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Q&A with Aquarium Expert Anthony Calfo

  • Marine Depot
  • Sep 4, 2008

MarineDepot.com: Are there any new aquarium supplies, solutions or technology released in the past 6-12 months that you’re really impressed by? Anything you’re looking forward to?

Anthony Calfo: It would be really hard for me to sum up this question briefly, with all of the new and evolving products that are released in streaming fashion. But to pick a category, I’d say that I am most optimistic about the recent (and hopefully sustained) evolution of zooplankton substitutes.

We (the hobby and aquarium science) are still at a point in feeding reef creatures (particularly corals) where we truly have little to no ability to offer significant prepared or cultured prey items. The only reason, frankly, that we have succeeded as well as we have with captive corals to date is from the heavy fish bio-loads or otherwise high dissolved organic levels in typical aquaria. Our systems are otherwise weak in zooplankton; phytoplankton is of comparably limited use for the overwhelmingly carnivorous corals commonly kept.

It is, of course, impossible to say that there is only one type of food that is ideal for an animal group as large as ‘corals,’ but then again… most hobbyists want and need simplified guidance (and not a college course) that will serve the majority of their needs and interests. To that end, I look forward to seeing more neutrally and slightly negatively buoyant zooplankton substitutes of finer and more consistent particle size. The advent of such products will open many more doors for fish breeding and filter feeding invertebrate culture.

MD: How is your new greenhouse facility coming along? Can you tell us a little about it?

AC: Indeed, and thanks kindly for asking. It’s funny—though not entirely surprising—to reflect on the paths that life takes each of us on… particularly the round about ones. I have come full circle in the last two decades (errr… a bit longer, I must say) from using the profits of my discus hatchery in the 1980s to building my first coral greenhouse… through the farming and research years that led to the authorship years, which in turn led to consultation and mentoring years and up until today. Now, I really just want to sleep in my own bed more days per week than not (read: travel less, blessed as the privilege is).

During these recent and heavy travel years, I scaled back to keeping only about 2,000 gallons of automated seawater systems (from a previous peak of around 8,000 gallons collectively). My new greenhouse is still rather small (hobby sized) and attached to a proper indoor fishroom. It’s a bit high-tech for efficiency, energy use, surveillance (security and my ability to see and control parameters while abroad) and expansion options. To give you some perspective on what I mean by “efficient,” the small core of staple trade (coral) species are cultured in only about 1000 liters of water, employ no electric water pumps (all water movement is air driven) and this small batch of culture tanks generates approximately 20,000USD per year.

I also have a spacious photo stage and area for microscopy, adequate live food cultures, specialized (extra tall) tanks for experimental breeding attempts (currently dwarf angels, a small sea bass species, and temperate seahorses). Of course, I have a selection of uncommon corals in the inventory; I refuse to call them “rare” because I feel like I have seen every so-called “rare” coral at frag swaps and on the reef in acres of quantities… hardly rare! I generally culture more common and popular species. My recent efforts have also included making time for scheduling on-site guests interested in my services for reviewing business plans and modeling their home-based coral farms for earning part or full-time incomes in this beloved hobby-industry.

MD: What do you feel are the greatest challenges for the saltwater aquarium hobby? What obstacles or opportunities are there in our hobby?

AC: The writing has been on the wall for a very long time, and worse… other pet industry sectors, such as bird and reptile keepers, had the same warnings. Marine hobbyists (like the avian and herp keepers before them) have been sluggishly complacent about supporting companies, organizations, and consumer decisions to realize a self-sustaining hobby more quickly. Anyone that knows me, I think, would agree that I am by nature an affable and very optimistic fellow. But on this issue—being legislated out of our privilege to keep certain marine reef species—I sadly think we are going to be unprepared, handicapped and should not be surprised when it happens.

