Fish Tales: Terry Siegel Interview
[In honor of Terry Siegel’s recent Aquarist of the Year award from the Marine Aquarium Societies of North America, we are re-running this interview, originally published as a two-part feature in Reefs Magazine in 2009. Congratulations Terry!]
Terry Siegel has been in the marine aquarium hobby for over 40 years. He is a noted author and publisher responsible for many of the seminal hobbyist publications of the past four decades. Currently, he is the founder and editor of the groundbreaking Advanced Aquarist magazine. Recently, Reefs Magazine Senior Editor Randy Donowitz had the chance to chat with his old friend and mentor about his life and his unique perspective on the history of the marine aquarium hobby in America.
Reefs Magazine: When did you get into the aquarium hobby?
Terry Siegel: Oh, about 65 years ago [laughs]. I was about 8-years-old and I recall having three small freshwater tanks – two 5 gallons and my pride and joy, a 20 gallon long. I even remember some of the fish I had in those days: a dwarf gourami, black tetra, angel fish, cory catfish, Amazon sword plants, I think I had some neon tetras also after a while.
Anyway, I kept those fish until I went to college. During my high school years I played a lot of hooky from high school which I found insufferably boring, and spent a lot of time working at a local pet store which was run by a man who knew a lot about fish. Even though it was a small store he had a lot of very interesting stuff. In fact at one point, I don’t remember exactly when but I was in high school, he brought in a percula clownfish and a trimac damselfish. No one was interested in buying them because they were salt water so I took them home and put them in a five gallon tank where I kept them for quite a while because I lived near the ocean and just kept changing the water. I don’t recall exactly what became of them.
In any case, I went away to college, graduate school and all that sort of stuff and then after that I got married and bought a house in Brooklyn which had a large enclosed front porch which eventually housed a variety of saltwater tanks. But I’m starting to get a little bit ahead of myself…
Around the late 60s close to 1970, I had a 150 gallon ambassador all-glass tank in which I kept discus fish. One day I walked into a pet store on Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn called Atlantis Aquarium. They had set up a 55 gallon salt-water tank and there were two long-nosed butterfly fish in it and once I took a look at those two butterfly fish extending their dorsal fins at one another I became absolutely mesmerized and knew immediately that I had to have salt-water fish. This was about the time in history when salt-water fish were being brought into this country and people were really excited about it but having a terrible time keeping them alive. It was also around this time that I became president of what I believe was called the International Marine Society which met in the Education Hall at the Coney Island public aquarium.
RM: What were the biggest problems you faced at that time?
TS: The biggest problem then was what we called the new tank syndrome. Essentially, what we would do was set up a salt-water tank and put fish in it and they would look pretty good for a couple of days and then they didn’t look so good a couple days after that and then after a couple more days they were dead. There was a lot of discussion amongst the group of us that were trying to keep these fish that, oh, it must be the salt mix, or that something is wrong with the tank – it must be the plastic, it must be this that or the next thing and so we would break it all down and sterilize everything and start all over again with the same results. At some point we discovered that the problem was ammonia and the toxicity of ammonia in seawater. Finally we figured out how to use under gravel filters and later trickle filters to help manage the nitrogen cycle and started having a bit more success. I had a lot of large tanks, all fish only tanks at this point – a 200 gallon, a 150, a 100 and a 60 all on this front porch. Now that the fish would live for a while the problem was disease. Even though we had solved the ammonia problem we were forever having problems with various pathogens – saltwater ich… Velvet disease… Amyloodinium and later, I don’t know when it made its arrival, that particularly nasty parasite Brooklynella hostilis, and so it was a constant struggle.
RM: I’m sure it was very frustrating. You guys really were flying by the seat of your pants.
TS: Absolutely, you set up a new tank, couldn’t resist buying a new fish, put a new fish in it and sooner or later you’d bring in a parasite and have to treat the whole tank with copper. It was hard to know whether you were killing the fish with the copper or if the parasites were killing them, in any case it was a constant struggle. There were some people at that time, one guy in particular I think his name was Jerry Riddler, who was able to keep saltwater fish for extended periods of time, even several years. The way he did it was he had about thirty tanks. He would buy one fish, put it in a tank, and that was it, he never added a new fish. And in that way he eliminated the problem of disease at least for the most part.
