I offer the following narrative written
in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek fashion and for creative reason.
In no way am I implying that the people of the project are
less than serious, willing, or able in attaining their goals.
I want to emphasize that I sincerely applaud the efforts of
all those involved and described in the work that follows.
The people I write about in this article are to be congratulated
in their efforts, and their hospitality and cooperation are
deeply appreciated. I also wish the facility and long-term
future of this venture be one of great success and a model
for the future. I will personally support their efforts now
and in the future, and do everything possible to help them
in their plans.
"Men have been wise
in many different modes; but they have always laughed the
same way." Samuel Johnson
Several years ago, I was contacted by Morgan
Lidster of Inland Aquatics regarding a surprising call he
had received. Apparently, a gentleman had offered to sell
him cultured Caribbean corals, including stony corals, from
a coral farm in Dominica. Morgan asked if I had heard of the
man, the company, the farm, or anything about it. I told him
I had not, and would be very surprised if such a place actually
existed. If memory serves me correctly, Morgan did place an
order, but never received it. The explanation of why will
Over the next few months, I received a
number of other emails of a similar inquiry, and my curiosity
was piqued. Hearing little more of substance about it, James
Wiseman did a search on the internet and found a company called
Applied Marine Technologies that was apparently a very real
coral farm in Dominica. He was told they had thousands of
corals ready to be shipped out. James contacted the company
and spoke with the owner, Alan Lowe, quite extensively. At
one point, James even had tentative plans to visit the facility
to offer engineering expertise for the farm's systems. The
trip never materialized. Once again, my brief and indirect
contact with this place faded, and it wasn't until a post
on NOAA's coral-list that the facility's name resurfaced.
This time, a concerned biologist was asking
for more information on the facility, and expressed concern
about the possibility of Indo-Pacific corals present at the
facility and the potential ecological impact from the accidental
introduction of non-native species. A discussion ensued, with
little feedback as to anyone's real knowledge of this mysterious
facility. Later, during a work-related project, Dr. Andy Bruckner
inquired about this facility, and I told him of my indirect
knowledge of the place, and also expressed interest in finding
out more, especially given the concern over non-native corals
in the Caribbean, as well as the more aquarist-related interest
of a facility claiming to have tens of thousands of Caribbean
corals growing and ready for sale. He felt the same. We spoke
of it numerous times over the intervening months, and neither
of us could gain much factual information. The entire thing
smacked of hearsay and mystery until recently when it happened
that I was able to breach the mystery to uncover the truth
about this coral farm in Dominica.
Dominica is a small mountainous island
in the Lesser Antilles of the Eastern Caribbean. It lies between
the French islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, bordering
the Atlantic Ocean on its eastern side, with its western coast
on the Caribbean. It is frequently confused with the Dominican
Republic, a country that shares space with Haiti on the island
also known as Hispaniola or Santo Domingo. Other than sharing
a similarity of names, mountainous terrain, and a prevalence
of poverty, these two Caribbean islands share no other connection.
Dominica, known as the "Nature Island," is a lush
paradise covered in rainforests, streaming with rivers and
waterfalls, and boasting some extensive fringing coral reefs.
This island has not previously been involved with supplying
coral reef organisms to the aquarium trade. (Figures 1-3)
Applied Marine Technologies: The Tumultuous
When Alan Lowe started a coral farm in
Dominica, he had a potentially brilliant idea. His farm, he
claimed, would use a patented technology to grow corals far
faster than they would grow in the wild. He sold the idea
to the people of Dominica, promising an environmentally sound
and new industry that would provide many new, and much needed,
jobs to the island. In turn, the corals grown at the farm
were to be used for restoration projects, for education, and
to sell to both the public and private aquarium markets. His
vision even extended as far as to make a tourist attraction
of the farm, and he had even set up a large pool where people
could snorkel amongst a miniature reef made of captive grown
Unfortunately, things didn't quite turn
out as planned. Alan Lowe soon discovered that Caribbean corals
grow slowly, and funded restoration projects weren't growing
on lush tropical trees - or any other trees, for that matter.