I’m sorry. It is a simple fact that several hundred species of marine fishes can be bred in captivity, but scarcely more than a dozen are ever seen for sale. Many organizations have tried to make it profitable and nearly all have failed. Shamefully, they have largely failed because the average marine hobbyist will knowingly buy a cheaper, larger wild-caught specimen instead of supporting the aquacultured specimens, more often than not. The painful irony is that many such consumers will repurchase that same species as wild-caught repeatedly after the fishes die and fall prey to sickness and death for the rigors of import and lack of stabilization in a proper quarantine tank. A majority of consumers ultimately spend more money to successfully get a wild-caught species of fish in their display than had they bought a single aquaculture specimen in the first place.

Retailers are similarly responsible if and when they overlook their actual bottom line of profits after consideration of rates of morbidity and mortality in wild versus cultured organisms. Too often, merchants only see cheap import prices and do not reckon the long view disadvantages to customers and subsequently the livelihoods of traders stocking wild harvested specimens with preference versus tank-raised ones. Just because a wild specimen costs less to import does not mean it will be more profitable.

Such ill-advised buying decisions also cause harm far beyond simple profit and loss issues. There are sobering realities, such as the fact that approximately 50% of all Kaudern’s (Banggai) Cardinalfish collected die before they reach the retail display! And the million dead that it took to get one million stressed—but still alive—cardinals to a LFS are no longer actively reproducing members of the reef community. The long-term effects are of a staggering scale of magnitude! Fortunately, the responsible decision to buy domestically produced fishes and corals whenever possible and to use quarantine tanks for definably sustainable wild-caught species in kind has advantages for the reef and reef keeping of a like (beneficial) scale of magnitude.

The future for the marine hobby is very simple: if we do not become self-sustaining, we can only hope—at best—that a majority of hobbyists will be priced out of being able to participate when supplies of wild harvested specimens are stopped or severely restricted. It will be as crippling as or worse than what has historically happened to the bird and reptile keeping hobbyists that were also slow to respond to similar warning signs and proposed legislation for so many years. The reef aquarium hobby could be irreparably handicapped. Instead, we must look to the successful model of the ornamental freshwater aquarium industry to see how we may continue to enjoy our magnificent hobby through the support of more organized propagation and aquaculture.

MD: Out of curiosity: do you hang those reef posters you publish on your own walls, or is that just for über-geeks like us?

AC: A geek is a geek my friend. I have other aquarium hobby posters gracing my walls just the same… and some on my ceilings! The rest are in storage. I avidly collect aquatic hobby and science literature of all kinds for a broad library on the subject.

MD: Does raising magnesium really combat algae, and how does that occur? What role does raising magnesium play and how does it affect algae growth on a chemistry level?

AC: This question is a good example of how increased attention to a fundamental parameter of water quality or husbandry—at large—can have a desired effect. But let us not confuse the cause with the cure. That is to say increasing magnesium in most any aquarium will not singly reduce nuisance algae. Neither will raising RedOx. But legions of aquarists have experienced the desired result (reduction in pest algae) from taking the two aforementioned actions.

Yet, guess what works equally well in a stocked reef aquarium with a hearty load of corals battling an encroaching algae? Increasing light! Or rather, improving the clarity of water and penetration of light with improved carbon and/or ozone when lamp quality is good, or replacing aged lamps when their spectrum has shifted unfavorably.

In this case, you may ask yourself, how can something (light) that is not physically altering the water in chemistry have a like impact on reducing algae as increasing magnesium or increasing RedOx? The common thread to these “cures” (and other products and actions that some folks would like to believe are “silver bullet” cures for pests) is that the change alone shifts environmental conditions more in favor of the higher order organisms (our corals) that can in turn thrive better and outcompete the lower order species (pest algae, in this case). Furthermore, someone already attuned to improving tank conditions to reduce a pest algae is likely doing more than one favorable thing (be it husbandry or chemistry) than the perceived sole action that he or she believes will make the difference. The overall mindset of such hobbyists is focused on improving the tank and some improvements may be easily made subconsciously (such as cleaning the skimmer neck and collection cup more often, better feeding techniques or other means of nutrient export).

As with so many other unnecessary mysteries of aquatic husbandry, we need only look to the natural environment for answers and cures. Is it really a surprise that our beloved corals suffer from encroaching algae in aquaria where they’d prefer high RedOx, high oxygen [super]saturation levels and stable mineral water quality but instead must endure clogging water pumps, lower oxygen, falling RedOx, rising nutrient level and excess organic “toxic soups” that some neglected aquaria stray into?