RM: I guess there wasn’t much, if any, information readily available.
TS: There really wasn’t much to be found. That’s why around this time at the International Marine Society – around 1970 I believe – John Miklos and I began The Marine Aquarist magazine which was an attempt to disseminate information about biological filtration, information about fish and what to feed them and how to keep them alive. It was the first such publication in this country. I was the editor and wrote a column called “Fish of the Month” and the publication was quite successful. We put it together by hand, justifying the lines with an IBM electric typewriter! It was a nuisance.
After a few years John Miklos decided he wanted to make money, even though he was a solid-state physicist and he literally ran off with the publication and moved with his wife. That didn’t make anybody too happy [laughs].
RM: Moving away from the hobby for a moment, you also had a lot of other things going on around this time.
TS: Well, for one I was a full-time English professor at Pratt Institute for 33 years until 1999. I taught a range of things like Modern British Writers, Shakespeare, Freshman English and other Humanities and inter-disciplinary courses.
RM: What is your favorite Shakespearian play?
TS: Oh, I don’t know. I suppose “Macbeth” which appeals to the nihilistic darker side of my personality. “Hamlet.” Certainly “The Tempest.”
RM: How about your favorite character?
TS: Prospero, who I think is Shakespeare himself. He knew perfectly well what his genius was all about.
RM: Turning back to the hobby, things really started to change for the better in the 1980s right?
TS: Lets see. I believe it was in 1984 that I tried my first reef tank. It was a 90 gallon tank and somehow or other I had learned that you needed a lot of light. I’m not sure where this information came from. Possibly from articles that were beginning to appear from Europe talking about the “Berlin Method” of reef-keeping. I think Schmidt was the author’s name. And what I did was to go to the hardware store and get a couple of security lights, I believe they were quartz lights, and hung them over this 90 gallon tank and I had some success. I had a bubble coral and I had a hammer coral, both of which I still have, believe it or not. There were a variety of other invertebrates that I do not recall any longer, and they did not survive the way that the bubble and hammer did. I can also remember having lots of Aiptasia and being very proud of them [laughs]. I did at that time get a tomato clown fish, a pair in actuality, one of which lived for 25 years in captivity.
RM: That is a pretty remarkable achievement. I’m glad you mentioned the early days of reef lighting, I was wondering if you might tell one of my favorite reef-keeping stories? I think you know which one I mean…
TS: Yes, indeed I do. Around this time, I was looking for better ways to light my reef. I came across a magazine called High Times, which was recommended to me by one of my sons – and one of the big advertisements was for hydroponic lighting by a company called Energy Savers.
I called up Energy Savers and spoke to the owner, a man by the name of Omar Dursom, and told him that I wanted lighting for a fish tank – for a coral reef tank. He started to laugh. He said, “Well, usually people tell me they want lights to grow tomatoes…” But I said, “No, no, no – no. I don’t want to grow pot, I want to grow coral.”
And so he became somewhat interested. He asked me to send him a drawing of what I was talking about, which I did, and about a month later, believe it or not, the first American produced aquarium reflector with 175 Watt MH lights in it – I think they were about 37k – got delivered to my house, and that began the business we know today as Coralife.
In fact, I believe you still have that reflector in your basement and it still works!
RM: Amazingly it does. How did you decide to start Aquarium Frontiers?
TS: It was around this time (and I don’t remember the dates exactly), that I met a number of individuals who were to influence me enormously, and they played major roles in the development of the reef-keeping hobby in the United States. Certainly one of them was Julian Sprung. He was about the age of my sons and I met him visiting my parents in Florida through one of my students who had freshman English with me. His name was Danny Ramirez, a graphic artist, and he introduced me to Julian Sprung who had worked with Martin Moe and was keyed into the latest European developments. He was writing a column in FAMA, called Reef Notes and one day while Julian and I were driving out to the Keys where we collected snails, live sand, and things like that, I said to Julian, “You know Julian, most people who read FAMA read it for your column. What do they pay you for that?”
When he told me, I said, “That’s ridiculous. You know what, Julian? Why don’t we start a magazine of our own where we pay writers a respectable amount of money, and produce a nice publication?” He said, “You know, that’s an interesting idea.” So we went back to Coconut Grove to meet Danny, who is a graphic artist, and he liked the idea – he also had a big reef tank. And so we started Aquarium Frontiers.
