To paraphrase the old adage, you should find a job that you really enjoy doing and then every day going to work is a pleasure. Unfortunately for most of us this is not possible and many of us are content to simply find a vocation that will help us pay for our addiction. A lucky few take their passion for the hobby and do things like become shop owners, or marine biologists or professional reef bloggers. However, even among these few there is one who has taken his passion for the hobby and love for corals to the next level and he is for lack of a better term, Jason Fox is a professional coral aquaculturist, which is not to confuse him with a semi-professional coral fragger.
In fact to Jason, calling him a coral fragger are fighting words as he is not someone who just frags wild colonies of corals and sells the fragments. But a coral aquaculturist is a pretty much an apt description of what he does for a living. While traveling to Washington DC, to give a talk this past weekend I made a small detour to visit Jason’s new and improved fragging facility and see first-hand his new 700-gallon display tank. I had visited Jason’s home almost 2 years ago, and like most of us, Jason spent the last two years improving everything about systems. While his systems two years ago were impressive, his new revamped systems and especially his display tank is awe inspiring.
Jason has almost 2500 gallons of corals in a variety or tanks and vats throughout his basement/ coral farm. These include 3 x 220-gallon vats, a 400-gallon tank, a 120-gallon tank, 150-gallon cube, the new 700-gallon display tank, a 200-gallon upstairs display tank and a 110-gallon quarantine tank. Several of the vats and 2 of the display tanks are all connected to a 300 gallon sump. The other systems are separate, with the quarantine tank almost being in isolation off is a corner by itself to prevent there being any chance of anything new being brought in contaminating the other tanks and corals. The overall design, with the many interconnections may not look elegant, but it is not only efficient but it also is easy to maintain according to Jason, which is pretty much what we are all looking for in our tanks.
The first thing that strikes you after getting over how much water is moving around and the sound it makes when you enter the basement is just how many perfect brightly colored corals Jason is cultivating in these systems. But it is not the color and the variety that is impressive, it is that virtually every coral, whether small frag or large colony is in absolutely pristine condition. I looked in every tank, in every vat, and in every nook and cranny in these vats and tanks and amazingly there was no algae of any type anywhere, there were no dead or bleached spots on any of the corals.
In every tank, no matter the size or type of coral that Jason was keeping was an example of what pristine perfect corals could look like. I would love to tell you that Jason told me some secret recipe that contributes to his success, but after talking with him now over several hours and seeing his corals at numerous events and visiting his home twice I have actually figured out the three main things that are producing his success: good but not crazy intense lighting, strong to very strong water movement and very low fish loads with most of the fish being herbivores.
In terms of lighting, Jason uses a wide variety of lighting types on all of his tanks and with what looked to me like equal success. The only commonality among all of his tanks is that on each of them he uses blue ReefBrite strips to maximize the coloration of the corals, sorry Sanjay. On his newly set up 700 gallon display/mother colony tank he uses the ReefBrite LEDs along with Actinic t-5 lamps and 5 250-watt metal halides that he only runs for 6 hours each day.
He did not use 400 watt metal halides as he felt these produced too much light. Despite what some would consider a low amount of light the corals in this tank have shown both rapid growth and intense coloration in the approximately 5 months that is has been set up. Jason does not feed the corals in any of his tanks or vats, even those that contain few fish and he only feeds this tank once per week. Despite not feeding often the fish looked fat and happy and there was no algae visible anywhere that I could find.
Jason’s methodology seems to follow the reef keeper’s maxim: more fish = more trouble. On the other tanks and vats he runs everything from t-5s and halides to just LEDs. The corals in all of these tanks, regardless of the lighting all looked completely healthy and in perfect condition. I did ask if Jason saw any difference in the growth rates in of the corals in these tanks that might be attributable to the use of different lights and he said he did not see any noticeable difference. Since many of these tanks are interconnected and hence their water conditions are the same, it is fascinating to that the different means for lighting these tanks is not producing any discernible difference in the growth rates of the corals.
However, as in most tanks, Jason has some colonies and frags of the same coral mounted or placed in different spots in the tanks and vats and it is apparent that some of the same coral in different locations does produce not only different growth forms, but also different coloration, and in some instances this difference in coloration was significant. By the same token, I should also mention that some corals that came in as different “named” corals have morphed into other named corals. So coloration seems to work both ways in Jason’s large systems.
Now there are a lot of people now fragging corals for sale, so what makes what Jason is doing different? Unlike some entities who bring in wild colonies, frag them, glue them and ship them and if we are lucky grow them out until they encrust, virtually all of Jason’s corals started as frags. Even all of the 250 plus different corals now in Jason’s show tank all started out as frags that Jason grew out into colonies. Jason has now been keeping saltwater tanks for over 25 years and during that time he learned that the best friend a reefkeeper can have is patience.
As a result he does not bring in big colonies and hope that once he frags them that the frags will do well. Instead he brings in frags from the start, grows them out in captivity, refrags them and then distributes the second and third and nth generation frags. Jason has gone on several collecting trips to Indonesia and other Pacific Islands and when he comes back he brings back frags of some the most colorful corals he sees. Jason’s jovial personality and passion for this hobby has been picked up by the collectors in these locales as they have taken him to locations where few Americans have ever been.
Lucky for us, Jason has a keen eye for which sps corals in the wild may turn out to be the next Jason Fox flame acropora or Beach Bum Montipora, as unfortunately most coral collectors do not have any idea what we are looking for. And Jason does not just collect from the top 60 feet where the densest coral growth is occurring and the colors are already surreal. He also dives below this level. But this is just part of what he does. He also travels to remote islands in search of unique corals that have previously been collected.
Lastly he also goes through the many collecting vats where the corals are housed waiting for transport again with his blue flashlight picking out the most colorful corals. Needless to say this is a labor of love for Jason. I say that in that while going through the seemingly infinite number of corals he aquacultures he remembers each of their names as though they were his children, which to me was just as impressive as anything else I saw on this trip.
It would be easy for Jason to just stop there, but he also does a quarantine procedure for every frag he brings in, that to me is unprecedented. When he first bring in a frag, whether mounted or free, he immediately cuts off the base and re-glues it to a new base. He then dips it and then observes the water around the corals with the chamber sitting on a white towel. This allows him to observe is any pathogens have come off during the dip. He then rinses off the frag and places it in his quarantine tank. It then gets re-dipped numerous times over the next couple of weeks and observed as well. This plug remains in the quarantine tank for several months.
During this time Jason, cuts and remounts the frag at least a couple of times to make sure that absolutely no parasites or other pathogens make it to any of his grow out vats. On my wish list now are just the cutoff plugs that Jason throws away while he is making sure these corals are absolutely clean. Once they have gone through this and shown to be clean, only then does Jason place these “new” corals in his grow out systems. To say Jason is meticulous is kind of an understatement in that as he has gone through this procedure with the now over 2,000 different corals in his many systems. So I am completely confident that if I get a coral from Jason it is cleaner than any coral in the ocean.
If I had this many perfect corals in my house it would be very difficult for me to ever leave my tanks, but Jason can be found at frag swaps and the big reef events over 30 weekends per year. At most shows he will bring 150-200 frags of everything from his latest Montipora find to a unique chalice or colorful sps coral that no one else has seen. He’s also one of the first vendors to show off his corals under blue lights, which dramatically changes how we both view and buy our corals.
Jason is currently redoing his upstairs 200-gallon tank and he asked me what fish he should put in it. I gave him a list, but then told him the caveat that if he does put certain fish in they may eat his corals. His response was fast and succinct: then I just won’t add those fish. When I asked why his response was perfect for what he does: “I can’t put them in because I just love corals”.