Despite how long reefkeeping has been a hobby, few individuals realize what reef animals go through to get to us or even where many of them come from. Fortunately I was able to not only visit the reefs of Fiji, where many of the corals in our tanks comes from, but I was also able to go out with the collectors and observe first hand how corals, fish and live rock are collected and removed from the reef and then transported to the exporter. In addition, I was able to see these corals in the collecting station while they were being held for transport. I then also saw them at the wholesalers from where they were shipped directly to a hobbyist to be placed in his 3500-gallon reef tank.
Seeing this entire process from end to end allowed me to view and understand the different aspects of collection that are probably not readily apparent to many hobbyists. Having observed this process, now gives me a somewhat unique appreciation for what it takes for a coral to make it to a hobbyist’s tank successfully.
The Reefs of Fiji
Fiji is comprised of 332 islands, virtually all of which have some type of reef around them or near them. In addition, much of this area is surrounded by a huge barrier reef that reduces the current and waves around these islands. As a result, diving is relatively easy and not overly strenuous. The reefs themselves are not restricted are not restricted to being only near the islands themselves, but they abound between the islands as well. As a result, there are literally thousands of reefs and thousands of actual square miles of reef around Fiji. For this reason it is very unlikely that enough corals will be removed from these reefs to have any significant on the coral population.
Unfortunately, while harvesting seemingly had little impact, there were significant other things having an impact. First, within some, but not all reefs, and we visited over a dozen; there were signs of significant bleaching on some of the colonies. The bleaching was seemingly random and appeared on just about all types of coral including massive Porites and Pavona colonies as well as both staghorn and table Acroporas. This bleaching was probably the result of the water temperature being slightly warmer than normal 76-78 degrees F for that time of year, Southern Hemisphere winter. We also noted that there was very little current and our collecting colleagues confirmed that the water was much calmer than normal. Our dive master also told us that the wind had been fairly calm for the last several months and this undoubtedly was contributing to the bleaching as well. As has been noted in several papers, low water motion accompanied by warm water temperatures seems to be critical for causing coral bleaching, even more so that when just warmer water is present. Hopefully the winds will pick up soon to help reduce the likelihood of a major bleaching event should the water temperature remain high.
The other cause for much of the damage we found on some reefs was the presence of a large number of Crown-of-Thorns starfish. These animals have long been reported as very destructive inhabitants of the Great Barrier Reef, but seeing the damage a single individual could produce on a section of reef in Fiji was quite depressing. On at least three occasions, we observed these starfish hiding under overhangs during the day. Their large size, often over 18 inches across, kept them from being able to hide completely. What gave them away, was that in areas of the reef where they were present, all of the corals within 10-20 feet of their lair were completely dead and bleached bright white. They had all been consumed by these ugly beasts. Unfortunately there was little we could do to remove them, since their poisonous spines kept us from being able to remove or kill them. Hopefully with new methods for reproducing mollusks on a large scale being developed all the time, some individual will mass-produce Tritons, the natural enemy of the Crown-of-Thorns, to keep their populations in check.
In Fiji, as in most locations where corals are harvested, only locals do the collection process. Fiji, however, has somewhat different rules. First, each village in Fiji “owns” certain reefs. That is, in these reefs only individuals from their selected villages are able to harvest fish or corals from this reef. Furthermore, each of these villages has a chief, and this chief helps to determine who can harvest and how much can be taken. For this reason, there is at least some attempt to keep a reef from being over fished or over harvested.
The collectors themselves are all young men in their late teens or early twenties. To say they are physically fit is a gross understatement. They make 200-300 fifteen to twenty foot dives per day six days a week. For this reason there are virtually no old collectors. The only equipment used by these collectors was cut off wet suits, fins, mask and snorkel and a large hammer and large screwdriver with the plastic top removed. This screwdriver was used like large chisel with a grip for chipping the corals off their bases. The ability of these divers to use this tool to precisely cut away a coral in thirty feet of water while holding their breadth was amazing to watch.
