A quiet Midwestern dynasty spanning two decades is coming to a close. After 21 years as a commercial ornamental marine fish hatchery operator, Joe Lichtenbert, proprietor of Reef Propagations, Inc., is hanging up the nets.
I first became aware of Joe Lichtenbert when I was a teenager, maybe only four to six years into my marine aquarium hobby. In the fledgling Chicagoland Marine Aquarium Society, I heard rumors of “some guy out in Schaumburg breeding clownfish in his basement.” It would be at least another 15 years or more before I met the man who, until then, remained “some guy in a basement,” a silent anomaly in Chicago’s suburbia.
Perhaps that is typical of the man I’ve come to know, respect and call my friend. Joe Lichtenbert has never sought out the spotlight, but every once in a while you’ll come across a mention, an attribution. No, Joe Lichtenbert is perhaps better thought of as a craftsman or a skilled artisan, who quietly plies his trade in relative solitude, honing his skills and leaving his mark in ways we don’t immediately perceive.
Joe began keeping marine fish in 1979, and a decade later the one-man operation he founded, Reef Propagations, Inc. was born. I asked Joe how he convinced his wife Linda to let him do this. Joe basically said, “It’s like telling someone you’re going to walk to the moon. They simply say OK.” What most of us now take for granted and think of as easy was no small feat back in those days. It’s amazing to think that it took Joe three spawns to have his first Ocellaris Clownfish hatch, and a full 25 spawns before the first 13 juvenile clownfish made it to settlement.
Over the next 21 years, Reef Propagations, Inc. would produce 14 different species, and sell 230,000 fish out of a typical basement, with gross sales of over $900,000. For almost the entirety of RPIs existence, the entire customer base consisted of only two to four wholesalers. This is one of the many reasons RPI stayed below the radar. Many people have kept clownfish reared by RPI and never known it. Joe states that RPI was the first and possibly still one of the few, if not only, truly profitable marine ornamental hatcheries in the business.
RPI may also now be the second-longest running marine aquarium fish hatchery in the world, the only one lasting longer being the still-operational C-Quest. With such a long track record and history, RPI definitely makes the case for “mom and pop” style, small-scale aquaculture projects. However, if you ask Joe his greatest accomplishment in the basement hatchery, he will invariably get around to saying, “Beating Mother Nature.” That is to say, producing far more offspring than would have ever happened in the wild — all 230,000 of them!
When asked why retire, Joe is quick to cite all the standard reasons any of us might retire and frankly I think he’s been musing about it for a few years now but hasn’t been rushing towards it. Quite simply, Joe felt it is time to do something different. When prodded for a more specific answer, Joe retorts with a reason that any aquarist will readily understand and envy, it is “time to TRAVEL!”
The simple truth is that in the past decade, Joe really has never been away from his basement for more than a day — a trip beyond a few hours requires careful planning when there’s 10,000 mouths back home waiting for food. Besides these reasons, the man who may well be famous for saying “you can never raise too many clownfish,” also saw a shifting market where the old rules of demand were changing as a result of the current economic downturn. Don’t take that to mean that Joe is soured on marine ornamental aquaculture — far from it.
Joe’s advice to the upstarts who will soon fill the void he leaves is a simple two-part recipe for success in the future. Ingredient number one is yields — you simply cannot make money if you don’t maximize the productivity of each spawn because it is the easiest way to reduce per-fish costs. The second ingredient is more general, yet timeless and meaningful as ever — focus on customer service. Joe is quick to add that he was able to compete against lower prices and operate with such a narrow customer base as a direct result of superior customer service (and I’ll add that based on his anecdotes, a fair amount of integrity).
It’s sad for me to think the inspiring basement hatchery of RPI, a great source of pride for the Chicago marine aquarium community, will soon be gone as Joe winds down the operation over the remainder of 2010. However, Joe has left his mark, be it as an author in CORAL Magazine, a speaker at IMAC and other conventions, or an editor of Frank Hoff’s book “Conditioning, Spawning and Rearing of Fish with Emphasis on Marine Clownfish.” Perhaps quite telling is the long list of people who Joe holds in high esteem, and who just as much so hold him in the same high regard.
Most importantly though, Joe didn’t inspire the masses by seeking the spotlight. Far more often, you’ll find a “pers. comm.” reference or a forum post talking about a phone call or a visit to a basement while in Chicago.
But perhaps the most subtle mark is one you’ll never be able to trace. That pair of captive bred Clownfish you bought that didn’t come with a brand name attached might well have been born in some guy’s basement. Even Joe’s 21-year-old pair of Tomato Clownfish lives on, destined for the tank of another breeder and still producing nests like clockwork. Joe’s fish will keep breeding even after RPI is gone — if that isn’t a legacy, I don’t know what is.
Hopefully, amidst travel and taking classes, Joe will continue to find ways to quietly contribute to the hobby and industry that made up such a fundamental part of his life for so very long.
Please join me in wishing Joe Lichtenbert a well-deserved, fulfilling and long-lasting retirement. Please also join me in thanking Joe’s gracious and charming wife Linda, who 20-plus years ago said “OK” and put it in writing that Joe could take off on an endeavor that hopefully inspires many to follow.