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Ocean Watch

By Susan Scott

Monday, November 6, 2000

Marine animal activist
began as hobbyist

THIS "Ocean Watch" column comes to you from Milwaukee, home of some of the most rare and beautiful marine animals I have ever seen in my life.

Really. I saw here, for the first time, a goldstripe maroon clown fish, a jet gunard and a bunch of adorable scooter blennies. Then there were the eye-opening invertebrates: chocolate chip starfish, an octopus that eats sharks, and an impressive variety of living, flourishing corals.

No, I am not having Hawaii withdrawal hallucinations during this visit to my childhood home. Rather, I've been peeking into the world of marine aquarists.

The door of this hobby was opened to me when a reader, Karl Barthel, wrote asking if flying gunards have poisonous spines. This marine animal enthusiast and I exchanged a couple of emails (I found no evidence that gunards carry venom), and I soon discovered, to my surprise, that Karl lives not near the ocean but in Milwaukee.

Karl started his home saltwater aquarium six months ago and through it became interested in coral reef ecology. His mentor is Rob Moneyhan, a Michigan biologist working at a Milwaukee pet store called Hoffer's Tropic Life Pets. Rob is the local expert on keeping marine animals as pets, and knows most everything there is to know about creating and maintaining saltwater aquariums.

I know all this because I got so interested in this Midwest link to the ocean that after I arrived here, I called these men. Together, they showed me a side of marine biology that I knew almost nothing about.

WE met at Hoffer's, a zoo-type pet shop where people can spend hours browsing and watching animals. Besides carrying freshwater fish, this huge store offers reptiles of every size and shape plus a roomful of saltwater fish and invertebrates.

At first, the marine animals in the dozens of tanks there gave my conscience a tug. I liked watching these creatures -- but is it right to take them from the reefs and sell them in stores? Conversations with both Rob and Karl eased my qualms.

As much as possible, Rob explained, the store buys aquacultured animals. All the sea horses and most of the clown fish there are home grown. Some of the shop's angelfish come from farms, and so do some basslets, hermit crabs and barber pole shrimp.

Also, Rob and the owner are adamant that no one buys any fish caught with chemicals. Sodium cyanide and chlorine bleach make fish easy to catch, but these substances injure the fish, and they die in a few weeks. Worse, bleach and cyanide kill coral, the backbone of the system.

Experienced fish keepers can tell if a fish has been exposed to cyanide -- its colors are too bright and it won't eat. (Before buying any marine fish, make sure you see it eat.) If reputable sellers get the word out, Rob told me, the market for such fish will dry up, and the practice will stop.

These are good ecological store policies, but it was Karl's comment that finally convinced me of the merit of saltwater aquariums. He said: "When I saw how such tiny changes in my tank affected the animals, I realized how fragile the reefs really are. What started out as a hobby is now an environmental issue for me. It woke me up." Because of his aquarium, Karl, who lives thousands of miles from any ocean, is now an ocean activist.

Saltwater aquariums are entertaining to watch, challenging to maintain, beautiful to look at and, at the same time, create marine animal advocates. Now that's what I call a good hobby.

Marine science writer Susan Scott's Ocean Watch column
appears Mondays in the Star-Bulletin. Contact her at

E-mail to City Desk

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