Recently I became involved in something I hadn’t done for a long time: helping a total newbie set up his first reef tank. Initially he wanted to set up a 300-gallon reef, but after we came up with the list of equipment and budget and he realized that the cost was close to that of a new car, he decided to downsize and we began looking at a 150-180 gallon system.
Even at that the price of setting this up was still in the neighborhood of $8,000-10,000. This kind of amazed me, as I hadn’t set up a new tank from scratch in some time, so I hadn’t really realized how expensive things had gotten. I don’t want to sound like one of those old geezers, I know I probably am, but I remember helping set up a 90-gallon tank not that long ago for around $800. Needless to say, this got me thinking about how high the price had become for getting into the hobby. Initially all I could see was the bad aspect of this, but after thinking for a while I also realized that there is probably some good to this as well.
The bad part is obvious, the high cost is keeping some potential hobbyists out, especially young hobbyists and virtually all kids, which could be problematic for the hobby down the line. I say this as most of us that are in the hobby today, started in our teens or twenties, and while I can’t speak for everyone, I don’t remember having an extra $10K floating around in my 20s to set up a tank. So I worry that at some point the hobby will not only run out of younger reefers, but also price itself out of the realm of many hobbyists.
However, the expense of having a reef really hasn’t caused this to happen. I say this as last year I was at MACNA, Reefapalooza, and at several club meetings and at all of these events attendance was at all-time highs and in speaking with a lot of the people at these meetings it was clear that a large percentage of them were relatively new to the hobby. So if the cost of getting started was keeping people out of the hobby I wasn’t seeing it.
In addition to these big events I am also seeing more and more successful frag swaps. Last weekend I went to the annual frag swap in Strongsville Ohio. I had been to it four years ago and there were around 100 people at it then. This year the attendance was at least four times that. So it is not just the big events that show more and more people are getting into the hobby, even the smaller events show this.
So I wondered why, despite the high initial cost, are so many hobbyists getting into reefing now? The obvious answer is that people in the hobby now are experiencing unprecedented success. At no time in the hobby have we been so successful at keeping so many animals alive for so long. No longer is the hobby driven by the mind set of sell it before it dies, or I hope I can keep this alive for a week or a month.
Now the mindset is I hope this thing doesn’t overgrow my tank. As a result of this success, the collectors and suppliers are constantly trying to bring in new and ever more exotic fish and corals. This is occurring not only from locations that were never collected from before, but also from depths that were previously never collected from. They are doing this because they can now recoup the cost of going to these exotic locales or previously dangerous depths to bring ever more interesting and more expensive things.
This high cost of fish and corals has also helped to foster this success. The reason for this is simple: more expensive things have more value. As a result, people are more inclined to take the time to learn about their charges and to take the steps necessary to keep these expensive animals alive. Think of it this way, if you were given $15 and $500 coral frags, which one would you make sure of got the best treatment? Obviously the most expensive one.
That is what is happening now as a result of the high cost of the hobby, everything is getting treated better. Everyone is making sure that their animals get the best care. No longer is anyone walking into a store or going online and getting a tank, light, skimmer, bag of salt and some coral and a couple of fish. That may sound funny, but when the hobby was really inexpensive that used to happen far more than we would like to admit.
Just as the high cost is helping to push everyone to be better at the hobby, this is also making the reefs themselves more valuable. The increased success in the hobby has led to increased demand for fish and corals. As the law of supply and demand dictates as demand increases so too does the price for the items in greatest demand. As a result, there is now a much greater financial incentive for the people near the reefs to keep the reefs alive and vibrant.
When there was little or no incentive to do this dynamite and cyanide fishing were much more prominent and problematic. Now that the corals have value as well as many of the small fish and invertebrates near them, that previously had little value to the fishermen, these practices are seen less and less. While the men still work collecting fish for the hobby in many villages it is the women who do much of the mariculture work with the corals. As a result the increased expense of the hobby now enables more and more people to share in this increased spending in the hobby.
Lastly, the high cost of the hobby is having another effect: increased innovation. Since hobbyists have shown a willingness to spend money on products that have value despite a high initial price tag, many companies and individuals are showing a willingness to bring more innovative and at times more expensive products to market. I can honestly say that most of the products available today are significantly better than anything we had 20 years ago, and most are exponentially better. If the hobby wasn’t “expensive” many of these products probably would not have ever come to market.
I agree that the cost of getting into the hobby is high, but this high cost has also led to many of us realizing how valuable our animals really are and as a result we now learn more about them and take better care of them than we ever did before. As I write this I am looking at my own 300 gallon tank and I can see five corals that I have now had for over a dozen years and three fish that I have had for more than ten.
The high cost of the hobby has enabled me to keep them this long by forcing me to be a better hobbyist. As a result, if you look at the cost of them per year it probably less than $10 each. So maybe the price of being in the hobby is not that bad.