Furthermore, to export and sell stony corals, he had to fulfill
CITES obligations. Dominica is a CITES party, as are the major
U.S. and European markets where the cultured corals were likely
to be sold. There was also another problem. To export CITES
listed animals, Dominica had to have a scientific authority
established that would provide the appropriate documentation
to fulfill the CITES legislation, including a non-detriment
finding for the reefs where the corals were collected. Dominica
didn't have a scientific authority. Logistically, this would
be set up as part of the Fisheries Department. But, the Fisheries
Department doesn't even have a boat, let alone scientists
to conduct surveys, much less a scientific authority.
These troublesome details apparently didn't
bother Alan Lowe, who eventually sent a shipment containing
stony corals to the U.S. through Florida. Not surprisingly,
the shipment was seized and confiscated. To my knowledge,
that was the first and last shipment ever made from Dominica.
During the intervening time, though, Mr. Lowe also felt that
Indo-Pacific corals might be just the ticket to bring some
income to the farm while these other issues were being addressed.
It seems there were other financial stakeholders anxious to
see some return on their investment. Unfortunately, the presence
of Indo-Pacific corals at a coastal facility in the Caribbean
made a few people a little nervous. Negative press began out
of ecological concern, and the coral farm's future was suddenly
Thus began a rather emotionally charged
and dramatic falling out between Alan Lowe, his business partners,
and many of the Dominican people involved, including those
in government offices. Various arguments, threats, and even
arrests were to follow before the final break-up of the parties
involved. Today, Lowe seeks to take his technology and begin
a new farm in Jamaica, and a less than amicable parting left
the Dominican coral farm to new owners.
Enter Norm McDonald, the current owner
of the coral farm and no friend of Alan Lowe. His son apparently
helped conceive the farm idea with Mr. Lowe, and solicited
his father's financial support after Lowe left the facility.
Mr. Mc Donald, a Ft. Lauderdale resident, is a rather amicable
businessman who has spent considerable time in south Florida
on his boat visiting islands that have coral reefs. However,
he is not a coral farmer. Nor is he a scientist, Dominican,
or legislator; all necessary qualifications to make a go of
a somewhat defunct and semi-operational coral farm on this
island. Of course, neither was Alan Lowe, for the most part.
A Project in Dominica
This is where I come in. Last year, during
an international workshop on stony coral trade in Indonesia,
I worked extensively with, among others, Andy Bruckner of
the National Marine Fisheries Service of NOAA, and John Fields,
a fisheries specialist working for the US government on CITES
trade issues. We worked well together, and when the opportunity
arose for the three of us to visit the coral farm, no longer
named Applied Marine Technologies but instead currently adopting
the somewhat hyperbolic name "Oceanographic Institute
of Dominica (OID)," we were happily reunited with each
other in Puerto Rico before departing for the Nature Island;
slates, cameras, files, and laptops in hand. We had been invited
to visit OID by the Dominican government, to conduct surveys
of their reefs, and to lend assistance in helping them set-up
the requirements that would be needed for them to export corals
to the United States.
After landing and then traversing the entire
diameter of the island that is, for all intensive purposes,
more vertical than horizontal, we were able to pick up our
rental Jeep; a charming vehicle with four different wheels
on four different tires. Unable to find food anywhere on a
Sunday afternoon (for apparently everyone cooks at home on
Sundays, leaving those without a home to, I suppose, forage
for grasses and berries), we made our way up the Caribbean
coast towards Portsmouth where we would be spending the next
week at the farm and diving collection sites. A fork in the
road displayed a weathered sign advertising Applied Marine
Technologies as somewhat of a tourist attraction. While the
small handmade plywood sign was far from grand, it was the
equivalent of a billboard on this island where road signs
and landmarks are virtually non-existent (the main town of
Roseau has the only traffic light on the island, and it was
not working - or necessary, for that matter). We retired early
at the Coconut Beach Hotel, just outside the sleepy fishing
village of Portsmouth (Figure 4), skeptically curious to see
what exactly this somewhat infamous coral farm would turn
out to be.
