I like to think of myself as a progressive hobbyist. Despite being in the hobby for more than three decades, I always try to push myself to keep up on the state of the art in marine aquarium practice, and to incorporate the newest techniques into my aquarium systems wherever applicable. I’ve been around the block a few times and it takes something pretty different to completely enthrall me these days.
When I heard about Jake Adam’s “EcoReef Zero” concept last year, I immediately realized that this approach was philosophically unlike anything I had ever attempted before. This approach was developed to focus on creating an excellent environment for corals, providing them with everything that they needed to assure growth and health, and nothing that they didn’t, while keeping things as simple and uncomplicated as possible- aquatic minimalism, if you will.
While in principle the concept of the Zero Reef is ridiculously simple and fairly mundane, if you follow the history of modern “reefing” technique, it’s downright “revolutionary” from a philosophical standpoint. So much energy and effort has been expended in recent years attempting to keep corals in high biodiversity, multi-faceted “reef” systems that anything else seems on the surface to be almost heretical! I think a proper description for the approach would be something like “Minimal Diversity Coral Husbandry”. Jake calls it “Reduced Ecology Reefing”. It’s sort of the “anti-reef” approach, if you will.
The Zero Reef approach essentially distills coral keeping down to its most basic and simple elements, and utilizes minimal technology and energy to achieve success. The premise is simple: Do away with the unnecessary “distractions” of conventional reef aquaria- live rock, sandbeds, large fish populations, “cleanup crews”, extensive equipment, etc., and focus solely on the coral, with the bulk of the biomass in the system being contained in the coral tissue itself. What I only half-jokingly refer to as “revolutionary” is really the mindset you need to adapt- a reliance on your intuition, a trust in the most basic of skills as a marine aquarist. This differs from the modern convention significantly, because this philosophy really focuses on one element of marine aquarium keeping. While there is nothing “wrong” with traditional approaches, by their very nature, they tend to shift focus off of the true “stars” of the aquarium- the corals.
What you want in the Zero Reef approach are the beneficial bacterial populations to help break down metabolic waste products, without a huge diversity of other life form to burden the system in any way. In essence, what you’re looking at is a “Petri dish” for coral culture, or the equivalent of a flower in a vase – totally different than any other saltwater experience I’ve ever had. It is to a conventional reef aquarium what haute couture is to ready-to-wear clothing in the fashion industry: An individual, special aquarium conceived to experiment with simplified coral husbandry. It’s not “your father’s frag tank”. And, it has been pretty interesting from an aesthetic standpoint, too!
Setting up a Zero Reef was a radical change for me! Hell, I’m known for talking about aquascaping and biotope aquariums, for goodness sake! I LOVE fishes and I LOVE diversity! This was way out of my “aquatic comfort zone”. On the other hand, thinking about and embracing outside-the-box technique is what I’m all about. This approach is irresistible and it’s radically simple. So simple that you feel like you simply have to tweak something, add another piece of equipment, or add another procedure somewhere.
But you don’t.
And I was amazed at the initial, rather skeptical reactions of my co-workers- all very experienced reefers- when I first set up this aquarium: “That coral is dead in two weeks. TWO WEEKS!” or “Seriously, a reef with no live rock and sand?” My smart-ass response was, “It’s not a reef tank. It’s a coral tank.” By far, the favorite reaction from a co-worker was, “Why?”
Well, why not?
The Equipment- Off the shelf, and Outside the Box
For my “Zero Reef”, I decided to utilize a 4- gallon Eheim “Aquastyle” aquarium, with one side and the bottom painted flat black for aesthetics. My Eco Reef is located on my desk in my office, where I can enjoy it all day, every day! The aquarium is equipped with a simple internal filter with activated carbon, a sexy Fluval 25 watt heater (Can a heater be “sexy?” Yup!), and seven paltry watts of 6700K LED lighting that came with the “Aquastyle”. The setup of the system could not be easier. Literally pour water in the aquarium, plug everything in, and you’re under way. I did “marinate” the filter media by throwing it in a sump in a healthy, established aquarium to establish a nitrifying bacterial population, but that’s about it. The coral specimen is mounted on a single piece of slate.