The collectors and collecting process is relatively little changed over the past fifteen years that corals have been harvested for the hobby. Unlike most commercial terrestrial harvesting that is high tech and uses big machines, the harvesting of corals remains relatively simple. The collectors go out to the desired reef in a shallow boat equipped with only an outboard motor early n the morning to begin collecting. The only modern equipment they have is the cell phone, which they use if there is a problem or to rendezvous with their colleagues. Having observed them communicating to set up a meeting with another boat on several occasions, we were amazed to have the two boats always meet at precisely the right coordinates, which to us looked like another spot on the featureless ocean. To the Fijian collectors, each reef is unique and as such it is named for its uniqueness. As a result they were able to communicate precisely where they were, despite our not being able to see any discernible difference from place to place on the featureless surface of the ocean.
The collectors worked as a three-man team with two of the collectors working with the hammer and screwdriver to remove the desired colony or a fragment of it. The third member moved back and forth between them with a flat net that he used to hold the corals as he brought them up to the surface. Here the forth member took the corals and placed them in a Styrofoam box with moist newspaper to separate them. The corals were jammed in to occupy all of the space and were even placed on top of each other with only the newspaper separating them. Amazingly these corals were kept this way successfully for up to six hours in the hot Fijian sun with little damage.
The average days collection was approximately 200 pieces of coral, with two-thirds of these being soft corals and one-third stony corals. Coral collecting occurred six days per week and usually took from four to six hours per day. During one hour while we were waiting at the surface to dive again we observed one diver make over 40 dives. These were all to different depths ranging from 5-25 feet. While underwater even when the collectors were not in sight you could almost constantly hear the rhythmic tapping as they loosened another coral.
Overall the reefs of Fiji were spectacular, despite there being some areas of bleaching. While virtually all of the reefs contained numerous table and staghorn Acroporas, each section of reef and each reef itself had some type of speciation, with one type of coral dominating it or a section of it. Some sections contained almost all table types of Acropora while other areas consisted of large boulders of Porites, Pavona or other types of massive corals, while other areas contain gardens of different colored Pocilloporas or Montiporas. Simply swimming around a coral bonnie or around a large coral outcropping could open up an entire new group of different corals.
For the most part, the upper reaches of the reef, above 15 feet, were dominated by stony corals, with only an occasional Sarcophyton leather coral or finger Sinularia coral being present. It should be noted that even at these depths the predominant color of most of the corals was brown or beige. It would literally require moving over a football field sized reef of several hundred square meters, to find five or six brightly colored corals. Diving on a reef to find small brightly colored coral colonies required a lot of work and concentration, as there were just not that many brilliantly colored corals, even on some of the previously un-harvested reefs where we were taken.
As noted above, the brightest colored corals were for the most part at the upper portions of the reef exclusively. Below this 15-20 foot mark, was where the soft corals like the Sarcophytons, Sinularias and Cladiellas would begin to dominate. Acroporas, Pocilloporas and other stony corals were still present at these depths and actually down to 40 feet, but their numbers were markedly lower. Interestingly, even at these depths and actually down to 40 feet we would occasionally encounter a brilliantly colored sps coral. After noting this on several occasions, we observed that most of the time sps corals were brightly colored at this depth was when they were on a southern facing wall and when they were also receiving significant reflected light from below. This may indicate that brightly colored sps corals can be colored not only when they receive strong illumination at the surface, but also when they receive long periods of moderate illumination at depth. Unfortunately, none of us brought along a light or lux meter to see what the light intensity was at this depth. One other interesting aspect of coral coloration that was observed was that some sps corals were still brightly colored even though they were growing beneath overhangs or had table corals grow above them. When we tried to understand how this was possible, we realized that despite their position, they were still receiving 3-6 hours of intense light as the sun passed across the sky. This may mean that it may be possible to produce brightly colored corals in our tanks by providing extremely intense periods of light for short periods of time followed by moderate lighting. Unfortunately, even providing perfect light for corals that are inherently brown will do little to change their color, as we brought home a few brown colonies from both depth and shallow areas and virtually none of them became brilliantly colored in our tanks.
Unlike the corals which were collected in the middle to end of the day, live rock was collected first thing in the morning. After watching this process it was easy to understand why. Collecting live rock was a long a tiresome process, so it was advantageous to collect first thing when the divers were fresh. Live rock was collected two ways. The easiest and fastest way was to simply pick up chunks of live rock that lay loose on the reef or at the base of the reef. In reefs that had been collected on for a while this was not possible as much of the free live rock had already been removed. When this was the case the collectors would chisel of chunks of live rock from large mounds of live rock. Most of the rock they removed this way were in chunks of about 5-10 pounds in size. The reason this size was chosen is that the live rock looked far more manageable than was the case when I watched them remove big pieces for a special order. Removing pieces of this size also did not appear to tire out the divers to the same extent that happened when they had to haul large pieces from the rock.
