by Charles Steinfeld
MACNA 2016 has come and gone, and while thousands of attendees marched up and down the aisles breathing in the fresh air of the coming year, enjoying new products, new companies, new friendships and new partnerships something was different. The celebration of the end of the slow season and the beginning of the busy season is upon us. MACNA is a time for parties but these parties are not just because we haven’ seen each other in a year but they are celebrations of new methods and discoveries that will dictate the direction of the hobby for the coming year.
I have the privilege of working among some of the best and brightest in the industry and at these events I’m always left speechless and constantly re-thinking every bit of knowledge I’ve accumulated in 17 years of learning. Phenomenal speeches by Richard Pyle, Charles Delbeek, Richard Ross, Sanjay Joshi, Luiz Rocha, Matt Wandell, Joe Yaiullo (Aquarist of the Year!), and of course my good friend Austin LeFevre twisted my thinking and left me in awe but it made me sad that the rooms weren’t packed for each and every lecture. The stories and knowledge bombs that each of these people were dropping on their audience are worth any price of admittance. In each lecture my understanding of ocean life was questioned, and I thought about it: this is what our industry is about. Question everything you know and seek the answers to questions you haven’t even thought of yet. This provides the science behind our industry the power to understand life and keep it progressing into the future.
This year’s unofficial theme was the Twilight Zone and the Mesophotic Reef Environments. Many of the lectures were about these unique ecosystems, 250-500ft depths and dives that aren’t for the faint of heart, yet each one yielding so much information in just 15 minutes at depth. These dives crossed over into spectacular animal territory; if you like Anthias, Basslets, and Wrasse this is zone is dream territory. If you prefer Dendrophyllia, Gorgonians, or other Non-Photosynthetic Corals this is dream territory. If you just like learning about and seeing animals that no one has before, this is your dream territory. There’s something for everyone and it was all on display in San Diego.
Over the years, having worked at importers, I’ve seen a lot of amazing things, corals and fish that have sold for thousands to some of the most unique hybrids, the list goes on and on but nothing could compare me for what Brian Greene, Richard Pyle, Rufus Kimora, and Luiz Rocha have brought up from the depths. Animals that I’ve scoffed at; for example, Odontanthias borbonius when placed in the correct environment are truly exquisite, although mean, and the catalog of new species on display at the Steinhart Aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences was breathtaking. The planning that went into these exhibits was a journey in itself and the animals they have on display (many never before seen) left my jaw on the floor.
On display are animals that you may have heard of, Cirrhilabrus jordani (Flame Wrasse), Pseudanthias ventralis (Ventralis Anthias), Pseudanthias hawaiiness (Hawaiian Longfin Anthias), or Cirrhilabrus rosefascia (Rose band Wrasse). Joining this cast of characters are some animals you may not have heard of like Pseudanthias rubrizonatus (Red belted Anthias), Pseudanthias rubrolineatis (Red Stripe Anthias), or Cirrhilabrus earleri (Earl’s Fairy Wrasse). But they’ve selectively chosen the animals in each tank to best display with each other and interact as they would in the wild.
All of these animals are amazing but the academy outdid itself with three very special exhibits. The Benthic Ctenophore tank houses species that even the researchers at the Academy had never seen before. These animals, which kind of look like heart shaped blobs are seemingly just membrane and a feeding web are capable of eating meaty foods but are “easy” to keep and should provide the Academy ample opportunity to learn and potentially induce successful reproductive behavior. Bright Red blobs that can potentially be bred so that we can learn more about them? Yes please!
But the benthic ctenophores are joined by a fishy friend that dropped my jaw to the floor, I sat mesmerized for a sizeable amount of time by one of my Holy Grail fish, the Sacura speciosa. Not only did they have 1, but they had a pair. I’ve never seen a combination of colors on a fish that created so much intrigue and question. The male is a living rainbow, complete with a curious attitude that brings it front and center to those that view him in person. The female, although much less colorful still made her impression. These animals have seen thousands of people but they seemed to treat each one with the same intrigue, trying to figure out what we are. They had never seen a human being before the day they were caught and we haven’t seen many of them, [hopefully] each of us is left with a profound respect for one another.
What’s amazing about his experience is that Dr. Rocha, among others, are planning expeditions years down the line. Encouraged by what they’ve found so far, they can’t wait to get back down to bring us new species to fawn over. I personally can’t wait to see the next batch of animals that these great biologists can bring to our attention.
What does it all mean?
