The following article is a contribution from Mike Paletta to bring attention to an unspoken yet very important rule of reefing and sharing corals among friends, the Reefers Code.
I was lucky this year to be invited to give a talk at MACNA on the history of reef keeping. In addition to giving the talk and seeing all the new equipment and listening to all of the new information that was presented I also got to see many of my old friends, like Sanjay, Julian, Joe and Tony, many of whom I have known for 20 or more years through the hobby.
During our time together, we often discussed how much the hobby has changed and how there used to be an unwritten “Reefer’s Code”. It wasn’t formal, and it was more or less understood, but it went a long way in helping the hobby get to where it is today. In the 80’s and early 90’s when there were very few of us in the hobby, this code helped us to keep corals and reef tanks going even when disaster struck us, which in those days happened with alarming regularity.
The first part of the code involved sharing. We shared everything: corals, ideas, information, suppliers, anything that would help each other be successful. There were no secrets. In the beginning we were just happy to keep anything alive for a few months. So once we actually got things growing, we not only shared what we were doing with one another, but due to trial and error we even learned how to propagate our corals, and as a result we shared our these corals with one another.
The Reefer’s Code allowed us to keep anything that was hardy or colorful alive and in the hobby, so that if something unforeseen happened to our tanks we could always get it back from whoever we shared it with. At the time, we didn’t realize that what we were doing was selecting for corals that would tolerate the conditions in our tanks, while corals that did not tolerate these conditions would die. We did not frag everything as soon as there was a branch big enough to cut to make money, but rather to make sure that if it was a worthwhile coral it would become established in the hobby.
That’s why there are now some corals that have been around for 15+ years in the hobby. The code was if you had some nice corals you would frag them and trade them among your fellow hobbyists for some of their corals and in this way there was a bank of nice corals established. In a similar vein, whenever any of us would go out to speak for a club or society we would bring along some frags from our tanks and give them to the attendees and in return we would go and see the member’s tanks and they would frag stuff for us if we saw something we liked, even if it was the nicest coral in their tank. In this way, corals that were often unique to one area got spread all around the country.
I realize things are significantly different now, and the price of corals has increased exponentially, but as we discussed at MACNA, we attribute at least some of this to the code no longer being followed. These changes include not naming corals after yourself. I realize that this is now done so that the lineage of a coral can be established, but part of that is so that a higher price can be established for the coral.
Similarly, not every coral needs some superlative name attached to it. We understood that corals morph both in terms of coloration and form as a result of the tank they are in. Therefore what used to be done is that the genus and species of the coral were used along with a brief description of the color, ie. blue tenuis, red millepora, etc. I will not forget when Sanjay placed 4 different colored Acropora millepora in his tank and 6 months later they had all morphed into the same color.
It illustrates how futile placing non-informational names on a coral is. Similarly LED lights and photoshop weren’t around, so the color of a coral was rather simple to express when you were trading it. Despite there not being pictures a lot of the time for corals, when you traded or distributed frags you pretty much knew what you were getting and the code also dictated that you send frags at least an inch in size – we all knew that as you got smaller from that size the mortality rates increased dramatically.
In a similar vein, there was not the gold rush mentality when something new and colorful came in, and everyone wasn’t immediately trying to make money on every coral or fragment. I will never forget when one of the first deep magenta/purple Acroporas came in to New York, Tony Vargas and the late Greg Schiemer cut it into thirds and put the cut pieces into their tanks and shared the third to not only allow the beauty of this coral to be enjoyed by more than one of us, but also to make sure that once they got it growing they would be able to share it with others.
I realize it was also possible to do this because there weren’t that many hobbyists so you could share it, but also the goal then was to grow corals into large colonies, unlike today when most of the tanks I see house corals no bigger than a golf ball or in rare cases a baseball. The beauty of a nice-sized colony of Acropora, even a common monochromatic one, is being lost, as very few hobbyists have the patience to let their corals grow out into full colonies.
And patience is one of the other tenets of the code that also has been lost to a large extent. It was understood that a tank was not fully established until it was at least a year old, in part so that at least most of the bugs could be worked out of it. This patience allowed for testing and implementing new things gradually and fully to determine if something was worthwhile or not to do. Granted information now travels very quickly throughout the hobby, but so does misinformation. Only when things are given time can their full potential be realized.
Additionally, new things that are considered “hot” become the technique or product that must be used literally overnight, and as a result some things that have proven their worth over time are immediately discarded. In similar fashion “gurus” rise up quickly if they are the promoters of a new “hot” technology or technique. The code used to be that in order to have this kind of clout you also had to show your tank over time and how what you had changed or what you were doing new was making it better. Sadly this part of the code is also now not being followed as well.
The last part of the code that seems to be diminishing is that this is a hobby that is supposed to be fun and relaxing, rather than competitive and a means to make money. Over the past few years I have seen corals that used to sell for $50-$75 a colony go for $500 an inch. The competition to find the next most expensive invertebrate and cash in on it may help the few who can cash in, but in the long run will drive more hobbyists out or keep more from joining the hobby in the first place.
I fully understand that [certain aspects of] the hobby have become very expensive, but after talking with the other “old-timers” at MACNA, we feel that this is at least in part because the reefer’s code of sharing and having fun in this hobby is no longer being followed by a lot of our fellow hobbyists. Hopefully some of the newer hobbyists now joining our ranks will come to appreciate the tenants of the Reefer’s Code.