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Progress in sustainable propagation of marine aquarium invertebrates in the U.S. Affiliated Pacific Islands

Simon Ellis

March 28, 2000 on #reefs

Simon received an undergraduate degree in Marine Biology from Edinburgh, Scotland and a masters degree in Fisheries and Aquaculture from LSU in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He then spent 5 years in the Bahamas running a marine foodfish hatchery and cage farm. In 1997 he was hired by the Center for Tropical and Subtropical Aquaculture in Hawaii to promote sustainable aquaculture techniques in the U.S. Affiliated Pacific Islands. He works on a variety of topics, concentrating mainly on black pearls, commercial sponges and marine invertebrates for the aquarium trade. In the aquarium field he conducts training, research and technology transfer for giant clams, corals and other commercially valuable marine invertebrates.

Welcome to #reefs everybody. Today we have Simon Ellis over to discuss "Coral and Clam Farming in the US Affiliated Pacific Islands". Welcome Simon, you have the floor.

Good evening everyone. I would like to start by giving you 2-3 paragraphs of background on my work and the region in which I live. My name is Simon Ellis and I am an employee of the College of Micronesia Land Grant Program in Pohnpei, FSM. (Federated States of Micronesia). My job is to promote the development of a environmentally sustainable and economically viable aquaculture industry in the U.S. Affiliated Pacific Islands. I am funded by the Center for Tropical and Subtropical Aquaculture ( which is one of the USDA funded Regional Aquaculture Centers.

So where and what are the U.S. Affiliated Pacific Islands?

These islands consist of six islands groups that have some affiliation with the United States. They consist of Guam, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), Palau, Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) and American Samoa.

(Figure 1 map of Oceania) (map)

With the exception of American Samoa, which is geographically distinct, these island states cover an ocean area the size of the contiguous 48 US states otherwise known as Micronesia. Micronesia is so called because of the tiny land masses of most of these islands. At the end of WWII the United Nations took these previously Japanese occupied islands and lumped them into what was called the United Nations Trust Territories which was administered by the United States. For any war buffs out there these islands played an important part in the Pacific War and have a number of well known land marks. These islands groups include Midway (part of the US); Truk lagoon, the wreck diving Mecca in the FSM;

Bikini and Enewetak atolls in the RMI, site of the US nuclear testing in the

Pacific; and Kwajalein atoll in the RMI modern day site of the star wars initiative testing.

The lack of land resources throughout this region and the abundance of pristine sheltered lagoons make it imperative that local populations be trained how to manage their marine resources sustainably over time. Mariculture plays an important role in this management and is where I come in. The goal of my work is to help provide the peoples of Micronesia with a cash generating alternative to fishing and terrestrial farming. This work also helps to promote a better understanding of the marine environment and its conservation. Considering the average annual per capita income in the FSM and RMI, where I do most of my work, is only about US$1500, a little bit of income can go a long way. Currently my program promotes the farming of Black-lip pearl oysters, sponges and marine ornamentals. These types of mariculture were chosen and promoted for the following reasons: the species already exist in Micronesia and are being cultured in other parts of the Pacific; the culture techniques for these animals are for the most part simple and easy to transfer to local populations; these animals provide export revenue and the culture techniques are environmentally friendly and sustainable. It is the marine ornamentals that I am going to talk more on today.

Under the heading of marine ornamentals there is currently culture of giant clams, hard and soft corals, sponges and anemones, zoanthids and corallimorphs going on in the region. Some techniques are fully commercialized and others are purely experimental.

Giant Clams

Giant clams have been the area that has received the most input in this region over the last 12 years.

Pictures at:

The result of this focus is a widely established giant clam farming industry in the region. Government run giant clam hatcheries exist in American Samoa, Palau, RMI and Pohnpei and Kosrae in the FSM. These hatcheries vary in complexity from simple plywood tanks and pumps powered using solar energy (Figure 2. Hatchery tanks in Mili Atoll, RMI) to more advanced concrete block raceway facilities with utility power sources

(Figure 3. Concrete raceway at RRE Giant clam farm). Government hatcheries provide young clams for stock enhancement work and also to village based farmers who grow the clams in submerged cages in the lagoon

(Figure 4. Submerged giant clam cages).