Slate is used because the Eco Reef “philosophy” postulates that the porosity of live rock, coupled with the “on board” life that accompanies it, places an excessive burden on a system solely designed to grow coral, and thus detracts from the needs of the corals in the aquarium. Slate has minimal pore structure, primarily on the surface, and does not provide a matrix of nooks and crannies for detritus and nutrients to accumulate. It’s essentially inert, and has little, if any measurable impact on water parameters. Quite frankly, I could have just placed the coral right on the bottom of the aquarium, but the slate does provide a bit of aesthetic interest. I mean, I can’t totally depart from my principles, right?
Probably the most difficult decision of the whole project was deciding what coral to use to serve as the primary inhabitant for the aquarium. The candidate coral had to be one that is fleshy, voluminous, and can safely be placed in a system without sand or rocks. After much consideration, I decided upon a specimen of Green Bubble Coral (Plerogyra simplex) for my test subject.
The piece of coral was approximately 4 inches in length when I started the experiment. Bubble Coral has a reputation for being relatively easy to keep, yet it’s not without its challenges, too. Although Jake recommends Euphyllia, various Faviids, Wellsophyllia, and other corals for this type of system, I forged ahead with Bubble Coral for the simple reason that I like the way it looks!
I pondered the idea of creating a community of corals in the aquarium, but for my first foray into this approach, I kept the theme of ultimate simplicity and just used a single specimen of one species of coral. Future versions of this system will depart from this “monospecific” approach and house multiple specimens of coral, albeit those which are more or less “compatible” with each other.
It really doesn’t get any easier than this: I topped off for evaporation (mere ounces in this 4-gallon aquarium) as needed, and changed 100% of the water every Thursday. The maintenance process literally takes 5 minutes, and most of that is consumed by putting a towel around the aquarium so I don’t spill on my desk! I fed the coral small quantities of frozen mysis every Tuesday and Wednesday, or when I had chance. The coral’s feeding reaction was immediate- and impressive! This feeding schedule is consistent with the protocol that Jake and I discussed: Feed the coral a couple of days before a water change. This allows the coral to process and eliminate waste products during that time period, and for me to export as much of the metabolic waste as possible, as quickly as possible.
Being a habitual water changer and nutrient export fiend since my early days in the hobby has been a huge asset to me with this approach. Water changes are of critical importance, because they not only export metabolites from this system, but they “reset” the trace elements, minerals, etc. that the coral needs for long-term growth and health. I don’t dose anything, not do I test, which is another radical departure from my habits developed over the decades. Rather, I let the coral “talk” to me, and observe its health carefully. Despite my religious approach to water testing, I’ve long believed that corals will tell you when they are happy, and this approach has validated my belief. I can honestly say that I’ve never developed such an intimate “relationship” with an individual coral before!
Without the “distractions” of complex equipment, live rock, “cleanup crews”, fishes, etc., the focus has been solely on the needs of the coral. With light, food, and total trace element replenishment weekly, in theory, this system should sustain coral growth indefinitely, limited only by physical space. In theory, of course! Interestingly enough, I noticed a virtual “explosion” of tiny copepods in the aquarium after the first month. I believe that the copepods arrived in the aquarium attached to the very small fragment of rock that the coral skeleton was encrusted over, and multiplied rapidly in the absence of predators. I suppose “zero” diversity is virtually unobtainable, even in a system such as this- despite the “Zero” incorporated in the name. Hence, it’s more appropriate to attach the moniker of “Minimum Diversity” to the approach.
Did I experience any real problems maintaining my Zero Reef thus far? Well, yes and no! I have had had a minor algae issue, but it was a by-product of utilizing source water that was a bit sub par (expired RO/DI membranes). The problems subsided quickly (in one water change!) when the membrane and cartridge were replaced. An aquarium with minimal nutrient import and maximum export should grow very little nuisance algae, one would think. Thus far, this has been the case, although the system lets me know when it’s time for a water change by actually growing algae on the un-colonized glass surfaces.
By far the biggest challenge that I have faced with this system is mental: Resisting my natural reefer’s desire to “mess with it” and add more stuff to the aquarium. It took all of my discipline to stick to the plan and keep the aquarium population limited to just the single specimen of Bubble Coral!
