RSS The future of the saltwater aquarium hobby

MASA Admin

8 May 2007
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Since this is my last piece for the year I thought rather than reflecting back on the past year, I would answer one of the questions I get asked the most: What do you see as the future of the hobby? Well as Timbuk3 sang: “The Future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades”. And while I admit that there are some potential things that could slow the growth and progress of the hobby, for the most part what we have learned and where this hobby is going is amazing considering where it has come from.

Considering that just a couple of decades ago there were only a couple of hundred of us doing this and then we were happy just to keep something alive to now where there are well over a million hobbyists worldwide and we not only can keep just about anything alive but also get it to grow and often times reproduce, things look pretty rosy.

Reef Geeks from the 80s

So considering the huge strides we have made, especially in the last decade, I really only see incremental improvements in things individually, but when added together I think these small leaps will add even more the success of the hobby. The first step I see in the near future is an improvement in the monitoring of our tanks. And rather it just being a number popping up on a screen I see it being interactive monitoring.

So instead of just being able to see the temperature or salinity or whatever parameter we want on a small monitor, or our phone or computer I see us being able to not only check on a lot more parameters in real time, but I also see us being able to adjust things when we are away from our tanks. Considering how much traveling many of us do as well as how long our hours of work away from home are, being able to monitor and adjust things as needed, even if it is just little tweaks, will go a long way in adding to our success.

Monitoring not one but multiple Apex controllers at the same time is the sign of true control freaks

Personally I think the time is past due that our monitoring systems should not only be able to alert us when something is amiss, such a tank is overheating or the salinity is dropping due to a top-off system malfunction and we can then use an app on our phones to shut of the lights or freshwater pump and save the tank.

I still hear horror stories about people losing their tanks for these reasons so I expect this to happen fairly soon to a much greater degree than occurs now. By the same token I also expect the monitoring we get to not only get more precise, but to also be able to monitor more parameters. I know that MindStream is working on producing just such monitoring for the hobby, so hopefully if they are successful this type of monitoring with eventual ability for interaction will become the norm for the hobby at a reasonable price.

The MindStream is just one of the future technologies already through development and nearly ready to deploy

Once this monitoring does become widely available, I look for the next incremental change to be a better understanding of water chemistry. While our understanding of water chemistry is leaps and bounds greater than it was even 10 years ago, it still is rather rudimentary in terms of our understanding how all of the different cycles that occur within our tanks interact and effect one another as well as how fast or slow different things are consumed or produced.

For example, currently something as simple and important as measuring and understanding the dissolved oxygen levels in our tanks is not done with any regularity, nor is this done for at least a dozen other elements and compounds in our tanks. So monitoring for these on a continuous basis should help improve our success even more.

This improved understanding and monitoring of water chemistry could also allow for us to determine exactly what our protein skimmers and other filtration devices are removing from our tanks so that we could replenish the key things that are removed in a more precise manner. By the same token it would also allow for it to be possible to see how efficient each skimmer is so that a more precise determination of which skimmer works best would be possible rather than the gunk in this skimmer is browner or smells worse than the gunk form that skimmer.

The self-leveling protein clean looks mighty promising

In this regard, I look for continued improvement in skimmer design and efficiency to continue. The use of DC pumps has been the first step so now I look for the next step to be more efficient design so that skimmers will take up a smaller and smaller footprint. And as mentioned above, with improved measurement of water quality and what each skimmer is removing and at what rate, we may find that with this improved efficiency it becomes less and less necessary to run a skimmer 24/7.

We may find that it is only necessary to run them an hour after feeding the tank for a period of time and then shut them off so that plankton and other microfauna can reproduce without being removed from the system by our efficient skimmers. This greater efficiency will also reduce the electricity used by our systems. This in fact is one of the biggest improvements I see in our hobby, more efficient use of electricity.

The Vectra M1 pump compared to a Mag Drive/Pondmaster 24

In addition to seeing it with protein skimmers, I also see it with the return pumps and devices used for creating flow in our tanks. In my own tank I recently switched over to Ecotech’s Vectra pump from the Dart Hybrid I was running, and the efficiency has reduced the amount of electricity used by my pump as well as the amount of heat introduced into the tank from the pump. Both of which are factors that I believe will be improved upon even more so in the future with our water moving devices.

In similar fashion the Gyre pump I am now using has allowed me to remove four other more traditional powerheads, while producing the same or better flow in my tank. While this product has been out for little more than a year, there have already been improvements in its design and efficiency. So in the future I expect there to be even greater efficiency in these pumps or some other water moving devices so that eventually most powerheads will not be used in our tanks.

Maxspect Gyre pump

Just as the improvements in the future of the products mentioned above are incremental, I look for the same kind of incremental improvement to come in lighting. As many of us who have switched over to LEDS have found, you can not only keep coral alive, but you can get it to grow and reproduce just like we did under metal halides and before that fluorescent tubes.

So in the future for these lights I see them also becoming more efficient and brighter as well as less expensive, with the latter being the key to getting even more hobbyists to switch over. I also see the programming for these lights becoming more elaborate so that potentially in the future instead of just being able to follow a simple template the programming may allow for the lights to simulate what is occurring on a reef in Fiji or Indonesia and with the number and variety of diodes being present that the light will be a close approximation to the light that is hitting the reef I one of these locales.

