In our hobby, there tends to be mostly a super market approach to purchasing animals – you go to a store and select the animal you want from an array of holding tanks containing animals waiting for a new home. While such a selection seems great, it also creates an environment that may engender impulse buys rather than considered choices, makes us feel that instant gratification is the norm, as well as making us feel that somehow, for various reasons, any animal is worth a try in any tank. As people who say we love the reefs, and the animals that live on them, perhaps we should spend more time considering, and getting others to consider, which animals are appropriate for which tanks and which reefers. In Skeptical Reefkeeping 7 we took a general look at ethics and how they relate to our hobby. In this installment, we’ll look at some of the “how”s and “why”s we choose animals for our tanks, why we might think all aquarists are on the same page, and some ideas about how we might make more informed choices regarding the creatures that we put in our glass boxes.

New fish are always exciting, but are more exciting when forethought is put into the fish before purchase. Photo by Rich Ross.

A Brief Reminder to Set the Scene

Skepticism is a method, not a position. It can be defined as a method of intellectual caution and suspended judgment. As a Skeptical Reefkeeper, you decide what is best for you, your animals, and your wallet based upon critical thinking, not just because you heard someone else say it. The goal of this series of articles is not to provide you with reef recipes or to tell you which ideas are flat out wrong or which products really do what they say they do or which claims or which expert to believe. The goal is to help you make those kinds of determinations for yourself while developing your saltwater expertise in the face of sometimes overwhelming, conflicting advice.

Who Should Get What, When?

Everyone seems to agree that a brand new hobbyist shouldn’t purchase deep water fish, cephalopods, or non photosynthetic corals for their first tank, or that someone with a 50 gallon tank shouldn’t get a Blacktip reef shark, Giant Pacific Octopus or a Goliath Grouper. Besides obvious examples like those above (1), there is a huge grey area around what animals keepers should purchase and in which conditions it is appropriate to keep them in. Is it ok to keep a small tang in a small tank with the intention to transfer it to a larger tank when it gets bigger? How many fish is too many fish for a certain sized tank? No one has ever seen this fish before I better buy it before anyone else does! This situation is further complicated by the idea that there is a steep learning curve to keeping animals in glass boxes during that learning curve mistakes are made, and animals are lost. As a keeper’s experience goes up, they often start trying to keep more and more ”difficult” animals, and still there is a learning curve, and animals are lost – even to the best aquarist on the planet with the most resources. How do we cope with that idea? More »

By Rich Ross and Ret Talbot
From Reefs Magazine

Most marine aquarium hobbyists purchase animals for their tanks without much thought to those animals’ origins. This is understandable since most local fish stores and online retailers don’t make that kind of information easily available to customers. Point-of-origin does matter, however, because not all animals are collected sustainably and not all fishers are treated equitably.

Local divers in Solomon Islands harvest aquarium fishes and corals in what is generally considered a sustainable fishery. In part, sustainability is insured through limited cargo space for exports and long-standing traditions of resource ownership/rights. Photo by Ret Talbot.

The marine aquarium hobby and its practices are increasingly scrutinized by anti-aquarium trade activists and environmental advocacy groups, wildlife managers concerned about invasive species introductions and legislators interested in pleasing constituents. A sustainable and equitable trade is a defensible trade; the status quo is not. More important than defense, however, we argue that purchasers of wild animals have a responsibility to know where their animals originate, how they are collected and handled, and what the trade’s effects are on reefs and reef-side communities. It seems that aquarists have a responsibility to treat the animals collected from the wild as the precious commodities they are instead of curios traded for pennies on the dollar.

If you know where your animals originate, you often have a better idea of howthey were collected and treated through the chain of custody. This should be important to every aquarist because a poorly treated animal is less likely to live or thrive.  More »

From Reefs Magazine

by Rich Ross and Chris Jury

The Editors Note: In Skeptical Reefkeeping IX, Rich Ross is joined by our old friend Chris Jury as they try to come to terms with the “impossible” yet confirmed PO4 readings in Rich’s gorgeous reef. The analysis is thorough, thought- provoking, grounded in science and suggestive of a far more complex picture regarding PO4 and its role in our aquariums.

