SANTA ANA — Robert Hildreth has a passion. And a dilemma.
He proudly owns a 240-gallon aquarium featuring an array of exotic tropical fish that he bought from stores. He's so enthusiastic about his hobby, he keeps another tank as well: a 40-gallon aquarium in which he has bred and raised more than 100 clown fish, most of which he has given away to friends.
But Hildreth is a prime example of a new kind of aquarist faced with a difficult choice. Prompted by a love of nature to set up aquariums, they are discovering that keeping fish and enlarging their numbers threatens the natural environment of the very creatures they enjoy.
So to solve this problem, many are turning to breeding their own fish and invertebrates, a worthy cause but one that poses major challenges.
"It's necessary for the survival of the hobby," said Hildreth who, like other like-minded practitioners, is a member of the Southern California Marine Aquarium Society, an Orange County organization helping to spearhead the move. "Aquarists are a lot more environmentally oriented than we're given credit for. Many of the most serious do this with a conscience."
It wasn't always so. Traditionally, enthusiasts say, marine aquarists have obtained virtually all of the animals and plant life they keep from hobby shops that rely on importers who travel the world's oceans collecting the organisms en masse with specially outfitted boats.
In recent years, however, there has been growing concern that the oceans are being depleted. Many countries--in areas ranging from the Caribbean to the South Pacific--have enacted stringent laws restricting the methods and numbers by which fish and coral can be taken.
While most of the concern in the United States has centered on the Florida coast and Hawaii, Southern Californians got into the fray recently with their own battle over the Garibaldi, a bright orange fish seen commonly in an area from the rocks of Laguna Beach to the waters off Catalina Island, where professional collectors have for years hunted them for sale to aquarists in the Orient and, to a lesser extent, locally.
Last year, a Huntington Beach environmental organization led a statewide effort to outlaw the practice by attempting to get the Garibaldi designated as the official state marine fish.
While not extending the official status to the fish, lawmakers responded by enacting legislation banning the collection of Garibaldis off Catalina Island. They also restricted collection elsewhere along the coast to November, December and January and imposed stiff new permit fees for collectors and wholesalers ranging from $330 to $1,000 a year.
Steve Robinson, a collector and wholesaler based in Los Angeles, blames similar restrictions worldwide on the excesses of colleagues who too often, he said, coax fish out of coral habitats by using poisons such as sodium cyanide, which "destroy a 70-year-old coral head to get a $1 fish."
"Because of the way our trade has behaved, it has attracted the attention of fisheries all over the world, which are beginning to put limits on collection because of the damage to the ecosystem," he said.
To help solve the problem, Robinson--who owns a company called Cortez Handcaught Marine--advocates the use of hand-held nets to catch tropical fish, a method that results in smaller catches but also much less damage to the environment.
"It's like asking what's more important, the apple or the apple tree?" he said. "Our industry seems to think that the apple is more important."
One result of the heavy restrictions imposed on fish and invertebrate collecting worldwide has been a dramatic reduction in the selection of fish and other marine life available locally, and an increase in prices by about 25% in the last two years.
"What it's done is made us work a lot harder for what we get," said Steve Paccione, owner of Strictly Fish, a popular tropical fish store in Garden Grove. "Before you could go to one or two places to get your fish; now you have to go to four or five different wholesalers and spend two or three days a week instead of one."
Some retailers have responded by experimentally offering fish bred in tanks. For the last several weeks, for instance, 'Tis Tropical Fish in Fountain Valley has been selling Percula clowns purchased from a professional breeder in Utah who just set up shop last year. Smaller, less colorful and more expensive than their ocean-bred counterparts, said owner Kevin Kerns, the fish are not selling well.
Mostly, though, it's been individual practitioners themselves who have taken the lead in pioneering new ways to breed marine fish and propagate corals and other invertebrates.
One of the main difficulties in breeding marine fish, they say, is learning how to produce food capable of sustaining their usually microscopic larvae. And coral or other invertebrates--which usually reproduce asexually by budding or dividing--are highly dependent on such critical environmental factors as timing, lighting, temperature and water quality.