A coral farmer’s harvest of ‘living stones’
Landlocked Steve Lowes raises saltwater corals for the aquarium trade.
Steve Lowes is a coral farmer. He doesn’t live on an island in the Caribbean or even within spitting distance of an ocean. Rather, his farming takes place in 100-gallon saltwater tanks in the basement of his neat and tidy house the color of a warm Sargasso Sea in upstate New York. Mr. Lowes, a native of northeastern England, came to New York in the mid-1990s to work for a high-tech pharmaceutical company.Skip to next paragraph
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He’s a PhD biochemist with a penchant for lovely corals.
Lowes, who grew up landlocked, developed his fascination with corals by watching Jacques Cousteau documentaries as a kid. In college, he learned to scuba dive and began collecting corals from the temperate zones around the world. Since 2002, he’s farmed coral in his basement. There, he propagates, nurtures, and then sells his captive-raised livestock – about 50 species of coral – to aquarium supply firms and pet stores throughout the Northeast. His specimens sell for between $10 and $1,000, depending on their rarity. Lowes is one of about a dozen commercial coral farmers in the United States. Captive-raising coral helps limit the amount of coral poached from wild reefs.
Lowes stands before a 125-gallon saltwater tank – his display aquarium – that holds a glorious array of coral, anemones, and colorful fish. One large anemone looks like a Victorian love seat with purple edging and lime-green interior. The intense colors of the corals are heightened by lighting and the nutrient levels, which stress the corals a bit and bring out the color.
“These are all Indo-Pacific corals – it’s illegal to take corals from American waters,” says Lowes. Corals come in an astonishing variety of sizes and shapes. Lowes does not collect his own coral – that requires a license – but all the coral farmers he knows trade with one another for different species to keep stock varied.
All the corals Lowes grows have a symbiotic relationship with a plant – a one-celled algae known as zooxanthellae – that lives inside their tissue. That’s how corals get their color. When light hits coral, the algae converts it into sugar via photosynthesis. The coral, in turn, eats this sugar. Competition among corals for access to light is played out in the tank.
Lowes points to the top of the display tank. “Look at how that green coral is right up against the pink coral,” said Lowes. “It will eventually grow over the pink one in an effort to grab all the light.”
Corals also eat other creatures such as zooplankton, shrimp, and fish – all of which are in Lowes’s tank. In fact, some creatures in the tank wouldn’t normally occur in nature. An unusual-looking black-and-white clownfish nuzzles the edge of the purple-and-green anemone. “I’m keeping my eye on that,” says Lowes. “That’s a captive-raised clownfish that has somehow been able to build up enough protection against the stings of that anemone that it’s able to hang out inside it now. In the wild, clownfish would never be in that anemone.”