There are many standard parameters in the reefkeeping world that aquarists strive to match in their home reefs – water quality, light spectrum and intensity, and water flow, just to name a few. Rarely do we stop to think where these standard parameters come from, and even more rarely do we consider calling into question the utility of these parameters. This can lead to aquarists ‘chasing numbers’; tweaking water parameters to hit a standard goal. Often times, people think that hitting a magic number will inherently result in a better, healthier tank. In the past few years, dealing with phosphate in saltwater aquariums has become one of the most talked about ‘must control at all costs’ parameter, and in this installment of Skeptical Reefkeeping, we will look at some evidence which calls into question the reliability of testing, the generally accepted target phosphate concentration, and general control of phosphate in reef aquariums.


Rich’s 150 gallon display, on a 300 gallon system, is running a phosphate level of 1.24 ppm, a level at 24.8 times higher than the often recommended .05 ppm. Photo by Richard Ross.

More »

From Reefs Magazine
Richard Ross and Kevin Erickson

There are many terms in the marine aquarium hobby that are used in multiple ways by different people, which can cause a great deal of confusion. This is especially true as it pertains to the origins and sustainability of animals – it is possible to purchase an animal thinking you know its background, lineage, where it comes from and how it was raised/collected, only to find out that you and the person you bought it from have a different understanding of what certain terms actually mean.

Normally, as discussed in Skeptical Reefkeeping III, we would advise people to be aware of the different ways various people and businesses use or misuse terms, and to ask clarifying questions before you risk animals lives or your hard earned money. However, during the February 2012 MASNA Live panel discussion regarding, “Tank Bred vs Captive Raised” (Erickson, 2012), it became clear that there exist a suite of terms concerning the background and origin of marine aquarium organisms that are ambiguous. Even worse, there has yet to be any real effort to try to standardize these terms. If this situation is allowed to continue, the confusion and misuse, whether intentional or not, will continue, and skeptical reefkeepers will continue to shake their heads and say ‘I wish someone would do something about this.’ So, what follows is our attempt to take action.


Designer clownfish are nearly all captive bred and as such are good for beginning hobbyists because wild reefs are not impacted by the learning curve. Photo by Sanjay Joshi.

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by Richard Ross and Matt Wandell

View from the campsite on Enemat.

View from the campsite on Enemat.

When we booked our flights to Kwajalein, we really didn’t know much about the atoll except that it was part of the Marshall Islands, that the underwater life was supposed to be spectacular, and that the US had done nuclear testing in the area and still continues to use some of the islands for military purposes. Initially, Rich wasn’t even going to go on the trip – John Coppalino and DJ Linehan (owner of Tropical Fish Emporium and sole permit holder for Marine Ornamental export from Kwaj) had worked it out to go with Matt Wandell and Luiz Rocha and meet Connor, a local Marshallese fish collector for a week of diving. Near the last minute, Luiz had to go to the Red Sea for work (poor guy), so a spot opened up for Rich. As we started packing, John had to back out, and we found ourselves getting onto a plane without much information about where we were going, where we were going to stay and just how the diving was going to be accomplished.

We did know we were not going to be staying on Kwajalein Island itself because it is a military base; if you aren’t military you don’t get to stay there. Instead, we would stay on Ebeye, where all the local Marshallese live. We also knew that at some point we were going to take a sailboat to camp and dive around some of the outer islands. And that was all we knew. It was actually liberating to jump into such an adventure with no real foundation about anything at all, ready to take what the trip had to offer. As it turns out, the trip was filled with endemic fish, the ups and downs of trying to get stuff done on a small pacific island, terrible and fantastic culinary experiences, exposure to a unique local culture directly resulting from US military practices…. and fantastic underwater life.

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