Collection and Transportation of Coral, Fish and Live Rock

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.

Photo

Two of the most impressive looking corals we
saw in Fiji. They almost look like we placed them together to
photograph them. (Photo by Doug Thompson)

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.

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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.

The Collectors

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.

Photo

The inside of the collecting boat. (Photo by Doug Thompson)

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Photo

The amazingly small collecting boat. (Photo by Doug Thompson)

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.

Photo

A diver chiseling away a section of a colony
of Acropora. Only sections of large heads of coral were
removed. (Photo by Doug Thompson)

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.

Photo

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The nets used to haul heads of coral to the
surface. (Photo by Doug Thompson)

Photo

A small head of Acropora being
removed. (Photo by Doug Thompson)

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.

The Corals

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.

Photo

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Photo by Doug Thompson

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.

Photo

Photo by Doug Thompson

Live Rock

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.

Photo

An overview of what a section of reef looked
like when moderate collection had taken place. (Photo by Doug Thompson)

Photo

A typical coral bonnie showing large heads
of Acropora and a few leather corals. As can be seen
most of the corals are brown or beige. (Photo by Doug Thompson)

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.

The Fish

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.

Photo

A pair of bicolor rabbitfish swimming over
the reef. (Photo by Doug Thompson)

Photo

A group of clownfish in a really spectacular
anemone. (Photo by Doug Thompson)

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.

Photo

harem of fairy wrasses (Undescribed
species). (Photo by Doug Thompson)

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.

Photo

A selection of the sps corals being held in
a trough. (Photo by Doug Thompson)

Photo

An overview of the troughs in the collecting
station. (Photo by Doug Thompson)

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.

Photo

The inside of the collection station. (Photo by Doug Thompson)

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.

Shipping

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 Wholesaler

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.

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 Mike Paletta

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