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farming soft corals

farming soft corals

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Published by: nlribeiro on Apr 17, 2009
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Center for Tropical and Subtropical Aquaculture Publication Number 140August 1999Farming Soft Corals for the Marine Aquarium TradePage 1
Aquafarmer Information Sheet
Farming Soft Corals for theMarine Aquarium Trade
by Simon EllisRegional Aquaculture Extension AgentCollege of Micronesia, Land Grant College Program, Pohnpei, FSM
Total world retail value of the aquarium industry in1995 was estimated at between 4 and 15 billion $U.S. withplant and animal sales alone estimated at 900 million $U.S.The United States, Japan and the member states of the Euro-pean Union are currently the world’s largest importers andconsumers of aquarium livestock. It is estimated that thereare 10-20 million aquarium enthusiasts in the United Statesalone. Marine species make up only 9% of the volume of theaquarium pet trade but due to their high value represent 20%of livestock revenues. The keeping of marine aquaria, espe-cially the so-called “
reef tanks
” which contain live corals,is a rapidly growing sector of the aquarium industry. Thisexpansion is primarily attributed to recent advances in tech-nology that now allow corals and other marine invertebratesto thrive in home aquariums.Most soft corals found in marine aquariums are col-lected from the wild. However, the high value of marine tropi-cal fish and invertebrates has led to a sometimes ruthlessexploitation of reef animals in developed and developingcountries alike. This fact, in conjunction with increasingconcern over the negative effects of activities such as log-ging, dredging, oil drilling, human habitation and destruc-tive fishing practices, has led to a trend of protective legisla-tion for coral reefs worldwide. Many tropical Indo-Pacificnations have now banned or restricted the collection of aquarium specimens from their waters and are encouragingsustainable aquaculture of these animals. Soft coral farmingis a simple technology that provides an excellent income-earning opportunity for the coastal-based populations of theU.S. Affiliated Pacific islands.
Why farm soft corals?
Given that soft corals are an excellent way to earn in-come, the following list outlines other advantages to grow-ing soft corals as opposed to other marine invertebrates:1. Soft corals occur in many different colors and shapesmaking them attractive additions to a marine aquarium.In addition, soft corals have an ability to constantlychange form by expansion or deflation of the body andretraction or extension of their polyps. This lends adynamic aspect to coral reef tanks.2. Most of the commonly cultured soft corals are photo-synthetic and do not have to be fed. This makes themeasier to maintain in an aquarium setting than theirnon-photosynthetic counterparts that have to be fed.With correct lighting and minimal dissolved nutrients,soft corals can thrive for years in a home aquarium.3. The hardiness displayed by many species of soft coralsenhances their potential as farmed corals, because of their ability to survive handling stress during plantingand shipping. In addition, these animals survive wellin reef tanks making them excellent specimens for be-ginners and experts alike.4. The primary form of reproduction in soft corals is clon-ing (
asexual budding
). Taking advantage of this trait,farmers have developed fragmentation techniqueswhere a fragment of soft coral is removed from theparent colony to form a new colony.5. Relatively fast healing times and high growth rates incultured soft corals allow a harvest time of only 4-12months. This can be a great benefit to farmers in al-lowing high inventory turnover and an early return oninvestment.6. Soft corals have a high value per unit weight whichmakes shipping cost-effective from remote areas suchas the U.S. Affiliated Pacific islands, where air freightis expensive and cargo space is often limited.7. At the time of publication, only a few soft corals arelisted under the Convention on International Trade inEndangered Species (CITES).  This eliminates the needto obtain certain permits and costly inspections in-volved with shipping other corals.8. Soft coral farming does not need to be a full-time oc-cupation. Once fragments are cut and successfullyplanted they require very little tending until harvest.9. Capital start-up costs of soft coral farming are gener-ally quite low.
Soft corals are colonies of small animals known as poly-poid cnidarians (shortened to polyps). These polyps rarelyexceed 5 mm in diameter and are arranged in soft, fleshy,irregularly shaped colonies of up to 1 meter in size. Eachpolyp has 8 tentacles which are
(Figure 1), and are
Center for Tropical and Subtropical Aquaculture Publication Number 140August 1999Farming Soft Corals for the Marine Aquarium TradePage 2
Figure 2.
Sarcophyton spp
.Figure 1. Schematic diagram of a soft coral polyp.
