals is taken from the natives and they have no economic interest in our sustainability processes. In this way we ask them to protect the ecosystem and “Farm” like this in a limited way and we promise to buy so many pieces from them a month and they can plan on income. The space required for these micro-farms is very small and believe it or not, these racks often attract schools of our juvenile fish.
9) One of the things that amuses us as professionals who have observed many species of clown fish in the wild is the subject of designer clowns. Except for those species in remote areas at the extremes of the range, for instance Oman, Lord Howe Island, Darwin, there are many species of clowns living together and interbreeding as a practice. Many of the designer clowns being raised are found in the wild, and we have just focused some breeding selection on these. We understand that 25,000 years ago, just before the sea starting rising at the end of the peak of the last ice age about 22,000 years ago, there might have been one common clown fish. As the sea rose populations were isolated as reefs were subsumed and the clown fish evolved in this isolation. In this perspective, we should recognize that most species on the reefs are evolving fairly rapidly, (one could call the dramatic rising of water levels in 21,000 years by 100 meters a kind of Stephen Jay Gould extinction event, that opened up the rapid evolution of so many clown and other speciation developments) and there is a great diversity.
10) A clown fish on the reef may not live so long and live only long enough to reproduce itself. In our environment they can live for decades and produce hundreds of thousands of successful offspring. This lack of genetic diversity is one of the strongest arguments against repopulating reefs with tank bred animals. So we do not see reintroduction as a viable plan nor do we believe we should put ourselves in such a place ever!
11) Another reason for our approach to tank raising fish, and focusing on yield, sustainable connection to practices and economic interest by the native, and collection and grow out of juvenile animals is that there are quite a number of animals we are not able to tank breed just yet and it could be a very long time before we do. We just do not have suitable live feeds of sufficiently small size to feed the larval species for the first few weeks! In such a case, improving sustainability by these practices could be a very important ecological measure to assure we do no harm, and still serve the markets responsibly.
So, to conclude, from our side:
i) Why do tank raised or bred? To make improvements in all aspects of the process, from reef to hobbyists tanks, create a strong industry based on sustainable practices in all aspects of the process and definition of sustainability, from reef management to hobbyists success.
ii) A major factor in sustainability is yield: if the yield is not very high, it is not sustainable. Look to the yield at every stage of the process.
iii) Sustainable also means sustainable for our business, the hobbyist’s loyalty and the retailer’s commercial success; so yield also means sustainable practices that constantly improve the processes and is sustainable profitably and makes the hobbyists a success.
iv) Protect the brood stock in nature at all costs;
v) Reduce the carbon foot print;
vi) Create an economic interest for natives who own and or control the ecosystem in sustainable practices, while recognizing that reef health may be more tied to what is happening above the beach than below;
vii) Do good and do no wrong!
I hope this is a helpful sharing of perspectives.