It is also no surprise that such bad environs on and near living reefs are home to the same nuisance algae species that home aquarists battle. These dynamics are not rocket science, my friends. Good supplements, good lighting and good husbandry practices (frequent water exchanges); creating conditions similar to where our corals are collected from are more favorable to supporting those corals to outcompete any other desirable, undesirable or unnatural (to the biotope) species.

Your due diligence and good habits will furthermore have synergistic effects on a healthy reef aquarium. But please do not attribute your success in battling pest organisms to any single action such as increased magnesium, ozone use or a popular supplement.

MD: You stay very busy traveling and speaking to clubs, governments and businesses on a wide variety of aquatic subjects. How do you find time to maintain your own aquariums and do research? Do you ever think “to heck with it, I’ll just get a betta?”

AC: Fair question indeed… and it is one that I get asked often. Tuned folks and friends in our beloved hobby see how active I’ve been for so long and regularly ask me how I do it. Frankly, I have some unfair advantages. To begin with, the mentoring aspect of my participation (consulting governments and commercial interests, as well as hobby organizations) is simply a driven labor of love. It has been a gift from God since my childhood when I knew I wanted to be as much of a teacher as I did a student. I happen to be blessed to be able to do that with something I love: aquatic science. Secondly, I am manic by nature! It is a clinical convenience, but I am one of those occasionally annoying people that jumps out of bed bright-eyed, bushy tailed and hits the ground running… usually whistling or singing. It’s a bit freakish, really. I can literally will myself in kind to skip a night’s sleep to maximize my time overseas for special visits or projects. I do so at home regularly (almost weekly) to be able to work or write more. I’m blessed with good health: I’m fit, I eat well and I have a refined perspective of mind over matter. More specifically, I believe that, “If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” This synergy of conveniences and blessings (along with a deep affection for small but daily shots of espresso) lets me accomplish a great number of things.

You didn’t ask, but my current “great ambition” is to successfully spawn the sunburst grouper (C. polleni) in aquaria and to successfully rear Centropyge dwarf angels in common hobby tank conditions. I may never achieve these dreams, but I will work very hard to do so and all efforts will naturally be documented and shared.

And, for the record, I have a deep admiration for the so-called common freshwater betta, too. The genetic study and historical line-breeding discipline of this freshwater fish exceeds the greatest efforts of most marine fish breeding efforts to date. I say that without the slightest exaggeration. American aquarists have scarcely been blessed to see the jaw-dropping beautiful specimens of freshwater bettas that never leave Asian markets or at least don’t arrive in the USA because we frankly will not pay what the world market (price) will bear for such beauties.

MD: What is your favorite type of lighting setup for an SPS coral tank? What coloration (Kelvin) of bulbs do you prefer to run and why?

AC: I am deeply pleased you’ve asked that question, for it is one that too many hobbyists spend far too much time debating over and suffering from misinformation. Lighting issues for reef corals during the early 1980s were a legitimate wilderness; there were few answers and fewer solutions. As lighting (product) solutions evolved, however, in the next twenty years, a very competitive industry did itself little service through a series of ongoing (and to this day) curious manipulations of marketing… and a barrage of it at that!

The old salty dogs like me will remember the early days when the advertisements for metal halide lighting proudly touted that their lamps lasted 4 to 10x longer than any fluorescent technology and had spectra that were as good or better. Those statements by and large were true then and to this very day, and the hobby advanced for it. More reef keepers kept more species of coral more successfully and they didn’t change their halide bulbs every 6-10 months as most fluorescents lamps required (and mostly still do) to be effective over zooxanthellate corals. In time, however, some halide lamp manufacturers realized they did too good of a job promoting lamp lifespans of 18, 24… even 48 months, and their advertising changed.