embedded together as a colony in a mass of tissue called thecoenenchyme which is fed and maintained from the gut of the polyps and covered by a protective skin. The colony growsthrough asexual budding and consequent formation of coenenchyme around the new polyp. Special organs, calledamebocytes, secrete calcium carbonate
in thecoenenchyme which give rigidity and support to the colony.Spicules differ in shape and size with each genus and areused to identify different soft coral species.Many soft corals are well-suited for aquaculture be-cause they derive a large portion of their nutrition from a
relationship with millions of 
al-gae called zooxanthelle (
Symbiodinium microadriaticum
) thatlive in their body. While zooxanthelle produce mainly com-plex sugars, they can also produce
amino acids
, a portion of which are released through the algal cellwall directly into the body of the soft coral. The direct ben-efit of this symbiotic relationship to coral farmers is that softcorals can be grown through their entire life cycle with cleanseawater and sunlight as the only sources of input.
Some commercially valuablesoft corals
Listed below are brief descriptions of some soft coralsregularly found in marine aquariums. More comprehensivedetails of these and other cultured soft corals can be found inthe manual titled “The culture of soft corals (Order:Alcyonacea) for the marine aquarium trade” which is listedin the resource section of this publication.
or mushroom corals (Figure 2) are thehardiest and easiest soft corals to grow. They are extremelyabundant in the tropical Pacific Ocean, often occurring inhigh energy areas such as surge zones and tide pools but arealso found in deeper water. Like nearly all cultured soft cor-als,
possess zooxanthelle and generally have abeige, olive, brown, green or light yellow color. They have asmooth base containing no polyps which is covered by acrown which houses the zooxanthelle and polyps, giving thecolony the shape of a large mushroom. The crown may belobate or undulating to increase surface area, especially inlarger specimens. Polyp size, shape and color can vary quitedramatically between species making them attractive addi-tions to home aquaria.
(Figure 3) are like
because theyhave a nearly polyp-free column which differentiates into apolyp-bearing area. However,
have a more branch-like (arborescent) or bushy appearance. They are one of themost morphologically diverse groups of leather corals andcan easily be confused with other soft coral genera. They arefound mainly on rocky substrates and hard gravel of lagoonsand reef fringes throughout the tropical Pacific. All
studied have zooxanthelle and are therefore relatively easyto keep in the marine aquarium.
(Figure 4) and
(Figure 5) arequite similar and are often called tree corals. All these ani-mals have a similar, arborescent appearance with spiculose
Figure 3.
Sinularia spp.
Center for Tropical and Subtropical Aquaculture Publication Number 140August 1999Farming Soft Corals for the Marine Aquarium TradePage 3
Figure 4.
Nephthya spp.
Figure 5.
Lithophyton spp.
polyps. Colors are generally the brown, beige and cream huesassociated with photosynthetic soft corals. They are foundmainly on reef slopes or coral rubble with strong illumina-tion and high water flows.
(Figure 6) and
often look very simi-lar and are easily confused.
have a similar branch-ing structure to
with the same polyp-free stem lead-ing to polyp-bearing branches or lobes. Their body color gen-erally varies from creamy white to light brown and they areusually photosynthetic with dark polyps. These corals areusually found in deeper water on the outer reefs, fore reefsand deep lagoons.
or waving hand corals (Figure 7) are character-ized by large, non-retractable polyps that often pulse. Alltropical species are photosynthetic and have the characteris-tic beige, cream or brown color of their symbioticzooxanthelle.
are widely occurring but are often asso-ciated with shallow, fast-moving water.
Figure 6.
Cladiella spp.
Basic farm requirements
The following provides a basic checklist of needs thatmust be considered when starting a soft coral farm.
Suitable ocean site 
Many areas of the U.S Affiliated Pacific islands arecharacterized by large, sheltered, pollution-free lagoons thatare perfect for soft coral farming. Even islands that havelimited lagoon areas usually have deeper holes and depres-sions where farming can take place. A typical farm site wouldbe located in 1-5 m of clear ocean water and should be awayfrom point sources of pollution such as dredge sites, garbagedumps, marinas and sewage outfalls. Soft corals prefer fullstrength seawater and will quickly die if exposed to brackishwater or freshwater for long periods. For this reason sitesshould be located away from freshwater sources such as rivermouths. Light is important for coral growth and only mildwater cloudiness can be tolerated.
Figure 7.
Xenia spp.

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