The first issue was almost unreadable, but it had some really interesting stuff in it – because it was at this time that Walter Addy was promulgating his theory about how to establish a reef tank, and they had a large one at the Smithsonian, using turf, or algae scrubbers – a system that worked, but had certain problems. And Julian, of course, was a proponent of the “Berlin Method.” His critique of Addy’s work garnered a lot of attention. In any case, Julian, Danny, and I produced Aquarium Frontiers, which was published quarterly, and from a little black and white publication to a full-color publication as we took on advertising and quite quickly we became the American reef-keeping publication of record.
After about, I don’t know, two years, Danny and Julian had started a company called Two Little Fishies, and they had started publishing books that Julian and others wrote, and started doing business, and found themselves too busy because they were also promoting some of Peter Wilkins’ products at around that time, Combisan, Wilkins’ carbon, and so on.
In any case, they came to me and said, we just don’t have time to do this. Let’s sell the magazine. I was really unhappy about it. On board at that time were several very, very influential people in coral reef-keeping who were writing regularly for Aquarium Frontiers – Craig Bingman, Doug Robbins, and Greg Scheimer. We were all very upset, but it seemed like there was no choice but to sell the publication, and it was sold to Fancy Publications, who published things like Aquarium Fish, Dog Fancy, Cat Fancy, Gerbil… Whatever [laughs].
I was to stay on as the editor, and I did for a while. But rather rapidly, I found myself unable to work with Fancy Publications because I knew that hobbyists wanted legitimate product reviews, even when the product was not very good, and my writers were told – Scheimer in particular – “Just write, whether you think this thing is snake oil, whether it works or doesn’t work, and so on, we’re not going to censor your work at all.”
And, of course, Fancy Publications was not too happy with that. I wasn’t too happy with them, and we parted company. Unfortunately, I had signed a contract with them that I could not start a competing publication for five years and during that time I felt like there was a void in the quality and variety of what was getting published.
RM: Earlier on you mentioned the “Berlin Method” of reef-keeping. Can you say a little more about that?
TS: Julian [Sprung] of course was an exponent of the Berlin System. Julian had met a German chemist in Europe who lived in Switzerland, who did his education at Heidelberg, and learned a great deal about water purification. His name was Peter Wilkins and he is probably the science and the intelligence behind the so-called “Berlin Method.” Strange as it may seem, he actually came out with a book, a copy of which I have somewhere in 1973, in which he talked extensively about protein skimmers, lime water and so on – all the components of what we today call the “Berlin Method.”
In any case, also in Germany at around this time, there was a man by the name of Dietrich Steuber who got in on a piece of rock a small piece of Acropora that became known as Steuber’s Acropora. On a trip to Germany, Julian got a fragment from Steuber, which he then started to grow in his reef tank. He gave me a fragment, and I was able to grow quite a large colony of this Acropora and passed it on to many hobbyists. This is the first time that Acropora, as far as I know, certainly in the United States, and probably also in Europe, was successfully kept in coral reef tanks. Most professionals in public aquaria at that time believed it to be impossible to keep Acropora alive in captivity. Nowadays, of course, we can grow them almost like weeds.
The hobby developed very rapidly after that. Locally, Greg Scheimer built a 500 gallon tank in his basement, I had three reef tanks now in my living room – believe it or not, with the sump in the basement – and I had flexible PVC going through the walls – down in the basement. I used a Jacuzzi pump to drive the water back up to the tanks. It is amazing I ever sold that house in Brooklyn… [laughs]. There were lots of other people building large successful systems too.
RM: How did you come to publish your current magazine Advanced Aquarist?
TS: A number of years ago, the five year moratorium from Fancy Publications was up, and I was approached by Reefs.org with the idea of editing and starting a new publication – this time an online publication, which would be free to the public, and which would be supported by advertising. That was the birth of Advanced Aquarist.
RM: What was your vision for the magazine?
TS: The interesting thing about the Advanced Aquarist project it seemed to me was that it had certain advantages over print publications. One is immediacy, plus you can stream video, you can stream sound. I liked that we could design a space where people could contact writers directly and ask questions about a new article.