These clams are later marketed through the central hatchery thereby providing some income to the farmer. There is also one large private producer of giant clams in the region, the RRE Giant clam farm in Majuro, RMI. Clams grown for the aquarium trade are almost exclusively Tridacna maxima and Tridacna crocea as these animals have the finest colors (Figure 5. Tray of T. maxima). Palau is the only area where Tridacna crocea occurs naturally and they currently are not selling many of these clams. The less colorful but faster growing Tridacna derasa and Tridacna squamosa are also widely available.

As many of you may know, all giant clam species are protected under the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). While there is still some wild collection of giant clams for the aquarium trade throughout our region it is hoped that farming will eventually replace this practice.

Hard and Soft Corals

This is area is still in the developmental stage in most areas although one company in Palau (Belau Aquaculture) has done some pioneering work in this area and is in full production of soft corals, ornamental sponges, corallimorphs, anemones and zoanthids. As many hobbyists know from practical experience, propagating many species of coral through fragmentation is very easy to do. By encouraging farmers to sustainably propagate commercially valuable frags in otherwise unutilized areas of lagoons, such as sandy bottoms, reefs can remain largely undisturbed and in good condition.

Encouraging farmers to propagate corals also gives them a sense of ownership of the reef and encourages them to preserve it. Farms are simple and require little start up capital. Metal trestles are often used to raise the corals above the sand or in areas with a heavy slope. As with giant clams however assistance is generally needed in shipping and marketing these animals. Soft corals are generally fragmented and allowed to attach passively to a gravel substrate such as basalt or coral rubble. Toothpicks or skewers are often used to anchor the coral to the substrate during attachment. Hard corals are attached to a concrete disk or a piece of live rock using an epoxy putty. We have found Z spar splash zone putty to work the best under water.

Here are some pictures of an experimental farm operating here in Pohnpei.

Figure 6. Is a trestle placed on a sloping sandy bottom

Figure 7. Shows some hard coral frags

Figure 8, 9, & 10 show some soft coral frags.

Ornamental Sponges

Belau Aquaculture in Palau is currently the only farm growing ornamental sponges in the region. Simple fragmentation techniques similar to those used on soft corals are employed. Figure 11. Illustrates one method of attaching sponges to pumice rock.

Zoanthids and Corallimorphs

These are cultured using simple recruitment methods. Coral or concrete disks are placed around beds of wild zoanthids and corallimorphs. The animals recruit onto them as they multiply and grow. This method also works well with soft corals such as Briareum and Xenia.


Again, Belau Aquaculture is the only company culturing anemones. The proprietor Larry Sharron assures me has a good method for reproducing these animals but he not giving away any secrets. A picture of one of Larry's green carpet anemones is shown in Figure 12.

While this is a very brief over view of ornamental aquaculture in the region I would be glad to answer any questions on the topics above. I am also very interested to get feedback from you the hobbyists on what you want to see from cultured inverts in terms of substrates and species. This will be very useful information for our farmers.

Many thanks for giving me the opportunity to speak on this forum.

Simon Ellis

Q & A

Have you worked with ornamental fish at all?

No, I sure haven't. I used to run a marine food fish hatchery raising grouper and snapper. Some of the operations procedures are similar.

How big do they usually grow the clams to (size) before they sell them to the commercial market?

Minimum size is 1-2 inches for maxima and crocea. I have seen much larger farm raised clams such as 7-10 inch derasa and gigas being sold though. A 2-3 inch maxima in tank conditions takes 2 years to raise on average

Simon,, this image goes against what we as hobbyist have learned. Never expose your sponges to the air as it will get trapped in and the sponge will die can you comment on your technique please for durations of 36 hours or more?

Sorry about the delay I just wanted to look at the picture. It was taken underwater. You are absolutely right about exposure and sponges though, they die very quickly if water is allowed to drain from them. This tends to vary slightly with the species in question.

Do the farmers have to do anything special for the clams out on the sandy bottoms?

Yes, they are usually placed in horticultural nursery trays or on wire mesh to stop them sinking. They are also usually raised off the bottom on rebar trestles because burrowing worm and shrimp activity throws up sand and smothers the clams.

Do clam farmers really use ammonium nitrate and urine to "feed" the clams in their systems?

We don't usually pee in the tanks but ammonium nitrate is widely used in land based systems. This is added at a rate of 2 g per 1000l of water ever morning. It significantly increases growth rates.