Once the rock was full of 300-400 pounds of live rock, the boat delivered the rock back to the collecting station. Amazingly the divers did not go back on the boat. Instead they remained in the water harvesting fish and corals. The fish were placed in mesh bags, while the collected corals were placed all together in a protected area, so that when the boat returned they could rapidly be placed in the boat and hauled back to the collecting station. By doing this very little time was wasted during the course of the day.
To watch beautiful reef fish collected in the wild by an experienced collector was like watching an underwater ballet. The fish collectors were usually older than the coral collectors and they used scuba tanks and had slightly better equipment. After watching them work, it was easy to understand why they were treated better than the coral collectors. To catch a desired fish, the fish collector would first scope out the reef. He knew the behavior of each fish he would catch by heart and used their behavior to his advantage. For schooling fish, like damsels or cardinalfish, he would set up his barrier net far away from the school and then he would somehow drive the school into the net, just using his hands and a couple long sticks. Then he would net as many fish from the school as he could before they figured out how to swim away.
Catching non-schooling fish was even more interesting to watch. First he would observe the territory that the fish lived in. He would then set up his net so that natural barriers would allow him to drive a fish into it. Then he would slowly stalk the desired fish from the opposite side of the net. Once he got into the desired position he would drive the fish into the net using long sticks to prod it along. He would use the sticks to drive the fish from under rocks and away from corals into the net, where he would wrap it up and then gently remove it from the net and place it in a plastic bag. He would then hand the bag to one of the individuals that was picking up corals to place it in a Styrofoam box in the boat. The whole process took less than a couple of minutes and then he was on to the next fish.
The Collecting Station
When the Styrofoam boxes were full, the collectors in their little boat would make their way to the collecting station to drop off their cargo. The station was usually at least 35-40 minutes by boat from where the corals were taken. The collecting station was closer to the airport than it was to the collecting grounds to make it easier to ship the corals out. When the collectors arrived, the boxes were immediately emptied and the corals were placed in their individual holding areas based on what type of animal they were. As this was done a tally was kept of exactly what the collectors brought in and they were paid on an individual item basis.
The collecting station itself was rather simple in design and was not really much more than a typical warehouse, which it probably had been at some point. The largest section consisted of groups of sectioned acrylic tanks, which housed all of the fish that were net-collected. Airstones were used to create flow in these tanks and to add some oxygen. Water changes, with natural seawater, occurred after a batch of fish were shipped out as well as during the packing procedure. The entire batch of fish were shipped out twice per week, with each batch containing 700-800 fish. These shipments went all over the world, with the largest purchasers being the US and Europe.
In a separate section of the station the invertebrates were held. This section of the station held approximately 20 large shallow troughs that would hold all of the invertebrates. Stony corals occupied the troughs closest to the open walls so that these corals received some sunlight each day. Single Actinic fluorescent lights were also present above these tanks and caused some bioflourescence in the sps corals.
The sps corals were placed far enough apart from each other so that even if they fell over they would not touch and burn one another. For this reason the troughs holding them were quite large. The soft corals on the other hand were placed in close proximity to each other and their troughs probably contained four times as many colonies as did the troughs holding stony corals. Neither of these systems employed any technology to speak of. No powerheads, protein skimmers or filtration of any kind was employed. The tanks were kept clean by flushing them with clean seawater after all of the corals had been removed for shipping, which also occurred twice a week. Despite this lack of technology the mortality from the actual collection through shipping was probably less than 2%.
One of the interesting observations regarding the corals that were collected is how fast their colors faded once they were removed from the intense sunlight of the reef. The reduction in color was not consistent across all corals and all colors however. The vibrant pink, raspberry, green and yellow of the Pocilloporas remained, as did the green pigmentation in many of the Acroporas. However the brilliant purple, blue, pink and yellow coloration in the Acroporas and Montiporas started diminishing after only a couple of days away from the reef and continued to drop daily noticeably thereafter. This diminution in coloration was quite noticeable, as the vibrant coloration of these corals on the reef was so striking that it was easy to see that they had dramatically faded in a relatively short time. This was most apparent when new corals were placed next to corals that had been held for a couple of days. Once placed in a reef tank with strong metal halide and actinic lighting many of these corals regained much of their color, but this often took over a month. It should be noted though that many of these corals never fully regained the full coloration they had on the reef. Some of these corals also showed marked changes in coloration when placed in a reef tank. Corals that were yellow or blue on the reef often became green under artificial light heavy on the blue side. Since most of these came from high portions of the reef and had spent not more than a week without sunlight, it was interesting to note that virtually none of these corals showed any signs of bleaching despite being placed in what would be considered intense artificial light.