A Coral Farm
The next morning, just prior to actually
finding OID and during a wrong turn that left us at the end
of a dead-end road, we turned around to find a car with two
dredlocked Dominicans getting out of a car and approaching
us. This was to be the first of dozens of attempts by "official
guides" to get ourselves, three white tourists, to visit
the nearby mangrove-lined Indian River. The guide's name was
memorable: "Just remember my name," said the smiling
.like de snake." I did remember,
and with a great twist of irony, I found myself several weeks
later watching a Travel Channel documentary on Dominica just
days after my return. The host of the show was being guided
in a boat up the Indian River by none other than Cobra himself.
I suppose we should have accepted, knowing now that he must
certainly be the most famous "official guide" on
the island. After numerous wrong turns, and necessitating
a local resident to find it, we made a left off Michael Douglas
Boulevard and arrived at a gated facility a few hundred yards
from the water (Figure 5). We jested that his movies must
be very popular in Dominica.
After meeting Norm McDonald, we were led
to a small office where we were introduced to various employees.
The facility manager and person in charge of growing corals,
Joseph Nixon, is a sharp young Dominican who knows the local
coral reefs well, and had participated in earlier restoration
projects under the former Applied Marine Technologies (Figure
6). Unfortunately, like McDonald, his background is not exactly
related to coral culture. He is, or was, a pilot for a small
Caribbean airline carrier. The staff scientist was also present;
an intelligent, charming and wholly likable Dominican gentleman,
Clayton Shillingford (Figure 7). His background is not quite
coral related, either. He's a botanist and agribusiness consultant.
Several members of the fisheries department were also present,
including Algernon Philbert, senior fisheries officer in the
Ministry of Agriculture and the Environment. They were present
to hear about what they could do to monitor Dominican reefs
and help ensure sustainable development of a coral fishery
on the island. These personable and interested persons were
to accompany us on our surveys, to provide any assistance
for us, and to offer their knowledge of the farm and their
department. Of course, this did depend largely on them actually
being able to find a boat to get out to the reef. We were
apparently scheduled to meet with the Prime Minister, as well,
but a medical emergency forced him to be flown to St. Lucia.
We were then asked if we needed any police officers to attend,
to show us the documented reports of the "evil"
Mr. Lowe (the former owner) and his "terrorist activities",
threats, and general misconduct. We declined, graciously.
6. Joseph Nixon, facility manager, Oceanographic
Institute of Dominica.
7. Clayton Shillingford, agribusiness consultant
(left), Norm McDonald, owner of OID (center), John Fields,
fisheries biologist CITES (right center), and OID staff
The last gentleman to arrive in the now
extremely crowded small office was Mr. Harold Guiste, Chief
Fisheries Officer from the Dominican government (Figure 8).
Taking immediate control of our cordial banter, he explained
vociferously how Mr. Lowe had deceived Dominica and the Dominican
people, perpetrated horrible deeds, and was thankfully gone
from the island. Now that the Mr. McDonald and his able-bodied
staff were now at the helm, there was no doubt that the farm
and the reefs were in great shape. Apparently what was really
needed was for us to go on Dominican TV and tell the people
that the farm is a good idea and business, and that now that
Mr. Lowe was gone, everything was fine and going to be just
as was promised. We cast glances at each other, and told Mr.
Guiste that it might not be a bad idea to actually look around
the farm a bit, go see the reefs, and sort of do the work
we came to do prior to any TV commitments.
A few hours and a couple of hearty guffaws
later, we were shown the coral farm.
8. Norm McDonald, owner of OID (left); Harold Guiste,
Chief Fisheries Officer (center); Clayton Shillingford,
agribusiness consultant (right center); Algermon Philbert,
senior fisheries officer (hidden right center); and
Joseph Nixon, facility manager OID (right).