Is there a larger demand for cultured ornamentals than there is supply, or is it the other way around?

That is a good question. I think cultured ornamentals are an acquired taste for many hobbyists. Most small giant clams sold today are cultured but corals and others are just starting out. I would be interested to get some of your feedback on how you perceive cultured animals.

Simon, do the farmers typically rely exclusively on natural food in the water for the inverts or are any supplementing their farm areas with nutrients or food?

Most farming occurs in the lagoon where they are relying purely on what is in the water and sunlight.

I've heard that Fiji is initiating a farm, can you verify that and if so, do you have any idea on its main focus?

I am afraid I do not work in Fiji. However, the Fiji gov. has a clam hatchery but I am not sure what there production and goals are. I hear Walt Smith is looking at starting some farming activity but again I cannot give reliable details. se

Who is selling these here in the States? Also how much is the farmer getting per piece and what can we expect to pay?

Many of the farmed clams go to SDC and Harbor Aquatics. Most of the other inverts are being sold by Belau Aquaculture and I am currently uncertain where they are selling their product. For cultured product to remain competitive farmers will not receive a large amount for their corals. However, as many of you know fragging corals is easy and farmers do not need to make a lot of money out here. Most of the work is in the shipping and marketing so wholesalers will need to take a cut. I do not believe that cultured product should have to cost significantly more than wild collected product. It is hard for me to generalize but as an example a cultured Sarcophyton selling to the wholesaler for $3 may only net the farmer a buck.

How long does it take for a farm raised gigas to grow to 12 inches?

I believe it will take somewhere from 4-6 years depending on the culture conditions Giant clams grow much faster in the ocean than they do in the tanks. Gigas is also a fast growing species. Smaller gigas can pack on almost a cm a month in some conditions but this growth slows as they age.

What kind of rock is that in Figure 8, that the corals are on?

That is basalt gravel. Pohnpei was formed by volcanic activity and basalt gravel is widely available. We use that to show that the product is farmed. Corals attach well to basalt but prefer coral rubble.

Are those trays seedling trays as used in horticulture? (as seen in Fig. 6)

Yes they are. These are widely available, UV inhibited and for the most part cheap. We also use cheap plastic mesh baskets of the sort you might buy in K Mart but these do not last as long.

Any contact info for Belau aquaculture?

Yes you can contact the owner Larry Sharron at He has a wide range of product. I would also encourage you to visit the CTSA website listed in my talk. This site has online versions of a manual that Larry and I coauthored on soft coral farming. I think you can even get a hard copy free

Which shipping method is best for SPS and leathers, wet - on styro, or dry, assuming at least 36 hours in transit?

Leathers seem to do OK wet without styro. Certain softies do not like air exposure so need more water. SPS esp. Acropora seem to need wet styro shipping. se

Where can we get the extension fact sheets, manuals and videos you have produced in the 97 CTSA project?

They are all available from the CTSA website or failing that contact me at I have completed manuals and videos on giant clams and soft coral farming and these are free while supplies last (so to speak).

How can we as hobbyists better support sustainable harvest of corals and clams, besides just buying captive grown specimens? If we do want to buy only captive raised, how do we emphasize this?

I think the best thing is to emphasize this to the person you buy your product from. Wholesalers and retailers like this kind of feedback. However they need to turn a buck too and often feel the need to buy the cheapest. There are also many groups forming now that are looking to promote and possibly endorse good operating practices in collectors and growers. This will help the end user to choose a product that has been taken or grown responsibly.

What is the chain of custody for a maricultured clam for example, once it leaves a "farm" or lagoon?

The farmer will sell to a local wholesaler who then holds, packs and ships the animal. This is then shipped to a wholesaler in the US or other receiving country for on sale to the retailer. This is the usual conduit.

When will production make captive raised corals more available here in the Local Stores in the "states"?

It could be some time. Things happen very slowly here in the islands. If this technology spreads to places like the Philippines or Indonesia it will happen faster. There is also the wild card of US based legislation that may alter the playing field altogether.

I'm under the impression that in Guam and other US territories, corals were protected. How do you expect that mariculture efforts in those places will get around this?

