Foreword: The Conscientious Marine Aquarist

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Fish nutrition innovator Chris Turk.

I find myself sitting in coach at 35,000 feet on a return trip from my first Marine Aquarium Conference of North America, sipping a drink and slipping into a state of relaxation and reflection on the events of the past few days. At this moment, I am struck with an undeniable feeling of satisfaction inspired by my participation, albeit as a mere spectator, in this stimulating meeting of intelligent, competent, and intensely enthusiastic marine aquarists. I feel incredibly blessed to have become a small but integral part of a force that brings the science of marine biology together with the hobby and business of aquarium keeping—an unlikely fraternity of the academic and the commercial, where the fortunate participants are allowed to spend their lives immersed in the fascination of the coral reef.

Ah, the coral reef—a world like no other, an ecosystem teeming with incredible richness, color, and diversity, immersed in clear, blue water. How fitting that such an environment should circle the globe at its warmest and most inhabitable latitudes.

I am one of the fortunate few who grew up by the ocean and never left it. I have been a teenage mutant marine tropical fish hobbyist, a recreational collector of fish and invertebrates, a commercial collector of same, a fisheries biology student, a grunt-worker-tank-scrubber in aquaculture (just ask Martin Moe if I can scrub a tank or overflow an aquarium), and now a fish-food manufacturer and aquatic business owner. And though it’s been a convoluted journey, exhausting and full of impossible schedules, I feel the ever-increasing presence of a continuity that seems to bring it together and make it all worthwhile. This continuity consists of two parts: the reef itself and the people who make it an integral part of their lives.

Aquarium Science at Warp Speed

The New, Revised CMA.

Bob Fenner is one of these people. Bob grew up perhaps even more involved in the marine environment than I did, so it is only natural that our paths should cross at some point. So here I find myself, some 30 years hence, with the honor and privilege of writing the Foreword for his fine book.

Years ago, the Bob Fenner I encountered knew more Latin names, more biology, more feeding behaviors, more spawning rituals, more authors, and more publications than all of the rest of my more normal marine science friends put together. When I learned that he was finally publishing a book, I imagined his mind racing at warp speed (mere mortals are often left mentally gasping after a session with our author), and wondered how the breadth of his experience could ever be packed into a single book.

What I find in these pages is a carefully condensed, readable version of the uppermost slice of the total encyclopedia of Bob Fenner’s knowledge. We can read with the enjoyment and confidence that what we are learning is valuable, solidly accurate, and based on years of hands-on, sometimes painful experiences. Best of all, once we read The Conscientious Marine Aquarist, we will know at least a piece of what Bob Fenner knows about marine aquariums and marine organisms—and that, my friends, is a great achievement.

The word “conscientious” carries weighty and serious connotations, and I have been trying to determine the bottom line of Bob’s message. What is it that he would direct us to do in order to approach the keeping of marine fishes and invertebrates in a more conscientious manner? Like a coral polyp opening to take in the benefit of light and nutrient-rich water, my mind begins to blossom with a sense of understanding. What dawns on me is that first of all, Bob Fenner is the ultimate “conscientious aquarist.” He lives and breathes marine science, and he cares intensely about you and me and about the animals that we endeavor to keep alive. He is, thankfully, one of the self-appointed caretakers of this hobby, dedicating himself to reading, writing, and always learning. He sees so many things that are right and wrong, and he thinks avid aquarists should see the difference and respond accordingly.

"Keep your fish alive."

“Being conscientious as a marine aquarist,” he says in his Introduction, “means being an informed, intelligent consumer … and it also implies a level of faith in the hobby and a deep affection for the environments we seek to mimic in miniature. It means taking certain responsibilities seriously and doing things right, both for our own peace of mind and for the well-being of our captive charges.” I like that part very much, and I urge you to read his Introduction carefully—then read it again.

When you boil it all down, being “conscientious” is really very simple. Keep your fish alive. Keep your invertebrates alive. Do whatever it takes to keep all of your captive marine creatures alive. Alive is good. Dead is bad. It’s as black and white as the good guy/bad guy characters in a Disney movie. It is more attitude than hard work, more commonsense frame of mind than living by an imposed code of ethics.

Fortunately, if part of being a better aquarist is keeping our marine animals alive, we are much better off today than the marine aquarist of ten or twenty years ago. We now know enough to succeed with saltwater aquariums most of the time. We have the deeper knowledge and better equipment needed to keep a captive marine environment alive and thriving. This is much more rewarding than standing by and watching the demise, fast or slow, of the creatures and aquascape we paid for so dearly and worked so hard to create.