From my point of view as an academic – and I have been someone who has always been very interested in science – I wanted as much as possible to publish articles written by scientists and people who had experimental data, where information went beyond anecdotal information, went beyond opinions spoken from someone’s opinion-pipe. Does Garlic REALLY work? What actually do skimmers take out of the water? What’s in the salt mixes? These are difficult questions, and they are questions that we are still dealing with.
RM: After retiring from Pratt you and your aquariums moved around a bit.
TS: I eventually moved to Cape Cod around the year 2000, and moved the contents of my three reef tanks into one ten-foot tank in Cape Cod. That move was successful. However, after the death of my wife about six years ago, I bought a house in Portland, Maine, with my son, Peter, and his family. And because I was spending far more time in Portland, ME, than Cape Cod, I built a new tank, and decided to move all my critters to Portland, ME.
I might as a side note point out that my tank in Portland, ME, is a plexiglass tank. There was no way that I could get a glass tank into this basement, so I had to bring in a plexiglass tank which I hated – hated because it’s a constant battle to keep the coralline algae off the viewing pane without scratching the plastic. I mentioned that I did keep a clown at one point, a tomato clown for 25 years. I still have a couple of corals now from 1984. I kept a lot of fish for a long time – many on average from 10 to 20 years. In any case, I brought over all the corals first, and then I brought over the fish, and the fish all died. All the fish I had – the Achilles tang, Powder blue tang – all kinds of wonderful fish that I’d had for many, many, many years – a harlequin tusk fish, just to name some of the ones I recall, including the tomato clown, which was now in its 25th year. A disease broke out, which I’m pretty sure was Brooklynella hostilis. It probably was always in the system. But now in a new tank, with very stressed fish from the move, they all contracted the disease, and there was just nothing I could do about it. It happened over a couple of days, and it was really heartbreaking. In any case, all the dead fish were taken out, and I waited about two months for the parasites to die out, and replaced almost all the fish that had died with juveniles. I might add they grew very rapidly. That pretty much takes us up to the present.
RM: It is heartbreaking to hear about all those long-time residents meeting their end.
TS: Yeah, it was tough. I thought about getting out, but you know how this hobby is…
RM: Most of our readers don’t know that you were quite athletic in your day. Actually, you still are.
TS: Well, I was a four-wall handball player, and probably one of the best, and played all over the country in various tournaments. We had a league and played out of the New York Athletic Club and later, the Brooklyn Union Temple. And we played other teams in the downtown athletic club, a couple of teams in New Jersey and so on. I played first singles or first doubles.
Around the age of forty, however, I found that four-wall hand ball was just knocking the hell out of me, and my sons (I have three) were growing up and wanting to play handball also, and I figured, that was kind of foolish, because you couldn’t do much with handball. So I said, why don’t we all take up tennis. I had played some tennis in college. And strange as it may seem, I became a tennis pro – a teaching tennis pro – mostly so I could get court time for my sons, who were very avid players.
The wages of sports… Well, you know… By now I’ve had both of my knees totally replaced, although, I must say they work pretty well. And although I haven’t played any tennis for about a year – actually I played some in Florida recently – I am going to in the summer since I only just had my right knee replaced about five months ago – I plan on starting to play again in the summer.
RM: In addition to your academic and aquaristic careers, you’ve done a lot of other things that might surprise some people too.
TS: Aside from my Pratt career actually, throughout all of the years I taught at Pratt, I also worked as a carpenter. My father had a home improvement business, and I used to go out with his men as a gofer – go fer this, go fer that! Eventually, I learned how to do all this kind of stuff. And so I did piece work for various companies, hanging doors, windows, replacement windows, building kitchens, bathrooms, and in fact, while at Pratt I got to know a guy by the name of Gus Dudley. He was an architect. He designed some houses in Cape Cod, and that was, I guess, in the 70s. And I would take four Pratt students, seniors from the architecture school, up to Cape Cod for the summer where they would live in tents and we would build the houses (I would work as the general contractor) that he designed.
At some point, I guess it was around 1980, I opened a Häagen-Dazs store, a ten-year franchise in Brooklyn, and ran that for, as I say, the ten years. It was not long after that I retired from Pratt.
