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Captive Breeding with Steve Urick of East Coast Ornamentals
Created by Mother Nature, Nurtured by East Coast Ornamentals

“Ever since I was a kid of four or five staring down into tidepools of the Chesapeake Bay and seeing creatures of my dreams underwater, I was hooked on life aquatic,” says Steve Urick of East Coast Ornamentals (ECO) LLC, the man behind many of our tank-raised clownfishes. From those childhood beginnings on the shoreline of the Chesapeake Bay, Steve has worked hard to merge his passion for aquatics with his professional life. Today, ECO is a Virginia-based, family-owned ornamental aquaculture business that sells clownfishes, as well as several other marine fishes, wholesale to retailers in the marine aquarium industry.

A Grass Roots Breeder

“I feel grass roots breeders are the future of the marine aquarium industry, and we encourage smaller breeders to take it the next level by supporting them when we feel they have an exceptional product,” says Mark Martin, director of marine ornamental research at Blue Zoo. “I have known Steve at ECO for quite some time, and he has even been a customer of BZA,” Mark continues. “It was nice to bring the relationship full circle and receive a shipment of outstanding, captive-bred fishes from him.”

Blue Zoo Aquatics is offering ECO clownfishes as both Collector’s Choice fishes and as regular inventory. Kris Wray, Collector’s Choice manager at Blue Zoo, is a huge fan of these new clowfishes. “These tank-raised beauties are a one of a kind find,” he said upon inspecting the first shipment. “We are proud to carry these fishes and be a part of this wonderful aquaculture project.”

Innocent Beginnings

So how did Steve get into raising clownfishes commercially? It all started very innocently, he explains. “I started keeping all sorts of fish so I could watch them eat and swim. Even at a very young age, I was taken by the notion of maintaining the proper environment for each species of fish to foster optimum growth and coloration, and to be able to observe their fanciful courtship displays.”

Steve remembers that guppies were the first live bearers he successfully bred in an aquarium, and zebra danios the first egg layers.

The ultimate reward for Steve has always been raising a healthy batch of young fish, but something special happened when a Clark’s clownfish pair he was keeping started laying eggs next to their anemone. This was the moment, Steve says, when he decided to fulfill a childhood dream of raising marine fishes, but we’ll get back to that in a moment, because first, you’re going to want to hear about the shark lagoon.

The Shark Lagoon

“After breeding fancy guppies and showing fish for a couple years in the International Fancy Guppy Association (IFGA),” Steve explains, “I thought that 80 individual aquariums were a bit much to take care of, so I dismantled my fish room and built the ‘lagoon.’” The lagoon, as Steve calls it, was an oval aquarium 20 feet long by 10 feet wide by three feet deep. It held 3,000 gallons and took up his entire two car garage. Why did Steve build a 3,000-gallon aquarium?

“Sharks” is Steve’s simple answer.

“[The lagoon] was home to a pair of zebra horn sharks, Heterodontus zebra,” he says, “and a trio of Japanese horn sharks, Heterodontus japonicus.” At the time, Steve was the only aquarium—public or private—to have Japanese horn sharks in North America. He had searched for over a decade to find these fish, which he eventually bought from a wholesaler in Japan.

With a two-car garage housing some of the rarest sharks to be found in the North American marine aquarium trade, many marine aquarists might think that Steve would be content. But, as Steve recalls, there was something missing.

“I have always loved the symbiotic association that clownfish have with anemones, so even though I had a 3,000-gallon lagoon, I wanted a small tank for a pair of clowns and an anemone.”  The small tank was a 30-gallon aquarium housing a pair of Clark’s clownfish and a Haddoni anemone. “It was about four years after I built the lagoon that my Clark’s clownfish pair started laying eggs,” Steve recalls. He lost the first batch of young, but he was ready for the second.

“I was prepared when they laid the second nest,” says Steve, “and I was able to raise about 80 clowns from that batch. My wife and I were both captivated by these little quarter-inch clownfish swimming in a ball and all wagging their tails like little puppy dogs!  I was hooked, and wanted to raise other species.”

After rearing a batch or two of Clark's clownfish, Steve moved on to several batches of false percula clowns, but when he started with true percula clowns with "Picasso" type babies, Steve realized he needed more aquarium space. “I sold the sharks and dismantled the lagoon,” he says. “Needless to say, we still have over 3,000 gallons of saltwater—now split over eighty tanks.”

The Role of Captive Breeding in the Marine Aquarium Industry

Steve, like Blue Zoo Aquatics, sees tank-raised fishes playing an important role in the marine aquarium hobby, although he doesn’t see them replacing wild-caught fish. “I don't think that tank-raised fish will or should replace wild-caught fish,” says Steve. “I am a firm believer there is a place for both in the industry. The importance of wild-collected fish should not be dismissed, as the collection of wild fishes provides important income for many native people, and it imparts to them (and outsiders) the notion that their natural resources are important and need to be protected.” 

Steve goes on to say that he is particularly excited about the role that breeders can play when it comes to difficult to collect or difficult to ship fishes. “It’s exciting to work with fish like the latezonatus and McCulloch's clown,” he says. “Fish that come from protected areas, where the legal collection of a few brood pairs can—and has—opened up a whole new species of fish for many hobbyists. I would be thrilled if ECO could take part in producing a species for the hobby that may not be available otherwise.” 

Finally, Steve points out, without captive breeding, there are a lot of fish that would simply not be available to hobbyists.  “How many snowflake clowns have been collected from the wild? And Picasso, Platinum or Wyoming White?” he asks. “Yes, there is definitely a place for tank raised fish! Wild-collected, maricultured and aquacultured can all be a vital part of the industry.”

ECO Today

Today ECO is located in Hampton, Virginia, and is commercially producing five species of clownfishes: false percula, true percula, Clark's, tomato, and maroon. “We are also raising two other non-clownfish species,” Stave says. “They are the Banggaii cardinalfish and the Brazilian seahorse.” ECO is also working with gobies, blennies, pygmy angelfishes, and other fishes in an effort to develop protocols that may allow for the commercial production of other species, including some that are not readily available to the trade.

What is the most exciting fish species with which ECO is currently working? “Without a doubt the most exciting species we are currently working with is the overbarred variant of the percula clown,” he says. “It is a thrill to see the little ones go through metamorphosis and very quickly start developing the unique and fantastic patterns. Eye spots, eye patches, sideburns, big blotches of white, or jigsaw puzzle pieces, they are all a living works of art created by Mother Nature, nurtured by East Coast Ornamentals.

ECO is still a family-run business, and Steve still keeps some of the brood pairs at his home where he also does larval culture. ECO now leases a separate building for grow-out. His partner is his wife, Maria, who works part time for the company. “My two children are not fish fanatics,” Steve explains, “so we usually have one or two interns or part time or students help with the fish in grow-out, feeding, tank cleaning, and other assorted tasks. We are small, but our business is growing.”

To learn more about Steve’s thoughts on the role of clownfish in the hobby, be sure to read “The Nemo Fish Frontier – The Role of Clownfish in the Modern Aquarium”.

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