Thus far, I can safely report that this is the easiest saltwater aquarium I’ve ever maintained. It’s not quite “set and forget”, but it’s darned close. Care is so easy- almost too easy, really, that I have to remind myself that this is a “legitimate” system. As far as the coral- it was not only more colorful and healthy than the day I added it to the aquarium- it increased in mass in a noticeable fashion…right up to the point where tragedy struck.
Upon returning from a speaking engagement, a water change was performed on the system with water that, unbeknownst to me, had a specific gravity of 1.030…and the result was predictably tragic. I lost my coral very quickly. Although tragic, I was able to take some small comfort that the coral’s untimely demise was not the result of any shortcomings in the methodology. Rather, it was the result of an external “operator error”. Shame on me for not testing the water that was prepared in advance. A very basic lesson re-learned, painfully.
What do you do when disaster strikes? You get back up, dust yourself off, and start over again. That’s exactly what I did, too! I began the search for my next coral subject for this project. Meanwhile, my girlfriend returned from a trip to Los Angeles with a package from wholesaler ERI. In it were several “Mini Maxi Carpet Anemones” (Stichodactyla tapetum) that were intended for another experiment.
However, until I located my next coral, I decided these might be interesting animals to focus on in the interim. I acclimated them carefully, and let them do their thing. So far, so good! They have displayed great color, a marked size increase, and the well-documented “social” aggregation behavior that these anemones are known for. In fact, one appears to be preparing to split, which is always a healthy sign with anemones.
Of course, with changes comes the opportunity to “tweak”. I recently acquired an Aqua Illumination “Nano” fixture, and immediately, the internal debate started.: “Do I use the upgraded lights on this system, or does it conflict the “use off the shelf” mentality I started the experiment with? On the other hand, giving the coral everything it needs includes the best lighting that I can use, right?” These are the things that haunt the mind of a true fish geek. I know you can relate. For now, I’ve just continued to forge ahead on the path I’ve started, using the components that I initially acquired for the system. It appears to be working fine. Besides, having a sexy new light system is just an excuse for another tank, right?
To the future
Sure, a system that’s been set up fairly recently cannot be hailed as a long-term success. The point of this piece was not to try to laud this experiment as such. Only a much longer period of time will prove that. It was intended to serve as a motivation to my fellow reefers to try experimenting with this type of “minimal diversity” setup. If a hardcore “traditionalist” reefer like me can do it, so can you! I encourage all reefers to experiment with this approach and see where it takes you. I am working on several more concept aquariums to test this approach, and each one will be unique and interesting in its own right. At some point, the goal is to “scale up” and try this approach on a much larger system. However, for now, the “nano” aquariums suit both the experiment and my busy lifestyle, so I’ll continue my work with them for a while.
Perhaps most satisfying to me is the daily banter that has arisen around my desk regarding this aquarium. Comments went from, “Is it dead yet?” to “Damn, that tank is looking good”. In fact, the best part is that now I’m hearing my colleagues say things like “I’m gonna get one of those tanks…” Being in the “aquatic inspiration” business, I couldn’t ask for more!
Recently, there have been some truly amazing applications of the “Minimal Diversity” philosophy. Just recently on these pages, we featured the awesome XBOX 360 aquarium by Blue World Aquariums, which is a gorgeous example of applying a cutting-edge aesthetic idea with the progressive methodology of the “Zero Reef”. Still another nano aquarium that embraces some aspects of this philosophy was recently featured on these very pages.
Sure, the Zero Reef approach is not the single best way to keep every coral or anemone, and every bare-bottomed, low-diversity aquarium that comes along is not to be enshrined as an affirmation that this is the best way to keep marine life. In fact, it may not work for some species. The point is, it’s worth investigating and experimenting with. It’s always a good thing to try new technique, new avenues. No matter how simple, or how elementary the approach seems. This approach has injected me with a new level of enthusiasm and interest for the corals that we all seem to find so endlessly fascinating. Its my sincere hope that you will open your mind to the process of experimentation, and share your results with fellow hobbyists as you take your first steps into previously uncharted territory.
Keep pushing the limits.
And stay wet.