So too did the lamp color temperatures offered as competing manufacturers tried filling in the gaps between and already satisfactory gamut of lighting choices. Some PR people tried to make arguments (bunk as they largely were) that certain and various colored lamps (always the newest ones released) were somehow better than the last ones. There were shreds of truth in the claims too… initially, 4,000 Kelvin was too warm for most aquarium corals to look colorful in aquaria. And the relatively dated (early stages) advent of 20,000 Kelvin bulbs had like problems on the opposite (almost literally) end of the color spectrum (their color rendition was good with some corals but the PAR values were too low for great coral growth).

It was the in-between stages of lamp color temperatures that the manufacturers battled it out on, a literal roller coaster of lamp colors being offered and recommended. And all without addressing consumers about the crucial obligation to reckon the specific needs of specific corals before one could select a lamp color (presuming your aquarium had a compatibly standardized range of species with like lighting requirements… hardly the case in common garden reef aquaria). It was as if countless years of evolution did not matter and some marketing genius could be counted on for the next best thing every six months to save our reef aquaria.

What few people can dispute is the very finite (relative) niche in which zooxanthellate corals live on coral reefs. Don’t just take my word for it… look at the maps. You can see the extremely limited range of coral reefs geographically and by their occurrence at depth (by population density particularly). The corals we commonly keep in aquaria occur in an extremely minute vector, by any definition. And the light on these reefs has been measured every which way you can imagine for a range of research purposes; it is no great mystery. Without delving deep into data (your reward for reading my rant this far), your lighting decisions can be simplified and categorized just a couple of different ways.

First, and most importantly: define what you are keeping. What type of specimens do you have and what are their needs? Do you have a thoughtfully composed assembly of species from a biotope with like requirements? Or do you have a more random garden-variety mix, like most hobbyists? If you intend to keep corals from dramatically different parts of the reef or near-reef regions—or different oceans altogether—then you must first accept that any standardized lighting is not going to keep all of your display corals optimally in growth and/or color. That’s not to say that you cannot have a beautiful tank of garden-variety specimens. But you will need to lower your expectations for having the best color and/or best growth in all specimens.

This is a very common complaint of SPS keepers that tend to fair better with colorful (shallow) Acropora or (deep) Montipora, but not both equally well due to the generally disparate light and water flow needs of members of these two genera. You simply cannot homogenize lighting for corals separated on the reef by extraordinary ranges of depth, water quality and even oceans away and expect them all to just adapt. It would be unrealistic for anyone to expect a handsomely colored Pacific “mushroom anemone” (corallimorph) collected on the lower end of the photosynthetic range to thrive alongside a bright yellow Porites cylindrica (yellow finger coral) collected in one meter of water on the equator; it is a physical impossibility to standardize lighting for two such animals in the shallow depth of a home aquarium. We cannot even do it for more closely related specimens, such as Atlantic Ricordea, which can be collected in ankle-deep water, and then placed in aquaria with their Pacific corallimorpharian kin. Their respective lighting and nutritional needs are not reconcilable in a small home reef aquarium so in time one group almost always fares better than the other.

In summary, the reality is that most hobbyists are not doing research and are not setting up very specific biotope tanks. Most reef keepers simply (God bless them for it) want to have a beautiful display aquarium of random specimens and to share it with loved ones and friends. For you, and most aquarists, I give the following advice: if you want to strike a balance between good color and good growth in a majority of the corals you are likely to keep, seek lamp combinations that approach but do not exceed an average of 10,000 Kelvin. The more of the warm end of the spectrum you enjoy (towards 6500 Kelvin), the more growth you will likely see in your corals.

If you favor shallow water corals (as so many pastel and uniquely colored Acropora are in the trade), you will want to heavily employ lamps in the 6500-10,000 Kelvin range. If, however, your preference is for larger polyped corals—such as Fungiids, Euphylliids (Hammer, Octopus, Torch) and other fleshy (especially) free-living stony corals and corallimorphs collected from the depths—then blue weighted spectra will serve you better; 14,000-20,000 Kelvin will generally give you more pleasing colors (though still not especially good growth).

Above all, do your homework to find lamps of high PAR (photosynthetically active radiation) values, or at least those with a high CRI rating (color rendition index), ideally over 90, where the sun is the benchmark at a rating of 100.

