Why Don’t Aquarists Support Captive Breeding


No ORA Captive Bred Mandarins

It would seem that the recent musings of Scott Fellman, longtime figurehead in the marine aquarium hobby and co-owner of Unique Corals, on captive bred fish have really struck a nerve. In a recent posting on his company’s Reef2Reef forum page, Scott shared a little of his frustrations about the virtual disappearance of captive-bred mandarin dragonets from Oceans Reefs and Aquariums (ORA). In a nutshell, he was told by an ORA rep that the dragonet breeding program had essentially been shelved due to the lack of support from aquarium hobbyists. This was due to the fact that wild-caught mandarins were far too cheap for the captive-bred variety to compete with. With regards to this news, Scott went on to say “that sucks”, and offered up a thorough virtual “spanking” of the aquarium hobby as a whole…and we completely agree with Scott one billion percent!

To clarify, this is not in any way a reflection on ORA or any other organizations or individuals that breed marine ornamental species or support captive breeding efforts. Instead, this is a look at why aquarium keepers still continue to purchase low-quality wild-caught livestock.

Scott’s article highlights the big reason why captive-bred fish still see so many hurdles…and it’s purely financial. After all of the initial excitement wore off, hobbyists by and large avoided buying them because they were $40 or more per fish. Alternatively, wild-caught mandarins of all shapes and sizes could be had for half that, or even less.

But it isn’t like hobbyists are broke. In fact, this hobby requires a huge investment of money up front, along with a huge continued investment as the tank runs. The monthly costs of maintaining an aquarium are astronomical, with high electric and water bills coupled with having to buy replacement light bulbs, more aquarium supplements, and tons of other consumables really making a huge dent. Based on that argument, one might say that they understand why someone would buy cheap, low-quality livestock. But that’s not the whole story.

After sinking a fortune into even a moderately equipped setup, hobbyists also shell out big bucks for all sorts of corals, if nothing more to say that they have a Limited Edition (LE) frag of the latest and greatest coral. As Scott says in his posting, We think nothing of shelling out hundreds of dollars per “eye” (they are NOT EYES! They are MOUTHS! Sheesh!)…”

Scott goes on to give accolades where due, mostly to the huge amount of captive-bred clownfish in the trade. But I don’t think our hobby is anywhere close to getting the praise everyone thinks it needs. Clownfish are one of the few fish that the aquarium hobby can be proud of. We accomplished that feat, but that’s just one fish out of thousands. Now, it should be noted that many companies and individuals are making great efforts to raise more fish to a commercially viable number, but if the hobby responds to them like we did to the mandarins, then what is the point?

We, the aquarium hobbyists, need to support captive-breeding 100% of the time. It will cost us more money, but in the long run, it will help us out significantly. We will rely on wild-caught fish less, and any legislation that will target species commonly collected for the trade will have a minimal impact because we are breeding those fish in captivity.

In closing, we’d like to yell out a huge BRAVO to Scott Fellman for talking about this. This amazing insight has opened up a great discussion that we all knew we had to have. [wb_fb_f name=”Scott Fellman” id=””]


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  • Gotfrogs

    One reason the mandarins might not be selling well is that several people ( myself included) have not had much luck with the ORA mandarins adapting to a home aquarium. They simply will not eat like they were in the ORA facility. There is a long thread on RC discussing the topic.
    I love to buy captive animals but I often have to go out of my way to get them. Most stores simply don’t carry them. If they are not available in the stores most customers will not have access to them.

  • TamiW

    I’ve heard that too about the mandarins not eating. A friend of mine pointed out that it’s not just the cost, but that she spent so much more and her wild caught Mandarin took to prepared foods quicker.

    I am a seahorses breeder, and been involved in that hobby nearly 15 years. And I run fusedjaw.com, am on many seahorse forums, and speak to many people about seahorses. One issue that the seahorse community has found over and over is that if you ship seahorses too young, they have a high mortality rate. Many overseas seahorse farms send them far too small and most don’t make it. But raise them a little longer, and they have a high survival.

    I mention this because perhaps that is the reason behind the problems with mandarins. Recent genetic data even suggests mandarins are closely related to seahorses and pipefish. So it would not surprise me they had similar problems.

    The success with Clownfish is largely due to their relative ease in rearing, so they can now be produced at prices close to wild caught. And they do seem to tolerate moving at a young age, and eat much wider variety of food.

    I’m disappointed that ORA stopped raising mandarins, but that isn’t an indictment of captive bred fish, but of needing to overcome some of the variations in different species. ORA does great with fish that grow fast and/or can be shipped small. I suspect this is a stumbling block captive breeders have to overcome for certain fish to be commercially viable. ORA more or less stopped raising seahorses, and I suspect it’s for the same reasons.

  • eastamherstbias

    I was just looking for one to buy. I always wanted the ORA ones since I thought they came Frozen Food Ready. $40 for a fish is still pretty cheap. When are they going to start churning out Latz Clowns?

  • SeaAgg

    Speaking of seahorses, the fate of the CB mandarin went right in line with the dwarf seahorse (H. zosterae), at least for ORA. I do believe that is a business decision on their part. While many facilities focus on breeding the same fish (when was the last time seahorse source came out with a new species??), ORA prides itself on being the first to breed a species, and having that new fish that people may have not even heard of. It may come down to something as simple as space and food budget. As for their zosterae’s, they were selling them (wholesale) for $11-12 a piece, while retailers could buy them wild for $7-9. Notice that I’m speaking in whole-sale levels. Let’s not blame just the hobbyists and the breeders. When I worked retail, I would get ton’s of requests for ORA stuff, but often times it came down to a financial decision by the controlling parties, which is alot of why I left that part of the industry. As for ORA, when I inquired about why they quit their work with zosterae’s, a rep told me they literally were losing money on food. They couldn’t sell enough to justify feeding their stocks, so they sold their existing stock, and quit breeding them. I will also add that I had problems with their mandarins, and after our second shipment, we quit ordering them. They would die in even our most established reef tanks, with windows crawling with copepods and amphipods.
    I think what we are experiencing is a change in the mindset of breeders. Not so long ago, most breeders where not much more than over-enthusiastic hobbyists who made their passion into a part/full time job. With demand for quantity and diversity on the rise, companies are having to balance what makes them money, and what makes them happy. I’m sure all the people at ORA would love to never look at the orange and white again. It just gets old. At the end of the day, that is their “bread and butter”, they have a constant demand, so they have a guaranteed income. Many of the other species are simply trials. If they sell, they keep them and encourage breeding/larval development (the latter being alot of the work). If the fish don’t sell, they move on to something else. Eventually you may see some mandarins pop up again, but I think they figured out that it just isn’t a continuous demand.

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  • Geraud

    Indeed for the looks of it, Scott and ORA seem to ignore the fact that a lot of people had bad luck with these captive-bred mandarins. I for one would be more than happy to pay twice more for any fish that is captive bred… if said fish is healthy… and a non-eating fish will not stay healthy for long.

  • My company TerraReef.com could find healthy happy homes for probably 16 or so Mandarins and we would be willing to pay a lot for them. We have not purchased a single mandarin in many years and begged ORA to get on a waiting list. I am not sure how anyone can say we are not supporting captive bread efforts when apparently their is no way to in this situation.

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