RM: You also have several other serious hobbies.
TS: Classical music has always been very, very important to me. Audio-reproduction of classical music was simultaneously as important. So friends of mine and myself were always pursuing what we called the holy grail. In technical terms, a straight wire with gain. That is to say, you make a recording, and you reproduce it in a living room or a recording room, and there is literally no distortion. And the idea was to create the kind of experience you would have in a concert hall. There are all kinds of psycho-acoustic problems in doing that because a living room doesn’t sound like a concert hall – although nowadays, with surround-sound and a variety of other things, you can get pretty damn close. I got very involved in that and the technical aspects of it – in sound reproduction, recordings and all of that kind of stuff. And it’s a passion I have to this day.
RM: Who/ What are you favorite composers and pieces of music?
TS: Ah, well… I love Beethoven and Brahms, and Mozart and Tchaikovsky and so on, and listen to them quite often. In fact, I have a big flat-panel TV, where you can, using DVDs, particularly the Blu-ray, you can see the orchestra perform and listen to it in a surround-sound system. It’s quite spectacular – VERY close to the holy grail, in my opinion.
However, it is modern music that moves me most deeply, and particularly Russian modern music – Stravinsky and Shostakovich in particular.
RM: I hesitate to ask this, but I know politics has always played a large role in your life. So, if you are willing…?
TS: Let’s see now, reefing and politics don’t often mix very well so I don’t really want to go there particularly, except to say that I’m a Marxist, a Leftist, and have been for most of my life, involved in anti-establishment, anti-capitalist programs. I am currently on the Board of Directors of Peace Action Maine. I’m also a member of Cape Cod Peace and Justice. I believe that socialism is the way to go, but that it’s going to take a long time for most people to be able to live socialistically, rather than what’s going on now, which is a nightmare as far as I’m concerned. It’s beyond my comprehension how human beings could keep on killing one another and how ordinary people, somehow or other, become the workers and the fodder that keep a few rich people sitting on pots of gold in their proverbial castles. How that’s all happened, I don’t even want to go into.
And the other problem, of course, is overpopulation. And if you want me to get into a real rant, we’ll get into religion. “Be fruitful and multiply” is about a thousand years in error. Anyway, I don’t want to go any further than that. So lets end here.
RM: Fair enough. Before I let you go, I wanted to ask you a few more hobby related questions.
TS: Sure, those are probably safer [laughs].
RM: What is the best advice you can give to a new hobbyist?
TS: Well, there’s a lot of good information out there. READ! READ! And READ! But be careful about what you read. Pay attention to scientific-based information, not a local fish store person’s opinion. Take information from people who not only talk the talk, but walk the walk – who HAVE successful reef tanks, people who are not constantly putting new fish and new corals in their tanks. You can always tell the difference – tanks where things have really grown and have been growing for a long time – fish that have been in there and healthy for long periods of time.
RM: What do you see as the biggest challenges facing the hobby? What do you think the next frontier is?
TS: Challenges are many. Of course, there are problems with energy consumption. I think this is one area, in terms of equipment, where there is some development taking place – how to use less electricity – whether it is to cool the water, heat the water, illuminate the photosynthetic corals and so on – with LED lighting and certainly the transition to more energy-efficient pumps, strides have been made in this direction. My transition, for example, from the Jacuzzi pump to the Hammerhead pump reduced my electricity consumption by a third!
Those are some of the challenges that I think the hobby is facing, as well as the fact that the oceans of the world are dying. Not only coral reefs. I believe there are only 10% of the food fish left in the ocean. We are rapidly, as everybody knows here – and I don’t want to depress anybody – killing the oceans. The acidification from CO2 is likely, in the long run, going to do the most damage.
The next frontier I think probably is learning how to keep in captivity invertebrates that do not have zooxanthellae from which they get the majority of their nutrition – corals like Dendronephthya and non-photosynthetic Gorgonians. We still can’t really keep them alive in captivity, though many have tried.
Temperate tanks also seem to be gaining interest. In the current issue, actually the last two issues of Advanced Aquarist, you can find some articles and pictures of temperate tanks. I think you have written about them in this publication too.
RM: Well, I really can’t thank you enough for taking the time to sit down with me.
TS: It was my pleasure, now I need to walk the dog!