The Oceanographic Institute of Dominica - In
The coral farm was legitimately as productive
as the myths had foretold. A large-ish pool was found at the
beginning of the oceanic inflow into the facility (Figure
9). A kilometer offshore in 107 feet of water, Caribbean seawater
was pumped into the Portsmouth coral farm. In this pool were
piles of reef-rock and several large mother colonies that
were being held prior to fragmentation for propagation (Figure
10). The corals looked generally healthy, with the exception
of a Montastraea colony that had white plague. We noted
that diseased corals were probably not a good choice for fragmentation.
They agreed, apparently not having recognized coral disease
9. Pipes bring seawater into the facility from a
kilometer offshore in 107 feet of water.
Nearby, a "display tank" was
set up with a smattering of healthy and tantalizing coral
propagules (Figure 11). We were admittedly taken aback actually
seeing cultured Caribbean stony corals. Upon closer examination,
we noted the following unusual "Caribbean" corals
(Figures 12, 13).
When discussing the worrisome presence
of Indo-Pacific corals in the office earlier, we were told
that they were Lowe's brainchild, that they were aware of
the ecological implications of having such species present,
and that they were not planning at all to continue having
anything to do with non-native species. Currently, all Indo-Pacific
corals were set aside in their own closed tanks, and all were
scheduled for export to a European facility within the next
few upcoming weeks. We were told that no introductions were
ever made intentionally, and that the facility treated their
effluent water to ensure no introductions were made accidentally,
either. We were also told that no Indo-Pacific corals ever
came in contact with Caribbean corals. I guess these few had
somehow slipped through the cracks. We noted that Fungia
and Leptoria should probably be moved out of the Caribbean
coral display tank. They agreed, although no one really seemed
to have noticed that they weren't actually Caribbean corals
in the first place.
We were then shown the huge, if not somewhat
defunct, "tourist-attracting" snorkel pool (Figure
14). At the present time, the pool had some various piles
of rocks at the bottom. I rather suspected the tourist draw
for this event might be a little slow, but since the pool
was covered with shade cloth, at least tourists wouldn't have
to bother with sunscreen and that annoying tropical sun like
they would if they were out in the ocean snorkeling on a reef.
They noted that that pool was not really finished or being
used at the moment. We agreed, looking around sheepishly.
Foreplay of the tour now over, we set upon
examining the many rows of circular tubs that formed row after
row in the main area of the farm (Figure 15). Nearly all of
the tubs had pie-shaped divisions chocked full of coral propagules
(Figure 16). Each division served to separate same species
fragments, with the majority of tubs housing gorgonians. Still,
there was no shortage of Scleractinia here, and virtually
all major species were represented (Figures 17-22). Each tub
was on its own circulation loop, with water pumped in, and
then directly back out, to the coastal water after passing
through a UV sterilizer. No water exchange existed between
the individual tubs. With very few exceptions, the stony corals
looked healthy, if not a bit drab-brown colored, and all gorgonians
seemed to be doing well. We did notice several stony corals
that had been propagated with disease (Figure 23), and pointed
out that not only should these fragments probably be removed,
but that propagating corals with disease could spread disease
throughout that tub system. They agreed.
We were then shown a separate row of tubs,
and these contained the remainder of the Indo-Pacific corals.
They were, as best we could tell, all soft corals. Admittedly,
they were not in any circulation with the inflow to or outflow
from the OID facility, although it's hard to say what may
have been the case in the past. In retrospect, and perhaps
I have simply forgotten, I failed to construct what was meant
by "the remainder" of Indo-Pacific corals. Because
of the groups' general confusion about CITES legislation,
and having been frustrated in Lowe's thwarted attempt to send
out corals in the past, they were both surprised and seemingly
confused at the fact that soft corals (gorgonians) were not
affected by CITES. In other words, they could have been sending
out gorgonians all along. Similarly, they could have sent
out Indo-Pacific soft corals. Yet strangely, they were able
to send Indo-Pacific corals previously, and had plans to do
so for those still at the facility, without this conundrum
of legislative proxy impacting these species
Indo-Pacific corals would not be affected by CITES legislation.
