We may look back at 2010 as the year the marine aquarium hobby truly realized the importance of captive breeding and started doing something about it. I’ve just returned from speaking at Reef Ed, the annual educational event put on by the fine folks at the Marine Aquarium Society of Colorado (MASC). Of the five presentations given, three were strongly focused on the captive sexual propagation of the organisms we keep. That’s 60 percent of the “educational time” devoted specifically to breeding.
I gave both my well-worn “Introduction to Fish Breeding,” presentation as well as a discussing the husbandry and breeding of the Harlequin Filefish, Oxymonacanthus longirostris. The last presentation of the day by Eric Borneman highlighted both the dire conditions of Floridian and Bahaman reefs, but also how many of the corals we keep in captivity can already be easily propagated sexually at home, with truly minimal work.
Eric and others have been gaining traction and spreading the word that sexual reproduction in some corals, specifically brooders that release internally developed larvae, might already be easier to accomplish than breeding any marine fish. This isn’t even really “news” per say, as there was an entire issue of CORAL magazine that focused on sexual reproduction of corals back in 2006 (CORAL Volume 3 Number 4, August/September 2006). Clearly, it’s tough to get the word out that there’s more to coral propagation than fragging. Sometimes you have to see it for yourself to really understand.
It turns out that brooding corals can be so easy that by the end of the day’s events at Reef Ed, three larval Pocillopora damicornis were discovered in the holding tank used to demonstrate coral larval collection techniques. Potential ease aside, perhaps the most important benefit of sexual coral propagation is that it allows for diverse genetics. Frags are for all intents and purposes “clones.” A lack of genetic variation in our corals (because we mostly frag them) results in what you might consider a “monoculture,” both in our individual “coral farms” but also across captive populations as a whole. Unfortunately, there are certain big risks involved when every member of the population has exactly the same genetic makeup. Some of you might be more interested in the concept of producing hundreds of Pocillipora (or did anyone else there hear the genus Acanthestrea mentioned?) in the span of only several months or a couple years? Can you imagine breeding your own custom color strain of Bubble Tip Anemones?
Let’s not forget all the motile inverts we all keep. While not nearly as sexy as the fish and corals, they too form an integral part of our captive reefs. Invertebrate breeding was (relatively speaking) well represented at Reef Ed. In fact, outside of my own sporadic invertebrate offerings, I can’t really recall that I’ve ever seen captive breed invertebrates offered for sale at a frag swap. Farm Raised Tridacnas don’t count. I’ll tell you more about the two cool and “new-to-me” marine molluscs I picked up from breeders at the Reef Ed event in another installment. I have some new projects!
Overall, my perception of this shift in hobbyist focus, and the fact that it might be happening this year, comes on the heals of the mid-March Marine Aquarium Society of Michigan’s (MASM) Breeder’s Workshop. Matt Wittenrich gave a fresh, revealing presentation on what he calls the “Modern Breeder.” Matt’s insightful presentation gave structure and explanation to some of the things that hobbyist breeders have suspected and done, but not really known why they worked. The MASM event was truly a first of it’s kind as far as I am aware. This was a hobbyist-level event, put on by hobbyists for hobbyists, to focus specifically and exclusively on the sexual propagation (breeding) of the animals we keep. Turnout at the Breeder’s Workshop, by all accounts, was higher than expected. It will be interesting to see what the exceptional folks at MASM decide to do in 2011.
Let’s not forget the new Marine Breeding Initiative program (the MBI) that was also initialized by several board members of MASM as well as outside volunteers including Wittenrich and myself. It is hoped that the MBI service will be rolled out and made available to hobbyist groups around the world soon. I’ll be sure to fill you in on that as the project progresses.
Of course, no one should look at this shifting emphasis towards breeding and say “mission accomplished” like a certain ex-president. We all know how finished that project was when he made that claim. Today, 0ver 1,300 species of marine fish that we routinely keep have never been spawned and reared in captivity successfully. There are still 1,300 firsts out there for anyone who’d like to leave their mark on the hobby. Of course, one day soon we could also see the selective breeding of SPS corals to produce new strains and color forms (and while I’d personally discourage it, even hybrid corals). To accomplish as much as we can, hobbyists have to step up to the plate and try.
I’m forecasting that while we are currently way behind our freshwater brethren, we will see breeding become one of the main activities a marine hobbyist may undertake. We have a lot of catchup to do, especially when we compare ourselves to our freshwater counterparts, but we can also learn tremendous amounts from freshwater breeders as well as the aquaculture industry. There are valuable lessons we could and should learn, from from breeding communities outside the aquarium hobby, such as orchid breeders, reptile enthusiasts, even bird breeding. Most importantly, by being open to experiences from outside our immediate interest group, we can identify solutions to problems we don’t even realize we are having yet. While we probably won’t, we really should apply some of these well-established protocols from outside so we don’t waste our time reinventing the wheel.
Making the decision to actively promote marine breeding of all organisms at all levels is happening. We are going to see “breeding” become an increasingly visible and audible component of reef clubs and events. If your club or organization is putting having breeding related speakers or events, by all means please let me know so I can share them with the ReefBuilder’s audience! With seven months left to go, I’m excited to see what 2010 has in store for marine breeding!
[P. damicornis larvae photo via SECORE, Credit: Dominique Barthélémy]