You are absolutely correct. Guam and CNMI (US commonwealth) are protected by US EPA. This makes it nigh on impossible for coral farming to be competitive there. All of the work we are doing in this area is going on what is termed the Freely Associated States. These are sovereign nations that have a close link with the US but have their own laws. These states are the FSM, Marshall Islands and Palau. Despite the tough regs in the Guam some people are very keen to start land based coral farms. I have actually advised against it on economic grounds because the animals still have to shipped to the US mainland. It would be better to do it Florida.

Q & A from Simon

What are the corals you sell the most of?

Mike King: lagoon LPSs

James Wiseman: Yep, solitary large polyped corals Euphyllia

Todd Crail: LPS and Soft coral, xenia

DBW: Finger corals, torch corals, mushroom anemones. Also, trachyphillia is very popular

What are the general sizes of corals you sell?

DBW: Fist to open hand. Large and small colonies are difficult to sell.

liztmap: 6"

Mike Kirda: 3-4 inches. Frags off existing colonies, about 1 inch, maybe 1.5... subtle uncommon pieces what were moved the most

Mike__: 2"-6"

What is the perception from hobbyists and retailers to corals attached to substrates such as concrete and basalt? Also folks, if you receive a coral on concrete, do you remove it? If so, is it easy and does the coral survive well?

DBW: As long as it looks natural i.e. like live rock rubble etc., then not a problem. If it looks out of place, then would be more difficult to sell.

Mike Kirda: Most hate them. Personally, I see them, I know it is farmed, so I'm ok with it. I prefer live rock rubble.

Rick K: Also, the rubble looks more realistic than a concrete disc in our reefs

Tim_: My concern would be chemical impurities, such as lead in the cement mix.

Todd Crail: It annoys the more educated aquarists because they seem to want things natural, newbies don't usually know the difference

LR = live rock

sps = reef building stony corals

That is excellent feedback. Thank you.

How many species do you hold in your tanks? (hobbyist tanks)

Rich K: Over 55 SPS and a 5 year old goniopora

James Wiseman: I have approx. 50 species

Liztmap: About a doz. at any time.

DBW: 50+ coral species, mostly hard corals.

Tim__: 20 to 30 with the cultured crocea and maxima (importer)

jake5045: 35 to 40 Hobbyist

Mike Kirda: Species= 39 nominal species, some have several colonies of same species. Hobbyist

As a retailer or hobbyist would you be prepared to pay more for a coral that met your criteria for attachment but which you knew was grown or collected in a sustainable manner?

Todd Crail: Absolutely

Rich K: yes, absolutely. Cultured corals are the future of the hobby in my opinion.

Megadeth: Definitely, I will NOT buy wild colonies, I will only buy farmed, or trade with people

James : I am the same Simon. I will NOT buy wild collected corals and have not for 2 yrs

Downdeep: I'd pay extra

DBW: Pay more for sustainable without question. But there would be a limit to it, may be up to 20% more, beyond that stretches it a bit.

jake5045: yes

liztmap: I would, ans. to both questions.

Mike Kirda: Undoubtedly, yes, but I fear that that attitude is not prevalent in the general buying public.

James: Keep in mind that a lot of people "talk the talk" but do not "walk the walk" when it comes to this subject.

Todd Crail: However, I would mention that we are not the norm

DBW: Customers here are prepared to pay that much more, from direct experience. Particularly if the colony has a good shape, color, and grows well.

There is obviously a lot of technology being developed among hobbyists and retailers in the US. Do you see the industry moving away from the source entirely and being based in the US?

James : No. I think farming in-situ is cheaper overall. Corals require a LOT of light, which is expensive to provide. If using lamps as opposed to natural sunlight

Mike__: Many seem to want it that way, I see In- situ aquaculture increasing

Mike Kirda: There is a fear here that the hobby will be shut down. Because of this. many people have set up frag grow out tanks in order to trade or sell.

DBW: Hope not, otherwise I would not be able to get corals ;-) (I am in Australia, invert importation is illegal). "On reef" facilities should work out cheaper, you don't have to provide equipment i.e. pumps lights etc, no huge electricity bill, big expense is the labor and shipping.

MegaDeTH: Farms based in the south, say Florida, would save shipping costs & stress on the corals but it makes little difference to me, as long as I can get farmed corals, currently it's difficult

I would like to be that first to thank Simon Ellis for coming by!

Thanks Simon!

© 2000

Created by liquid
Last modified 2005-02-07 05:56