I’m sure that with all of this conversation about the California Academy of Sciences, it sounds like an infomercial about the aquarium. I take this time to emphasize the fact that they are founded in the same principles that every fish owner, and every pet owner should have: Understand your animals and cater to their needs, help them live a long and healthy life, it’s your responsibility. These biologists have a bigger budget than most of us but the principles are the same. Just like them it’s our responsibility to keep our pets alive. It’s your new pet’s right to survive and I’ve always said it in to my customers in 2 ways:
“We’ve taken these animals from the ocean, the least we can do is do everything in our power to keep them alive and happy, it’s our responsibility to.”
“To me, successful reef keeping doesn’t just entail the survival of the animals, but providing an environment in which they are so comfortable that they behave like they would in the wild, that should be our goal.”
As an experienced Reef Keeper I won’t stand on a high horse and look down on anyone. I’ve made my share of mistakes but so have you, so have all of the greats of our industry, of science. The difference between people is what they do about it. “Smart people learn from their mistakes, but brilliant people learn from the mistakes of others.” You have to decide what kind of ReefKeeper you want to be.
That brings up the most important question and the introspection that you need. Are you prepared to be a responsible “fish parent”?
We as a community have the technology to keep incredible animals and we, as a community understand many of these animals, and I don’t think that there’s a person out there that doesn’t mean well for them but we’ve all got to start thinking about the animals and not the price point. Sustainability and responsibility is not cheap now but it can become that way if we all buy in. “Deeper Level Reefers” i.e. those that have been around operate daily with this mentality and are helping to fix the holes in our wonderful hobby. Yet all of us do silly things like put a deepwater fish in a shallow water style environment or put coral eaters in with corals with no way to mitigate predation. Calculated and well-informed introductions are not what I take issue with, purchasing animals on impulse without fully understanding the ramifications is what has lasting effects.
My experience at MACNA, thanks to all of my colleagues and friends, left me wanting to reach out to everyone in the hobby, present and future to reiterate a few basic principles. I wanted to remind you why you got into the hobby. No-one gets into it to kill any animals, it was to bring these amazing ecosystems into your homes and keep them healthy and alive for years. On a retail level I’d prefer to say “No I won’t sell you that fish because it’s unfair to the animal and you don’t have the capability of providing it the correct environment for long term success” but have had to change the narrative at times to “No I won’t sell you that fish because I don’t want you to waste your money.” This is what drives the Deep Level Reefers crazy.
We must think of a couple of major principles: 1) Understand what you’re getting BEFORE you receive it and 2) Do everything you can to house these animals in an environment as close to their natural environment as you can, or don’t have them**.
**this is important for novice reefers, there are always people who can house animals like Non-Photosynthetic corals in reef tanks but the important thing is that they’ve taken the animal’s limitations and specializations into consideration before purchase and done everything they can to mitigate potential negative outcomes associated with their introduction.
I’m not saying that Biotopes, Species or Area Specific Environments are the only answer but I am making the argument for the following 5 General Concentrations to be thought about before each inhabitant is purchased or put in any aquarium. Some of them are no-brainers but some of them don’t have the emphasis placed on them that they should.
Dietary Considerations – Probably one of the most underrated parts of aquariums
3. Socially Acclimate your animals--- Thanks for making a point of this Austin
Now this list can probably go on for 20 pages but I wanted to hit some major concepts and bullet points for the sake of argument. A lot of it goes back to the same principles: know what you’re getting into before you get there, don’t get lazy, and treat the animals with the same respect you would a person. Don’t let yourself get into a compromised position because of an impulse buy. When I worked retail (and wholesale for that matter) I told people “no” all the time when the customer was trying to purchase something I didn’t think they were able to properly care for. If you’ve never heard this at your Local Fish Store, it may be time to consider finding another trusted source for your animals.
MACNA reinforces this mentality in the Deeper Level Reefers and brings thousands of novices into this group. Seeing so many people dedicated to the expansion of our hobby and responsible reef keeping is what is going to keep us going strong forever. If we as a hobby can support the science, the science will support us, and we’ll be able to act together when threats arise against our hobby. The biggest thing we, as hobbyists, need to do is act responsibly and support a sustainable mentality. Bring the same mentality that we have towards our other pets into our fish tanks and truly show these animals that a life in captivity isn’t just some water in-between 5 panes of glass, it’s a new lease on life with no predators that will fool them into thinking they’re in the wild, it’s our responsibility.
A big thank you goes out to all of the hobbyists and reefers that I’ve interacted with over the years. To my friends in the industry and the people who’s books I read growing up and that I interact with daily. Julian Sprung, Austin LeFevre, Luiz Rocha, Lemon TYK, Joe Yaiullo, Jake Adams, Ret Talbot, and of course Mr. Afishianado himself, Richard Back and everyone else I’ve worked with, Thank you for inspiring me to write my first article.
We will get a group of dedicated writers that will share ideas, product reviews and thoughts.