This research program originated with a simple request from a freshman student from Chicago who wanted to grow seahorses . It expanded in 2003 through a grant from the Rhode Island Aquaculture Initiative (RIAI) to Brad Bourque and Skip Pomeroy to examine the potential of establishing a commercial marine ornamental production facility in Rhode Island.
The rationale for this is that the largest US market for marine ornamental species is in the northeast, and locally-produced product would:
- compete successfully with specimens derived from more distant sources – in large part from a reduction in mortality and cost associated with shipping,
- form the basis of a viable, local aquaculture industry and create jobs,
- provide environmentally sustainable and healthier tank-reared product for hobbyists, and
- promote coral reef conservation by reducing the need for wild capture.
There are roughly 1800 tropical salt-water ornamental species that are commonly sold in the aquarium trade, but only about 50 of these are reared in captivity. The vast majority continue to be harvested from the wild – often through environmentally harmful (and illegal) collecting techniques on coral reefs in the southwest Pacific Ocean. These species have proven difficult to rear in captivity, in large part because of a lack of knowledge about larval nutrition and feeding. A great deal of research is needed on culture techniques and the development of nutritionally suitable larval food sources.
At least at first, our interest in marine ornamental production had a commercial focus. We began by developing hatchery protocols for three trial species (clown fish, peppermint shrimp and seahorses) that had been reared successfully elsewhere. We were quickly able to demonstrate our ability to raise these successfully and in abundance, at which time we initiated a series of market studies that included selling product produced in the wet lab wholesale to local aquarium stores.
Many of the fish and invertebrates in the marine aquarium trade or sell for tens, even hundreds of dollars each. Newly cultured species brought to market command a high price, but that price falls as other producers learn to grow that organism. In general, culture techniques cannot be patented and it’s inevitable that competitors will acquire the knowledge. A good example of these production and market implications is the clown fish, Amphiprion ocellaris, which sold for up to $40 each until successful hatchery techniques were developed about 30 years ago. Now, the fish are widely available and retail for under $20 (depending on size). But even with this breakthrough, the success of that film has managed to increase the market such that wild harvest is still required to meet demand.
Despite many attempts, we never managed to successfully bring commercial production to the Ocean State, but among our findings: 1) in general, buyers are willing to pay a premium for local, hatchery-reared product and a tank-raised “ecofriendly” label would be a potent marketing device; 2) we sold six month old clownfish for about $8 each (wholesale) which translates to over $500/lb. By comparison, farmed salmon take up to 18 months to reach market size and command just $2/lb. (do the math!), 3) Don’t be fooled into purchasing such oddities as the “starburst” seahorse ($200 as shown) as its color is diet dependent and will fade.
Large-scale commercial production of well-known species such as the clown fish can be profitable. But, there is also an almost inexhaustible supply of new species for which culture techniques have yet to be developed. The real key to a viable industry will be to develop the techniques to bring new hatchery-reared species to market. A summary of RWU commercialization attempts and some thoughts about the potential for this industry to develop can be found in the appendix.
Marine Ornamental Research Results
Some early breakthroughs include our ability to now successfully rear the fire shrimp, Lysmata debelius (right) in captivity on demand. To the best of our knowledge, we are one of only a handful of laboratories worldwide to accomplish this, and there are still no major commercial producers for this species. Fire shrimp sell in aquarium stores for about $30 (retail) but are still harvested from the wild (Sri Lanka).
We have also successfully reared yellow headed jawfish, Opistognathus aurifons (left) – one of the stars of the wet lab - as part of a student research project. Additional work is needed in order to understand and replicate this success.