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Frag for Fun and Profit

Posted: July 22, 2011, 4:45 p.m., EDT

Corals offer retailers the chance to break into higher profit margin products and repeat sales.

Corals are eye candy, and a beautiful reef display in a local fish store can draw customers in like flies to honey. On top of their drawing power, corals are high-end livestock and represent high profit margins and potential add-on sales for store owners.

Aquatics retailers with the capacity to maintain reef aquariums are capable of selling and reproducing corals in-store, with many potential business benefits. The venture isn’t without risk, however, as maintaining corals is a technical and potentially costly enterprise.

What to Stock

Click to enlarge.
Click to enlarge.
Successful frag displays show off the corals and garner attention, retailers report.
Ethan Mizer/BowTie Inc.
Choosing what to stock may be difficult for retailers new to the reef side of the hobby. In some cases, it may simply be necessary to first focus on quality.

“You want to make sure your brood stock is always healthy, hardy, established and thriving,” said Kris Wray, national director of sales and marketing for Corals Inc. in Flower Mound, Texas. “Be honest with yourself regarding your husbandry experience and species knowledge level. Choose coral species that you are comfortable with and will do well in your [own] aquarium.

“Rarely will you have difficulties with any kind of a corallimorph as well as polyps, such as Zoanthus spp., Palythoa spp., Protopalythoa spp., Discosoma spp., Rhodactis spp., Actinodiscus spp.,” Wray continued. “[Both] are hardy and propagate easily and quickly. However, species within the Ricordea genus can be a bit more finicky and difficult. Another good category to look into is the LPS [large polyp stony corals]. If you are comfortable, but most importantly, experienced, you can venture into the SPS [small polyp stony], [which are] less hardy and more difficult to correctly propagate.”

Many retailers and industry professionals recommended that stores start customers off primarily with soft corals. Both Dustin Dorton, president of Oceans, Reefs and Aquariums (ORA) in Ft. Pierce, Fla., and Jeremy Russell, co-owner along with wife Ruth Taunton of Coral Reef Aquarium in Seekonk, Mass., suggested that the best corals for a store to start with are mushrooms, Xenia spp., leathers and zooanthids.
“Acros are very popular now; acans used to be popular, but they aren’t much in demand now,” Russell noted. “If stores are really getting into the stonies, they need to consider different lighting and water movement, as well as needing to monitor and maintain all mineral levels in the tank.”

Keys to Keeping and Propagating Corals

The key to keeping and propagating healthy corals in-store is really no mystery. Everyone we spoke with agreed that it comes down to:

• Healthy stock—buy only from known and trusted sources
• Focus on lighting, water movement and Feeding. All corals need light and water movement, but different species require different amounts. Some corals may require supplemental feeding.
• Maintain water quality as rigorously as possible, and keep mineral elements at appropriate levels.
What’s in Demand

Some types of coral frags are now so common that it can be difficult for retail fish stores to know which ones to carry, and which to frag.

“Customers want anything that is colorful,” Russell said. “Nobody wants brown corals anymore, even though just a few years ago brown frags were all that we had.”
Within specific geographic areas, for example such as the West Coast, it is very easy for the market to become saturated with the more-common corals, especially soft corals that are easy to frag. It doesn’t take long for customers to have mushrooms, xenias or polyps in their tanks.

“We decide which corals to frag based primarily on demand from our customers,” said Steve Oberg, fish room manager for Preuss Pets in Lansing, Mich. “Since we pretty much do all of our own fragging, when we run low on a coral, we frag a bunch of that variety.”

Pricing Frags

As with just about anything else, supply and demand will determine what prices retailers can get for various coral frags.

“Our prices range from $10 for the least expensive frags, to as high as in the hundreds [of dollars] for some of the newer and rarer pieces,” Oberg said. “The average is $30 to $40.”

Other retailers reported similar price ranges.

“We have found that the frags we can retail for between $15 and $30 are our best-sellers,” said Gary Knabe, co-owner of Elmer’s Aquarium and Pet Center in Monroeville, Pa. “We buy around two-thirds of our coral frags from local hobbyists or from our fish suppliers, and we produce around one third on our own. We do a lot of business with ORA, and we target customers who can appreciate the advantages of aquacultured corals.”

Industry Voices

Is there a chance legal or hobby-instituted restrictions will prevent hobbyists from taking any corals from the wild?

“It could, but that would not be such a good thing. Harvest can be done sustainably. If it couldn’t, then farming would not be possible. At the very least there should always be mariculture in the countries of origin to keep the trade and financial exchange between the hobby and source countries open. This is best for the conservation of reef habitats. Closing off importation of corals is not a good conservation idea. I think wild harvest should always be allowed.”
—Julian Sprung, president of
Two Little Fishies in
Miami Gardens, Fla.

“It’s already there with lots of species. Some LPS [large polyp stony corals] are difficult to propagate, but if they banned new corals from the wild, it wouldn’t make much difference to the industry.”
—Jeremy Russell, co-owner with wife Ruth Taunton of Coral Reef Aquarium in Seekonk, Mass.

“We’re always going to have corals available from the wild. Collection for ornamentals gets blamed for all the problems with the reefs. It won’t come from overseas, as sustainable income for local people is important; but it may come from the U.S. shutting down imports.”
—Bruce Davidson, owner of Sandy’s Pet Shop in Louisville, Ky.

“We only have a few years before taking corals from the wild will be closed off by the NOAA [National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration] and/or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. We’re not sure if imported of maricultured corals will be allowed or not.”
—Justin Credabel, director of aquaculture for Exotic Reef Imports in El Segundo, Calif.

Fragging Corals

The process of fragging most corals is simple, and if retailers do their own fragging in-store, it has the potential to enhance profits and bring in business. The frags themselves can be delicate, however, and specific care beyond what more-established coral colonies require may be necessary.

“The most vital concept to understand is biological prevention tactics,” Wray said. “Keep your propagation system independent from any other systems. Any new animals should be quarantined and treated before introduction to your propagation system.”
The need for quarantine procedures was a common theme mentioned when speaking to those involved with selling corals.

“Most important is to have good strict protocol involved with obtaining broodstock,” said Mark Lamont, CEO of Fish Heads Inc. in Santa Ana, Calif. “Once you have a production system that you know is clean, every time you introduce anything from the outside into it you are taking a big chance that you will introduce problems. If you do introduce anything new, you have to make sure that you use strict quarantining procedure. All it takes is one speck of algae or a little batch of nudibranch eggs and it’s all over.

“The easiest corals to propagate are xenia and other soft corals,” Lamont added. “Corals with a lot of skeleton have to produce and take from the water the most carbonates, and they are the slowest growing.”

Where corals come from may affect their salability, too. Retailers stressed the differences between truly aquacultured corals that have never been in the ocean, maricultured corals that were commercially grown in the wild and “chopped” corals, which are simply wild coral colonies divided up into smaller ones and sold as is.
“Truly aquacultured corals do much better than maricultured or wild chopped corals,” Russell said. “One place I am really sure to be getting aquacultured corals from is ORA. I’m convinced that two-thirds of what is sold as aquacultured corals is really chopped or grown in the ocean.”

To a large extent, it is up to a store’s staff to educate customers as to the differences and the advantages of true aquacultured coral frags.

“The criteria we use at Preuss Pets is that it takes at least a week for a fragged coral to heal, and then around another month before we will sell them,” Oberg said. “We have to be able to assure our customers that our coral frags are growing well, and beginning to encrust the mounting they are on.” <HOME> 




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