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September/October 2007 Cover

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Send in the Clowns


Send in the Clowns
New business tests Maine's tropical waters

Soren Hansen
Søren Hansen

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Saving seahorses
Søren Hansen is developing cultivation methods for new species, including one of the fish world's more bizarre citizens: the seahorse.

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The neighbor kid. Your boss. The pizza delivery guy. Your high school science teacher. The chief of police. The eye doctor. They are the aquarists, the armchair ichthyologists. Fish-o-philes, if you will. And they are everywhere. Their involvement in the hobby ranges from quiet enthusiasm to fanatical obsession, and they support a billion-dollar industry that continues to grow with each sweep of the dip net.

America's fascination with fish tanks began in the mid-1800s, when colorful freshwater fish were sold as toys and kept in metal-framed glass boxes called vivariums. By the 1980s, the general know-how necessary to maintain marine fish became more widely available, setting the stage for the gorgeous reef tanks that have become popular today. Within the last decade, affordable new technologies have combined with an increased understanding of the biology of marine organisms, triggering exponential growth in the number of tropical aquarium enthusiasts.

At once hypnotic and thought provoking, aquariums are more than just colorful curiosities; they help to establish a connection to the Earth's watery habitats. Among aquarium enthusiasts, there is common concern for marine life. Most support conservation efforts for aquatic organisms, and many are outspoken advocates for the fish and other creatures they carefully maintain. But even as they work to build a balanced substitute for pool and reef, they may be inadvertently helping to destroy delicate natural habitats.

Like his fellow fish-o-philes, Søren Hansen's passion for aquarium fish stems from the respect and appreciation he has for the world's marine and freshwater ecosystems.

"I really never get tired of watching them, even though I'm around them every day," says Hansen, who is pursuing his doctorate in the University of Maine's School of Marine Sciences under the guidance of faculty adviser David Townsend. "People are always stopping by to see the fish — it's just something that people are drawn to."

Considering Hansen's fondness for fish (he has an undersea screensaver on his computer, even though he has dozens of tanks full of the real deal, right behind his workstation), he was understandably appalled when he learned the realities of the commercial ornamental fish trade as an undergrad.

"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 UMaine'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."

The project has grown considerably since Hansen and graduate student colleague Chad Callan first began exploring ideas for providing an environmentally sound alternative to wild-captured aquarium fish. These days, there are between 2,000 and 6,000 fish in the ARC grow-out system at any given time: brilliant-hued dottybacks, enigmatic seahorses, and the ever-entertaining clownfish. "Finding Nemo" is certainly not a problem at ARC.

But raising healthy, happy fish for tabletop tanks and office-mounted aquaria isn't as easy as Hansen and his team make it look. Working out the details of breeding, feeding and general care for each species can take months or even years, and the task requires considerable research and equipment, which has been funded by Townsend's grants, the School of Marine Sciences, and grants Hansen has received. Hansen and his team of undergraduate assistants constantly monitor their finny charges, making sure that water quality, temperature, space and food requirements are met.

The tiny fish larvae stage is arguably the most challenging in any aquaculture enterprise, and Hansen's tropical species were no exception. In addition to the considerable research required to determine the necessary environmental conditions for raising the microscopic fish, the zooplankton of the larvae's diet also had to be identified and cultured, a process that took more than three years.

The research is paying off. With the help of live-food technician Jacqueline Hunter and undergraduate aquaculture technician Natasha Hussey, the details of each species' particular needs have been hammered out and the fish are thriving. Hansen's spin-off company, Sea & Reef Aquaculture, is already filling orders for happy pet store owners across the country, providing young, healthy fish that are an environmentally sound alternative to their wild-caught counterparts.

"For the last few years, we have been raising clownfish, dottybacks and seahorses on a demonstration scale to show that it can be done," says Hansen as he sprinkled a special diet of pelletized food into a tank containing a churning school of hungry clownfish. "My current system is limited to producing about 1,000 fish per month, but when we go into full production, we will be able to produce a lot more."

Profits are promising, but Hansen is in it for more than just a job after college. Since the enterprise focuses on fish previously not developed for aquaculture, the opportunity for scientific discovery has been very high.

"These fish haven't been raised in captivity before, and for many of them, no one even knew what the larvae looked like, so there has been a lot of potential for research in the basic science related to these fish. What we are working with right now can be applied to a lot of other species. In addition to offering a safer, sustainable alternative for the pet trade, these techniques could also be used to restock wild populations that have become depleted due to overcollecting and habitat loss," Hansen says.

A number of UMaine undergraduates have been involved in research related to the project —from egg development to clownfish coloration —using fish and other resources housed at ARC.

As Hansen moves closer to completing his graduate degree, he is looking at ways to expand his existing business by not only increasing the scale of his production operation, but by adding more choices to his list of tank-raised pets.

"We plan to raise some of the more expensive and exclusive aquarium fish in addition to the species we already have, and we hope to provide other aquaculture products. We want to raise shrimp, bivalves, live food — anything you might need to stock and maintain a reef tank, with everything raised in culture instead of taken from the wild. The ultimate vision is to have a business that allows aquarium enthusiasts to feel good in the knowledge that what they are buying does not harm wild fish populations and the marine communities."

by David Munson
September-October, 2007

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