In the pages that follow, you will learn many secrets and special techniques. Bob Fenner openly shares with us from his decades of experience not only as a marine biology student and teacher, but also as a collector, distributor, transshipper, and retail store owner. I, myself, happen to preach the importance of nutrition and feeding the best and most natural foods possible to keep our livestock healthy, colorful, and as close to their optimum condition as we can. Bob covers this topic and many others in a complete and accurate fashion, as only he could do it. You will also find the distilled advice of many of the veterans of this hobby. In short, this book will leave you with the motivation to read enough and learn enough to do things right, and it will inspire you to be careful and energetic enough to get the job done properly.

The Cyanide Story

I think Bob wanted this book to be better than the books we grew up with 40 years ago. He wanted information on husbandry to be thorough and based on the lessons learned by the real experts and professionals in this hobby. He wanted us all to understand the ramifications and history of collecting fishes with cyanide, and his eye-opening chapter on this problem is in keeping with making us aware of the hidden or ignored aspects of our hobby. This chapter will be disturbing to many, but as a former fish collector myself, I feel strongly that cyanide collecting is a destructive and poorly conceived practice made even worse by the fact that it is unnecessary, especially for a collector who is in excellent physical condition, as almost all collectors in modern and Third World countries are. Hand-collecting with nets is by far the preferred method for reef and fish (and collector).

With training and experience, a good net collector can catch just as many if not more fish with nets than a drug collector can catch with “anesthetics.” It’s a different type of collecting, and it requires a different phil- osophy and work ethic. Collecting without drugs requires harder physical work and more creativity, but the payoff in self-satisfaction is immense, and the benefit to fish and reef is undeniable.

All of this is a crucial part of the conscientious equation—remembering where all these fishes, invertebrates, plants, and live rock come from. We must never forget that the incomparable coral reef is directly connected to the marine aquarium in our living rooms. In my view, we aquarists ought to have a commitment to keeping the reefs alive, healthy, and full of their unimaginable diversity of fish, corals, critters, and hundreds of species of algae (yes, algae can be great, as you will read). Let us not do anything to waste this awesome world. Specifically, we ought not to spend money on animals that have no chance of survival. We shouldn’t knowingly buy fish collected with techniques that are harmful and that wreak havoc both on what’s taken and on what’s left behind.

The coral reefs of the world are in many cases still extremely abundant in the species that we admire and want to keep in our own slices of the ocean. That is the good news. We can probably collect enough to keep all of us happy (certain species excepted), and the ocean can replenish and sustain this resource on its own. But if we waste the harvest, we have to collect more and more to supply our needs, and we end up placing serious and unwarranted stress on the environment we cherish and seek to mimic.

This hobby is educational, great fun, and full of many bright and enthusiastic people, but we are far from pristine in all we do. We, and those who cater to us, have left a long trail of dead fish, damaged reefs, and disenchanted hobbyists—too many reefs overfished or killed completely and too many aquariums stored away in the garage. It’s a sad situation and altogether unnecessary.

We can fix these problems if we care enough to do it right. In fact, in my opinion, we are already making great strides, led by a growing number of aquarists who are well informed and committed to being conscientious. In the new attitudes that are gaining acceptance, I see the potential to reverse the high level of attrition among aquarium hobbyists. Unfortunately, I sometimes hear about people trading their aquarium systems in for computers. I love computers myself, but my opinion of this move to “virtual reality” is that we too often retreat from something real to something wholly imaginary. It may not hurt as much when a computer crashes—you just turn it off and boot it back up—but to a successful aquarium enthusiast, “virtual” experiences are never as rewarding as the real thing.

Jump In

A digital ocean is not the same as a dive into warm blue water with 100 feet of visibility and a gorgeous reef below, and it’s not the same as being able to have a beautiful piece of reef alive in your own home.

I suggest you jump into this book as if it were the ocean itself. Enjoy it and use it for what it is intended to be—a practical guide to help you in your endeavors to set up, maintain, and keep a living aquarium. This book is meant to be a tool to make your life easier and your hobby more satisfying.

Make no mistake, this hobby can give us all great moments of challenge. However, if you follow the guidelines in these pages, you will always make progress by the end of the day, and eventually you will be able to sustain the thriving little ecosystem you always dreamed of. Finally, I think the core to all of this is the word “care.” If you care about the animals you keep, and care about becoming a smarter, better informed aquarist, you will be more successful, your animals will be healthier, and the unique rewards of creating a beautiful marine aquarium will be yours. I highly recommend this book to help speed you along the way.

Christopher Turk
San Diego, California

Christopher Turk is a marine biologist and founder of Ocean Nutrition Corp. He is currently starting a new venture, H2O Life Aquarium Foods.