We suggested that, irrespective of the safety of this system
and the prevention of accidental introduction, it would be
best if they hurried and got rid of any Indo-Pacific species
still there, and avoided any further import of them. They
agreed, and assured us again this was no part of their present
or future plans.
Viewing a final tank gave us an idea of
what WAS among the future plans for OID. They were working
at culturing sea moss (Figure 24). Sea moss is an algae from
which a carageenan-rich extract is derived and used in various
health and beauty products, as well as in making a traditional
island drink. Jamaica has traditionally provided several sea
moss beverages that are also available in the United States,
and while thick and - well - chunky, it is a rather tasty,
healthy, nutmeg-spiced drink. Apparently Dominica now has
plans to enter the thick and chunky beverage market, too.
We were finally given a tour of the indoor,
warehouse-like building where actual coral propagation takes
place. Clearly, this was exciting, as the proprietary technology
developed by Lowe to grow corals faster than a proverbial
speeding bullet would certainly be exposed. Long flowing seawater
tables stretched along a length of the building with small
workstations in front of the wet tables (Figure 25). As seawater
wasn't actually flowing, and no propagation was taking place,
we could only imagine it in action. Along the workstation
were small bits of dried coral rubble, and small piles of
the base material on which fragments are affixed. The base,
as seen in previous figures, is a large and cumbersome X-shaped
platform made of sand and resin. The bases are quite well
designed for reef-replenishment, but words fail to describe
how badly they would look and fare in an aquarium. The sand
around Dominica is also somewhat of a problem, as it is mostly
pebbled, terrigenous, black and volcanic in origin. On a reef,
this is probably not an issue, but the composition of volcanic
sand might not be ideal for closed system aquaria. Apparently
the X-shaped bases were among the "advanced marine technologies"
in which Lowe had proprietary interest.
The "advanced marine technology"
method by which the fragmentation takes place was another
of Lowe's ingenious "inventions." Apparently, the
technique is to take large colonies of coral, use a saw or
pliers to fragment them into smaller pieces, and then use
epoxy or superglue to attach the fragments onto base material.
I can scarcely imagine the impact such information will have
on propagation efforts by aquarists from this point on!
A Few Minor Problems
While John Fields was certainly the one
to provide the expertise towards gearing Dominica up for establishing
the proper requirements for CITES, and Andy Bruckner was able
to provide his extensive expertise in coral reef surveys and
trade issues, I suppose my forte was growing corals. It wasn't
long before I was asked about certain aspects of coral culture.
First notable was Mr. McDonald's excitement
at the prospect of using mineral accretion technology (through
electrical charge and subsequent carbonate deposition) to
increase the growth and production of the corals at the facility.
I tried to explain that the technique offers possibilities
for certain applications, but that it had shortcomings and
could result in problems. I tried to explain that it might
be best to focus on things like making sure that the corals
present were growing well, and that there was actually a reachable
marketplace for those corals. After all, it does little good
to have lots of fast-growing, slow-growing corals if all they
can do is sit in tubs in Dominica. He listened attentively,
and his continued enthusiasm left me believing that I had
merely thought the statements above, but that the words leaving
my mouth were actually more akin to "Yes, mineral accretion
technology is just what this facility should be using, and
immediately if not sooner."
Second, and at my prompting, I inquired
as to the reason behind the extensive use of shade cloths
over the coral tanks (Figure 26). I explained that if they
wanted to increase coral growth rates, one of the first things
I would do is to get sunlight on the corals, for it was a
double layer of shade cloth and kept the energy of sunlight
away from the corals that needed it. Furthermore, pretty fluorescent
colors would probably show up in many species, and this would
make them more marketable. His response was twofold: first,
that the tanks got too hot; and second, that they were struggling
with an algae problem. I suggested that if the tanks got too
hot, that increasing circulation from the source 107 feet
down would solve that quickly. I followed with a suggestion
to use herbivores for the algae. The conversation went something
"Herbivores? Like what?"
"Well," I explained, "snails, amphipods, nudibranchs,
"Where would we get those?"
