To the guests who visit the Aquarium, seeing animals they wouldn’t otherwise be able to encounter is at the core of how the Aquarium fulfills one of its primary missions of connecting people with nature. However, the Aquarium is also focused on safeguarding and conserving wildlife, which has made the exhibition of saltwater fish species somewhat challenging.
Because they tend to produce more numerous eggs that yield smaller, more fragile young than freshwater species, marine fish are difficult to farm and culture in house. This often means many institutions must source their animals from the wild.
For the last two years, our aquarists have been hard at work on a pioneering experiment in raising larval fish using eggs collected from the Secret Reef. Given the industry’s general lack of experience in this kind of work, aquarists have had to endure near-continuous trial and error to establish proper care procedures.
On Feb. 6, however, the program passed an important milestone. That morning, before open, Senior Aquarist Kyle McPheeters and Aquarist II Tasha Esaki introduced more than two dozen Bermuda Chub (Kyphosus sectatrix) raised from Secret Reef eggs into Stingray Bay.
The significance of the moment and what it could mean for the Aquarium’s future impact on the ocean was not lost on either of them.
“To be able to raise fish in house is really where the industry will have to move in the future,” McPheeters says. “To be able to collect eggs from our fish in our exhibit that are spawning, raise them up and return them to the exhibit is very exciting.”
The Chubs hatched from eggs collected out of the Secret Reef on Aug. 23, 2018. They were raised from larval stage to early adulthood in tanks housed above the Secret Reef before being moved to a set of grow-out tanks in the River Journey building in November. Since their introduction to Stingray Bay, they often can be seen swimming in a tight school around the touch tank.
Other species the Aquarium has collected eggs from and is raising fry for include Sergeant Majors (Abudefduf saxatilis), Grunts (Haemulon plumierii) and Atlantic Spadefish (Chaetodipterus faber).
Because of the size of marine species’ eggs and the tendency of most marine fish to broadcast spawn into the current rather than building nests, aquarists sometimes don’t even know which species they’re working with until the eggs have hatched and the fish have had time to increase in size.
“We just gather random eggs out of the exhibit,” Esaki says. “It’s kind of a grab bag, so we don’t know what we’re working with every time.”
With this first successful introduction, however, the Aquarium is one step closer to ultimately achieving the capability of target-rearing specific species.
“In the long term, we want to be able to say, ‘OK, we need more Chubs or Bermuda Chubs in this exhibit, so let’s target those and get more of those specifically,’” Esaki says. “To be able to target something like that and then add it back in is really the long-term goal.
“That’s what we want to move towards. We want to be more sustainable.”