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Coral suppliers cash in on aquarium craze

Sun., March 6, 2011

Wayne Yates is a coral connoisseur, collecting exotic-looking specimens the way some women acquire closets full of shoes.

In five saltwater aquariums, under halide lights, his corals glow in neon shades of green, purple, pink and blue. The glass tanks create a “Discovery Channel” ambience in Yates’ home near Richmond, Va.

“They’re like living pictures,” Yates, 41, says of his aquariums. The colorful corals provide reef systems for his tropical fish, giant clams and hermit crabs.

Last year, Yates spent about $3,000 indulging his saltwater aquarium hobby. Some of his purchases came from a coral supplier in Green Bluff, Wash.

Amid acres of dormant, snow-covered orchards, Henk Borst, 44, propagates coral colonies in a 20-by-70-foot greenhouse for the $500 million saltwater aquarium industry. CoralProp’s online clients are scattered across the country. Like Yates, they’re passionately devoted to their aquariums.

Borst understands. CoralProps LLC grew out of his own fascination with aquariums. A native of the Netherlands, Borst got his first goldfish at age 4.

In late 2008, the former software developer decided to turn his saltwater aquarium hobby into a startup company. He and his wife, Carolyn, had recently moved to Green Bluff from a San Francisco suburb as part of a lifestyle change. Both were looking for business opportunities. She opened a Spokane hair salon. Borst became a coral farmer.

Hobbyists spend “a lot of money in this field,” Borst said. He’s trying to capture a small piece of that market through CoralProps, which he said is close to turning its first profit.

About 750,000 U.S. households keep saltwater aquariums. Avid hobbyists aren’t content with colored gravel and plastic plants. They want to replicate intricate marine ecosystems, complete with coral reefs and interacting plants and animals. A single tank can contain thousands of dollars worth of sea creatures, said Marshall Meyers, a senior consultant to Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council in Washington, D.C., which tracks trends in the pet industry.

“You’re basically keeping a little bit of the ocean in a glass box,” said Michael Hamilton, 41, of Spokane, who describes saltwater aquariums as an “addictive” hobby.

About five years ago, Hamilton’s oldest daughter asked for “Nemo” – the clownfish featured in the Disney Pixar film. Hamilton, a longtime freshwater aquarium hobbyist, set up his first saltwater tank. Now he has three saltwater tanks, including a 200-gallon aquarium. More than 200 colonies of coral grow in the tanks, along with fish, clams, snails and sea anemones.

Hamilton recently came home from a Seattle show with 46 new coral starts – “even though I don’t have room in my tanks.” Then he toured Borst’s greenhouse with the Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Reef Society, a local club. Hamilton bought three more corals. They were irresistible shades of yellow, electric green and red with purple tints, he said.

Retail prices for Borst’s corals start at about $9 for common varieties. A branch of delicate-looking “frogspawn” coral that resembles a bonsai tree runs about $60. His highest-priced items are giant clams, called “tridacnids,” with iridescent-colored mantles. They’re imported from French Polynesia and sell for about $165 each.

Borst spends his evenings filling orders and his days in the greenhouse. Mimicking tropical light and temperatures in Green Bluff requires constant attention.

The saltwater in the tanks stays at an even 78 degrees. On dim winter days, some coral colonies need supplemental light. “You can almost see them asking for it,” Borst said. At the height of summer, when daylight lasts nearly 16 hours, he covers tanks to protect coral colonies from too much sun.

Borst buys wet sand from Florida to provide the bacteria and other microscopic organisms that exists in natural coral communities.

“There are a lot of relationships in the ocean,” Borst said. “This system is a whole little world.”

Coral is sometimes mistaken for a plant, but it’s actually a complex animal colony that depends on plants for survival. Most reef-building corals have a symbiotic relationship with microscopic algae called zooxanthellae that live in their tissues.

The coral provides the algae with a protected environment and the materials they need for photosynthesis. The algae provide oxygen for the coral, along with a ready source of carbohydrates for food. Corals also get their color from the algae.

To encourage faster growth, Borst supplements the corals’ diet with twice-weekly protein snacks. They’re fed a mixture of pureed mussels, shrimp and dried fish food.

Growing a coral fragment into a saleable specimen can require six months of careful tending. And accidents do happen. A tropical rabbit fish that Borst kept in one tank for algae control devoured some of his costliest coral colonies.

Rabbit fish are omnivores, and unfortunately, “he didn’t eat the cheap ones, he ate the expensive stuff,” Borst said.

He buys his coral stock from a licensed marine wholesaler in Los Angeles. Borst himself is considered a “fish farmer,” and is licensed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Farm-raised coral is gaining popularity in the aquarium industry, as harvests of wild corals come under tighter controls, said Meyers, the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council’s consultant. Conservation groups have raised concerns about wild coral colonies – already under pressure from pollution and global warming – being overharvested to supply hobby aquariums.

That’s led to more regulation of wild coral imports, Meyers said, and more opportunities for domestic coral farmers.

Yates, the Virginia aquarium owner, said he prefers to buy domestically raised corals from suppliers such as Borst, or trade coral starts with other collectors. There’s less chance of introducing disease to his tanks. And it’s a more environmentally responsible way to acquire coral, he said.

“It keeps them from taking wild coral from the reefs,” Yates said.

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