The neighbor kid. Your boss. The pizza delivery guy. Your
high school science teacher. The chief of police. The eye doctor. They
are the aquarists, the armchair ichthyologists. Fish-o-philes, if you
will. And they are everywhere. Their involvement in the hobby ranges
from quiet enthusiasm to fanatical obsession, and they support a
billion-dollar industry that continues to grow with each sweep of the
America's fascination with fish tanks began in the mid-1800s, when
colorful freshwater fish were sold as toys and kept in metal-framed
glass boxes called vivariums. By the 1980s, the general know-how
necessary to maintain marine fish became more widely available,
setting the stage for the gorgeous reef tanks that have become popular
today. Within the last decade, affordable new technologies have
combined with an increased understanding of the biology of marine
organisms, triggering exponential growth in the number of tropical
At once hypnotic and thought provoking, aquariums are more than
just colorful curiosities; they help to establish a connection to the
Earth's watery habitats. Among aquarium enthusiasts, there is common
concern for marine life. Most support conservation efforts for aquatic
organisms, and many are outspoken advocates for the fish and other
creatures they carefully maintain. But even as they work to build a
balanced substitute for pool and reef, they may be inadvertently
helping to destroy delicate natural habitats.
Like his fellow fish-o-philes, Søren Hansen's passion for aquarium
fish stems from the respect and appreciation he has for the world's
marine and freshwater ecosystems.
"I really never get tired of watching them, even though I'm around
them every day," says Hansen, who is pursuing his doctorate in the
University of Maine's School of Marine Sciences under the guidance of
faculty adviser David Townsend. "People are always stopping by to see
the fish — it's just something that people are drawn to."
Considering Hansen's fondness for fish (he has an undersea
screensaver on his computer, even though he has dozens of tanks full
of the real deal, right behind his workstation), he was understandably
appalled when he learned the realities of the commercial ornamental
fish trade as an undergrad.
"Ninety-five percent of the fish you find in the pet store are
wild-caught," says Hansen as he inspects the health of some iridescent
purple dottybacks in one of the huge culture tanks at UMaine's
Aquaculture Research Center (ARC). "One of the primary collection
methods involves divers who use squirt bottles full of sodium cyanide
to poison the fish in the cracks and crevasses where they hide so that
they can be collected. This is incredibly stressful to the fish, and
can damage the health of the fish being collected and the other
creatures on the reef as well. (Our) whole project started as a
possible way to solve the problems caused by traditional wild-capture
The project has grown considerably since Hansen and graduate
student colleague Chad Callan first began exploring ideas for
providing an environmentally sound alternative to wild-captured
aquarium fish. These days, there are between 2,000 and 6,000 fish in
the ARC grow-out system at any given time: brilliant-hued dottybacks,
enigmatic seahorses, and the ever-entertaining clownfish. "Finding
Nemo" is certainly not a problem at ARC.
But raising healthy, happy fish for tabletop tanks and
office-mounted aquaria isn't as easy as Hansen and his team make it
look. Working out the details of breeding, feeding and general care
for each species can take months or even years, and the task requires
considerable research and equipment, which has been funded by
Townsend's grants, the School of Marine Sciences, and grants Hansen
has received. Hansen and his team of undergraduate assistants
constantly monitor their finny charges, making sure that water
quality, temperature, space and food requirements are met.
The tiny fish larvae stage is arguably the most challenging in any
aquaculture enterprise, and Hansen's tropical species were no
exception. In addition to the considerable research required to
determine the necessary environmental conditions for raising the
microscopic fish, the zooplankton of the larvae's diet also had to be
identified and cultured, a process that took more than three years.
The research is paying off. With the help of live-food
technician Jacqueline Hunter and undergraduate aquaculture technician
Natasha Hussey, the details of each species' particular needs have
been hammered out and the fish are thriving. Hansen's spin-off
company, Sea & Reef Aquaculture, is already filling orders for happy
pet store owners across the country, providing young, healthy fish
that are an environmentally sound alternative to their wild-caught
"For the last few years, we have been raising clownfish, dottybacks
and seahorses on a demonstration scale to show that it can be done,"
says Hansen as he sprinkled a special diet of pelletized food into a
tank containing a churning school of hungry clownfish. "My current
system is limited to producing about 1,000 fish per month, but when we
go into full production, we will be able to produce a lot more."
Profits are promising, but Hansen is in it for more than just a job
after college. Since the enterprise focuses on fish previously not
developed for aquaculture, the opportunity for scientific discovery
has been very high.
"These fish haven't been raised in captivity before, and for many
of them, no one even knew what the larvae looked like, so there has
been a lot of potential for research in the basic science related to
these fish. What we are working with right now can be applied to a lot
of other species. In addition to offering a safer, sustainable
alternative for the pet trade, these techniques could also be used to
restock wild populations that have become depleted due to
overcollecting and habitat loss," Hansen says.
A number of UMaine undergraduates have been involved in research
related to the project —from egg development to clownfish coloration
—using fish and other resources housed at ARC.
As Hansen moves closer to completing his graduate degree, he is
looking at ways to expand his existing business by not only increasing
the scale of his production operation, but by adding more choices to
his list of tank-raised pets.
"We plan to raise some of the more expensive and exclusive aquarium
fish in addition to the species we already have, and we hope to
provide other aquaculture products. We want to raise shrimp, bivalves,
live food — anything you might need to stock and maintain a reef tank,
with everything raised in culture instead of taken from the wild. The
ultimate vision is to have a business that allows aquarium enthusiasts
to feel good in the knowledge that what they are buying does not harm
wild fish populations and the marine communities."
by David Munson
for more stories from the current issue of UMaine Today Magazine.