"On rocks, on the reef, depends on the herbivore,"
"Well, we've just been paying people to come in and manually
remove it, but it keeps growing back, and the increase in
sunlight and temperature makes it worse. And if we remove
the shade cloths, we're afraid the people picking off the
algae might get too hot in the sun."
"Hmmm, yes, well, the corals need the light, the circulation
would take care of the temperature, and the herbivores would
take care of the algae so you wouldn't have to worry about
anyone getting too hot, because there wouldn't be any people
having to pick off algae in the sun."
"Can you write down the names of some of these things
and where we could get some?"
As it turns out, I was somewhat mistaken.
The problem algae, for the most part, turned out to be a species
of Dictyota, a nuisance algae that has become a region
wide invader and space competitor. Very few things eat Dictyota
- at least willingly or given a choice of nearly anything
else. Upon seeing this, I proffered that when corals are fragmented
and attached to the base, any Dictyota should be removed
from any attached coral substrate that was not covered by
living tissue. I also noticed that of the small army of algae
removers diligently plucking Dictyota thalli, several
of them were working directly in the tank, pulling off tiny
pieces of algae from the corals with tweezers or pliers and
then rinsing them off in the tank. I mentioned that Dictyota
was a problem because each little scrap of it has a tendency
to adhere to anything and form new masses. Every time ten
pieces were plucked and rinsed free in the tank, ten new Dictyota
clumps with a hundred new thalli would probably be produced.
I suggested that when plucking Dictyota, that it should
be done as some of the workers were doing; in a separate container
(Figure 27). McDonald asked if screening the intakes would
help prevent the "spores" from coming in. I told
him that I wasn't sure that Dictyota "spores"
were a major problem at 107 feet, but that the algae probably
spread more through fragmentation as would occur from such
things as plucking thalli and then releasing them back into
the tanks. However, screening or filtering the inflow water,
while probably a maintenance nightmare, would probably not
hurt, but was also probably not necessary. They agreed, but
then plans seemed immediately underway to develop filtration
screens for the inflow.
I also noticed that the tanks had a layer
of sand in them approximately two grains thick. I asked what
that was about, and was told that they had read that it helped
with filtration. I explained that with open seawater systems,
filtration was not all that important. They countered by saying
that the tanks are shut off from flow periodically, and asked
if it would help during those times.
"How long are the tanks shut off from
circulation, and why?" I asked.
"Because of the algae problem, and the workers can't
see in the tanks to pick it off when the circulation is running,"
came the answer.
"I see," came my response, adding that, "Sand
beds are indeed used as filtration, of sorts, but to be effective
they have to be rather deep, and I don't think this scattering
of sand will be very effective for you."
"Should we add more?"
"If you'd like. As I said, I'm not sure you need to since
the systems are open, and if you get herbivores and remove
the algae properly or not introduce it in the first place,
then you won't need to worry about algae-pluckers seeing into
the water anymore."
Plans to increase the depth of the sand
bed were immediately penciled into a list of things to do.
Finally, I mentioned that in addition to
sunlight, if they wanted corals to grow faster, it might not
be a bad idea to feed them. I felt that this might be an issue
since it had become apparent that the clean, plankton-rich,
inflowing seawater was soon to be filtered of any substances
that might have otherwise proven to provide prey or food items
for the corals. Not surprised, I was asked to provide a list
of foods and suppliers that they could feed the corals. I
opted not to tackle the filtration-screening topic again,
and said I would gladly provide that information for them.
I realized quickly that this might turn
out to be a trip somewhat less fruitful than originally envisioned.
However, they were all anxious to get started, recognized
certain shortcomings, and we were left assured that things
were getting off on the right track, even if we probably left
them somewhat befuddled.
In the next article, I will describe what
we found in our surveys of Dominican reefs, the potential
of the reefs to support periodic or sustained harvest for
the aquaculture efforts of OID, the reef restoration efforts
of the previous owner and current goals of OID in this arena,
and the likelihood of seeing beautiful Caribbean corals available
to the aquarium trade in the near future. All this and more
in the exciting conclusion of "Caribbean Corals Coming