The area where the live rock was held was also quite interesting. None of the live rock was held underwater, but rather it was placed where it received a constant shower of seawater. This was done to help wash off some of the material that would die otherwise during shipping. After every batch of live rock was shipped out, the reservoir for this system was flushed out and new seawater was pumped in to treat the next batch of live rock. Live rock was shipped out three times per week and each batch was one to two thousand pounds in size.
Despite their relative lack of technology, the mortality of the corals and fish within the collecting station was less than 2%. After their 1-3 day rest in the collecting station, the sps corals were suspended in plastic bags under Styrofoam in enough water to barely cover them. Oxygen was used to fill the top of the bag and the bags were densely packed into Styrofoam boxes ready for shipment. Each box contained 10-20 heads of fist-sized or smaller coral. Each box was labeled with the number and genera of the animals it contained and a CITES permit was issued for the shipment. In this way, a record was kept of what was removed from the reef so that nothing was over-harvested. The boxes were then placed on a direct flight to Los Angeles. When there are no flight delays, the corals will be in the wholesaler’s tanks in less than 14 hours, which improves the animal’s chances of survival.
The wholesale facility is much like that of the collecting station in that it is basically a large warehouse holding a large number of troughs and holding tanks. It differs in that a great deal of technology is employed on these systems and the animals are segregated to a much greater extent within the holding facilities. Since some of the animals may be held for days or weeks before they are sold it is necessary to keep them in high quality water that is pathogen free. For this reason, large protein skimmers, trickle and subsand filters as well as carbon are employed. All of these help to keep the water at the highest level possible. To remove pathogens, UV sterilizers as well as ozone are employed. To maintain the health and coloration of the corals, metal halide lamps are used over the tanks and strong water motion is employed within the tanks. All of the water for each of these systems is kept segregated from the others to reduce the amount of stress that each organism can place on the others. All of this equipment has only been employed over the last few years, as its importance became understood. Its use has dramatically reduced the mortality of the fish and corals.
When the fish and corals are sold to a retail establishment, they are bagged up in a fashion similar to what is done at the collecting station. The only difference is that the amount of water within each bag is usually much greater than is the case from the collecting station. This is necessary as the trip from the wholesaler to the retailer is often the most perilous past of the journey. Flight delays, bumps from being shipped and placement on scorching hot and freeing cold tarmacs can dramatically increase the mortality of marine animals that are already stressed from having been shipped from half way around the world. For these reasons it is estimated that the mortality during this phase of the animal’s trip is several fold higher than it is during either of the first phases. That this is the case is mainly the airline’s fault.
Viewing corals in the wholesaler’s tanks and then viewing them a day later ready for placement in a reef tank, it was readily apparent that the stress of shipping reduced the coloration in many of these corals. This stress manifested itself in different ways. Some corals divested themselves of their zooanxthellae and as a result only their colorful pigments showed. As a result these corals showed incredibly vibrant colors even though or actually because they were stressed. Conversely, some corals that were vibrantly colored in the exporters tanks arrived with only beige or light brown coloration. There is no hypothesis as to why corals in the same shipment taken form the same area behaved so differently and looked so opposite to one another, but it deserves exploration as to the possible cause.
The facilities and processes described above only give a cursory example of what it takes for a coral or fish to go through in order to make it from the reef to a retail shop or a hobbyist’s tank. After seeing what they go though I am convinced that these animals are significantly hardier than we give them credit for being. I also now realize how privileged we are to now be able to get purple or blue or pink corals despite how relatively rare they are on a reef. For this reason, I think that captive and wild propagated programs will continue to expand as well as the trading of rare coral fragments within the hobby. After seeing the beauty of a reef it is quite easy to understand why hobbyists want a small portion of the reef in their home. My friend with his 3500 gallon reef tanks is one of the luckiest individuals I know in that he ahs a larger portion of the reef than most of us can even dream of.