A glimpse into the colourful realms of coral keeping.
What goes on behind the glass?
I interview a top coral dealer (we shall refer to them as Nemo) to find out what it takes to become a coral dealer. I want to bring these pearls of wisdom into open water. It’s time to look behind the glass of this lucrative trade.
Jack: Hi Nemo, thanks for meeting with me. To start off, can you tell me about your beginnings with the world of coral dealing?
Nemo: No problem, it’s about time I shared my story. I started keeping tropical fish when I was 9 in a small tank in my bedroom. A few years after that I was given a book by a friend which was all about corals. I was 13. I was desperate to own a coral reef tank and to experience the joy of being ruler of the reef. I spent weeks convincing my dad to get me a tank. He wanted fish, I wanted corals. I just really, really, loved corals, and I finally won him over. From there, it was kind of strange: You start building up a relationship with your corals; I got addicted! My dad even got addicted! Our joint tank started small with only a few of the easiest-to-keep corals. The tank continued to grow as fast as our passion and only a few years later resulted in an upgrade in size.
Jack: Wow, I can really feel the passion from here. So, how did you first start selling corals to other keepers?
Nemo: Well after continuous reading and research from forums I started to realise that corals are essentially many individuals, millions of tiny polyps*. I also learned about the ‘fragging process’. Depending on the coral, you can break them into pieces and propagate them just as you would when taking a cutting of a plant. At this time, I had leather corals and I would take them out of the tank and cut off the extremities using scissors. I then sold these sections of coral on eBay! These leather corals are very resilient so can simply be chucked in a moist sandwich bag and posted, first class signed for delivery, to the lucky bidder.
Jack: So there is no dark web for coral? How did selling a few pieces of leather coral on Ebay evolve into the business it became?
Nemo: After the leather corals, I then had the brain wave to move into algae. I made a few ‘s’quid out of it too! Put in the refugium–a separate tank sharing the same water flow– an alga named Chaetomorpha can absorb and limit the level of excess nutrients (e.g. nitrogen and phosphorus), and provide the preferred environment for healthy corals to grow. Thus, I started to sell the alga on eBay as well! This made me about £400, a good wage for a 15-year-old. I didn’t even tell my dad at the time, we laugh about it now though. Things naturally progressed as my coral collection grew into the realm of hard corals – one of my favourites was Montipora spp. I would use a chisel to break off small pieces and regrow it to increase my stock and as a new product for my portfolio. I would trade the fragments with my local fish store for fragments of other species to really build up my deck of corals and keep selling online. Kind of like trading Pokemon cards.
Jack: Can you tell me the name of the original eBay shop name?
Nemo: I don’t want to give too much away but sure…Corals R Us.
Jack: When you set out, did you envisage your small-scale trading to grow into this coral empire?
Nemo: No, not at all. I didn’t envision my addiction going this far at all yet here I am.
Jack: Tell me about the highs and lows of coral dealing?
Nemo: A low to start. Corals are very fragile to changes in the water environment. I had my heater breakdown causing the water to reach 35 degrees. It killed the lot. I was so disheartened to see my corals die after 3 years of work. I ended up buying a thermostat kit and wired my own thermostat into an old ice cream tub. It was incredibly dodgy-looking, but it saved money and worked well at regulating my water temperature much better.
Jack: And a high…?
Nemo: My clown fish would never use the new bubble tip anemone I had bought for them, they continued to use the leather corals. After two weeks frustration I visited a trustworthy online forum for advice. I used suggested methodology, involving a laminated image of a clownfish attached to a stick, to coax the fish into his new home.
Jack: Tell me about rules, restrictions and laws. What about the risk of alien invasion, is that something you have to be conscious of when selling coral?
Nemo: Luckily not with tropical corals and fish. There is no chance of these species surviving if they were flushed away and ended up in our ecosystem here in the UK. The water is just not right…too cold.
Jack: Now, as an expert in coral, what would you tell your younger self when he first dreamed of his own coral tank? What advice would you give to that young person?
Nemo: Something I was naïve about when starting out and something I continue to learn whilst completing a degree in marine biology is the way the animals are harvested. They can be harvested directly from the reef which can be completely unsustainable. Looking back, I would not have contributed to that industry by making some of the purchases I did. It is so important to know where your livestock comes from! Coral propagation is great as you are not contributing to taking coral and fish from the wild.
Jack: What is the most important thing you learned from this hobby and how has this influenced you?
Nemo: I learnt quickly that corals are some of the most delicate species on our planet and some of the most fundamental. 25% of species in the ocean live part, or all of their lives on coral reefs! The more important you realise they are, the more you grow to love them. I have learnt how vulnerable they are to human activities and this has inspired me to not only study marine biology but to become an underwater photographer/filmographer to aid in conservation efforts.
Jack: Incredible! Thank you for your time today, but I would like to ask one final question for my readers, if I may? Can you give a 4-step power-plan to achieve coral-tank-greatness?
Nemo: Yes! Ok so number 1… the most important: think before buying! The key is to read about it and educate yourself first. There are so many books and forums to learn about keeping, set-up, species etc. A good book I read was ‘The New Marine Aquarium’ by Michael S. Paletta.
2: Get yourself a pair of scissors. Those corals need to be cut in order to propagate.
3: This one is a bit of a joke but great for younger people…Get a financially-supporting family member hooked. They can fund your addiction as coral tanks are expensive to run!
4: It can be the most rewarding and demoralising hobby. When things go wrong, just learn from the mistakes and don’t give up.
Jack: So, I guess in conclusion, Educate, Equip, Evoke and Endure!
Nemo: Yes! That is exactly what I was about to say!
Jack: Thank you Nemo, this has been a fantastic insight!
Both informative and interesting, Nemo made some valuable points with regards to the logistics of keeping coral and the fragile state tropical coral reefs are in. Our global coral reefs are in a dire situation due to threats from humans. Only 7% of the Great Barrier reef escaped bleaching in 2017 and that is not all…Coral reefs are at risk from other threats too, such as overfishing and pollution. The situation is very complex but the outcome is that losing coral and the ecosystem it creates would be a catastrophe.
It’s not all bad news though! A recent success story hit the news as Belize transcended the endangered list. There are many initiatives being employed by Belize to improve the reef’s health and conserve it; to name a few: A moratorium on offshore drilling, environmental taxes (the money goes directly to conservation), and an increase in ‘no-take’ zones. If we can learn from Belize and the direct action it is taking, we can start to mitigate and reverse the damage done.
*Polyps are the small individual parts of the coral colony.
Photo Credit: Andy Ball
Author of the article.
Jack grew up on the coast in Devon and spent much of his time in the water. He has been a self-professed naturalist since he can remember and joined Greenpeace when he was 12. Now with a masters degree he is working in animal behaviour and hopes to continue working for positive change in the oceans and environment. He is also involved in activism fighting food waste and marine plastic through various organisations.
UK Coordinator, The Black Fish