MD: You’re one of the most well-known aquarists in the world. Of your peers, whose work influences you? What books or websites might you recommend to other hobbyists out there?

AC: There are many great folks and organizations to cite. I will try to be concise here in an effort to serve the greater good. Among aquatic science publications, I recommend Fabricius and Alderslade (2001) “Soft Corals and Sea Fans,” Veron’s “Corals of the World” for stony corals and the various works of the Littlers for marine plants and algae. These authors comprise most of the authoritative works on identification of the aforementioned major categories of reef organisms. For “oldies and goodies,” one of the most unique and useful aquarium hobby books ever written, in my opinion, is “”The Living Aquarium” by Crescent Publishing (1981). It has refugium-style display suggestions, DIY tank building instructions and a lot of other rare content. See if you can find it on Amazon.com or from used booksellers. In a similar vein, while there have been numerous references on diagnosing and treating marine fish diseases (some technical and some not-so-difficult), one of the finest ever written was, “Handbook of Fish Diseases” by Dieter Untergasser (TFH press… many reprints). For the average hobbyist, this is the most useful book on the subject ever written, as it is sensibly broken into simple categories with easy to follow flow charts, pathology, and treatment sections. More advanced aquarists will instead seek the recent publication by Ed Noga on fish diseases.

For beginners and general marine aquarium keeping, I have always loved, “The Marine Aquarium” by Dick Mills, Tetra (1987), which has recently been reprinted by Red Sea. And lastly, for more comprehensive books on hobby reef-keeping, we have to look to the following: “The Reef Aquarium” series (presently three volumes) by Delbeek and Sprung from Two Little Fishies and Ricordea publishing, Eric Borneman’s “Aquarium Corals” (2001) and “Natural Reef Aquariums” by John Tullock (1997) from Microcosm/TFH publications.

Website recommendations are somewhat harder to make. There are many good ones, but even more mediocre or bad ones that effectively (though usually with the best intentions) spread misinformation from poor science editing and inadequate fact checking. I can narrow down the reliable sites I favor to the following:

  • www.fishbase.org
    The authoritative database on fishes of the world. Be sure to explore the many links on species index pages to find more info and data on gut analysis (indicating what your fishes eat), reproduction and so much more.
  • www.algaebase.org
    It is a rather scientific database for plants and algae, but it is a treasure of information. Arrive armed with some data or at least tidbits about what you are looking for and you can find much here.
  • scholar.google.com
    Additionally, Google Scholar is a superb way to get fast access to scientific data and papers (some for free… some for pay, though generally inexpensive) on all subject matters without having to slog through general web search engine results.

MD: Will you be participating in any upcoming events we should know about?

AC: For marine aquarists of the world, I have to recommend MACNA (Marine Aquarium Conference of North America) as the single best event for dedicated marine reef hobbyists to meet and discuss husbandry, new products, prototypes and to shape the path of the hobby we will take. This year, MACNA 2008 will be hosted in September by the Atlanta Reef Club and feature a banquet at the world-class Georgia Aquarium. I am delighted to say that it will be my fourteenth consecutive attendance of this annual event.

MD: Do you have any new projects or writing in the works?

AC: I am—and have always been—a prolific writer and photographer. One of my few regrets in life is that I cannot afford to publish all of the worthy images, stories and data I have collected to date. Alas, hobby, boutique and niche publications are very expensive when printed in the United States and especially in comparatively small pressings. I am presently sitting on three unpublished books, I regret to say, for lack of capital. My 3 books, 8 journals and 7 posters printed to date take a considerable amount of money to print and reprint for very modest profits in return. Until I hit the lottery for a grand prize, I fear that my new books and other publications will come slowly. But it is my life’s passion. Time will tell what magical solutions that technology and partners will evolve to help me share a few thousand unpublished pages of data and work, along with tens of thousands of images from all over the world! I take great comfort instead in the tremendous support I have had from fellow hobbyists and industry benefactors to date.

It’s a beautiful world… carry on gently, my friends.

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