Hydra 52 HyperDrive LEDs with intelligent power management

However, while Sanjay will like the yellow looking light from the tropics, blue aficionados like myself, may prefer the simulated blue light of deepwater. However due to anything being possible with these improved lights, we should both be able to fine tune our lights to whatever we prefer to an even greater extent than we do now.

To take this one step further, with this improved lighting and monitoring it may be possible to combine the moonlight cycles and match them with the changes in temperature and salinity and other factors on a reef so that the combination may better simulate the conditions necessary to get our captive corals to spawn in our tanks.

Having coral spawning with regularity in our tanks in the future is indeed a possibility and would help promote the hobby in a number of ways. First it would show that we could eventually grow our own corals without having to take any from the sea. What would be better than to show regular spawning occurrences in hobbyists’ tanks.

Reefers are already unlocking the secrets of deliberately spawning stony corals in aquariums

Second, if as is occurring now, widespread bleaching events occurred, we could potentially help reintroduce millions of coral planulae back on a reef that was injured and help it to come back much faster. And third it would be interesting to see how much hybridization actually occurs during a coral spawning event in a closed system. While I realize to some that this may sound far-fetched, I think having captive coral spawning occur on a more frequent basis in our tanks will occur sooner than some of the other things I see occurring in the future.

Having said that, one of the aspects of the hobby that will need to be improved upon in the future in order for this to occur is that a better understanding of coral nutrition. While keeping corals in bright light and that is all they need to sustain them is no longer the rule, there still needs to be a better understanding of what foods corals need, both in terms of size and composition for our success with them to reach the next level.

part of a balanced coral breakfast

While there are myriad coral foods now on the market, none to my knowledge have done even a simple study to show that when two coral frags are grown in similar conditions and one is given product X and the other given nothing or a competitive product, the one given X grows, faster, more colorful, etc. Doing these types of studies is what will allow us to get to a better future of understanding exactly what our corals need nutritionally.

A similar understanding also needs to be undertaken with the food we feed our fish. Again while there have been major strides in providing our fish with better food, there still need to be studies done of what foods need to be supplied for each fish in order to optimize not only its size, but also color and most importantly to help it survive even longer than it would in the wild.

In addition, in the future this should happen as we move more and more towards captive breeding of a great many of the fish we keep rather than taking them from the wild. When looking at the success that a facility like Bali Aquarich is having with fish that once were thought to be impossible to breed and raise in captivity like Tangs and Angelfish, it is clear that the future will bring even more success.

the first captive bred yellow tangs

Think of the day when Debelius and King Angelfish are captive bred and raised and are readily available as are some of the rare deepwater fairy wrasses and anthias that we only can drool over in pictures. In the future I expect facilities to pop up and produce fish like these just as facilities now grow countless clown and other fish that are the bread and butter fish of the hobby.

Just as propagation of fish in captivity may help bring more individuals into the hobby, in the future I expect to see more and more facilities producing more and more maricultured and aquacultured corals as well. I also expect that the future will see us bring in corals from distant areas that to date have not been the source of much of our coral.

However rather than like the past where initial coral harvesting was done with whole colonies being shipped from a region, I expect these new regions will start off doing mariculture from the start. As a result there will be little if any impact on the reef and the tourism that a healthy thriving reef brings in. Instead I see this as a way for a region to advertise their reef and the uniqueness of their corals to a group of individuals that admire and enjoy the reef as much as their scuba diving brethren.

A batch of fresh picked maricultured acros from the Farm in Bali Indonesia

As more and more entities begin mariculturing corals I also expect that as the amount of product increases the price will at worst stay the same or at best come down some. I say that, as in my opinion in order for the hobby to continue the exponential growth it has seen the price of some things need to come down in order for newer and younger hobbyists to join the hobby. I say this as I can’t see this hobby continuing to grow in the future when the prices for the main point of the hobby: coral, are beyond the means of most beginning hobbyists.

So hopefully the future will bring a little more sanity in terms of the prices for corals as the supply increases to keep up with the demand. I also think the future will bring more and more aquaculturing facilities. Since the demand seemingly continues to increase for rare and uniquely colored frags, the market will cause more and more individuals into aquaculturing as obviously there is money to be made. So just like once where there were only a handful of people doing this, the future should bring dozens if not hundreds of facilities aquaculturing corals.

Farmed corals getting packed up for transport and subsequent shipping

I know there are potentially a lot of things I have forgotten to mention in this piece, but due to space limitations these are the things I see happening in the future. As I mentioned there are some things that could slow the hobby down, such as increased government intervention or even outright bans in some areas. Or increased regulation or supervision as to who should keep tanks and how they should be run, but fortunately I now think that there enough of us that at least we would make some noise if this were to happen.

I will however point out my biggest concern about the future, and that is that I worry that not enough kids and teenagers are getting into the hobby due to its cost and other reasons. So while the future is bright in terms of what are success in the hobby and what innovations might occur, these would be wasted if new young hobbyists do not join our ranks.

So as a post I read said, “get your kids into corals, that way when they get old enough they won’t have money for drugs”. Happy Holidays everyone and I will be writing new stuff come the new year.

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