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Field Report from Fiji - Genus Hydnophora Collection
An Exclusive Field Report from Ret Talbot

While walking through the Walt Smith International (WSI) facility in Lautoka, Fiji, I am struck by several specimens of a familiar stunning green, branching coral.

Hydnophora from Fiji is probably the most eye catching, fluorescing coral we have,” says Chris Turnier, mariculture and livestock manager at WSI. “I saw it while diving from probably fifty yards away,” Turnier says of the mother colony from which he collected the frags he is now farming. “It was by far the brightest thing on the reef.” How bright, I ask him? “It was glow in the dark green, and it blew me away by how bright it was.”

A Fantastic Aquarium Coral

Of course, not every animal that looks good on a wild reef makes an appropriate aquarium specimen, but Hydnophora is one coral that both looks great in the wild and generally adapts readily to captive care.

Hydnophora corals are fantastic aquarium corals,” Turnier explains. “They are relatively hardy, and their silky green fluorescence insures they will get noticed in any reef tank.” While not as touchy as other so-called SPS corals, Hynophora species do generally require relatively high, intermittent flow and strong lighting. Turnier says that the branching growth forms are often more fragine than other branching SPS corals. "They are often found slightly deeper than Acropora species," he says, "where they are not exposed to as much wave action." Although Hynophora species do host symbiotic algae from which they derive much of their nutritional needs, the animal appreciates supplemental feedings of foods formulated for SPS corals. As in any reef system, the filtration must be robust enough to keep up with both the bioload produced by fishes and the feeding regimen.

An Indo-Pacific Coral Called Chicken Feet

Within the genus Hydnophora, there are at least six described species, including H. pilosa, H. rigida, H. grandis (pictured here), H. bonsai, H. exesa, and H. microconos. Belonging to the family Merulinidae, corals from the genus Hydnophora, like all Marulinids, are indigenous to the Indo-Pacific.

“The divers here in Fiji call this species chicken feet,” says Turnier, “ and it comes in a variety of colors from this brilliant fluorescent green to yellow and even a bluish hue.” The divers collect the coral either from the wild or from the WSI coral farm and bring it directly to the facility by way of boat. Upon reaching the facility, the diver will place his corals in one of the coral raceways in a section marked with his name (see picture above with a WSI diver by the name of Iliesa placing an Acropora spp. into the system). In most cases, the coral will ship within three to four days, and the diver will be paid for the corals he collected. Through the qoliqoli system, the villagers with customary rights to the fishing grounds from which the coral was collected also benefit.

Multiple In-House Screenings

Turnier screens each coral within 24 hours of its arrival at the warehouse. During this first screening, he is looking for obvious reasons the coral should be sent back to the reef. “I’m looking for things such as breakage or any damage to the coral,” he says. In most cases, a damaged coral will do fine when returned to the ocean. This is often the better choice than trying to sell an animal that may get passed over by the hobbyist in the retailer’s tank.

Turnier performs a second screening and, in some cases, a third screening depending on the species. These additional screenings catch any latent issues that may not have been readily apparent. Again, corals that fail a screening are returned to the ocean with the divers the following day. While not every exporter maintains this level of quality control, the WSI brand benefits from it greatly, as is evidenced by the accolades I have seen from importers who have received WSI shipments during my week observing operations.

A Combination of Wild Collection and Mariculture

While the divers who work for WSI do collect wild specimens of Hynophora, Turnier, who has a passion for mariculture, is proud of the farmed Hydnophora frags he is showing me tonight. “Mariculture lessens the impact on wild colonies,” he says, “while still providing valuable income for villagers living in source countries like Fiji.” Mariculture refers to growing out animals such as coral in ocean “farms,” as opposed to growing them in a closed system, such as one might see at a land-based aquaculture facility.

“While these particular frags are farmed,” says Turnier, “there is no problem with collecting wild specimens of Hynophora. This is a fast growing coral and one of the easiest to frag. As a result, wild collection is very sustainable.” In addition to anecdotal evidence that populations of coral from the genus Hynophora are thriving, WSI, like most importers, keeps collection of each regulated species of coral within quotas established by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

While not farmed out of necessity from a sustainability standpoint, Turnier points out the benefit of farming these Hydnophora frags from a noteworthy mother colony. “I am now able to provide this somewhat unique and highly desirable color variant of Hydnophora to hobbyists and still know the mother colony is thriving in the wild for others to enjoy.”

Ret Talbot is a freelance writer who is travelling in the South Pacific researching a story on sustainability forCoral Magazine. He is a longtime customer of and friend to Blue Zoo, and this series of field reports was written exclusively for us.  

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