"A fool and his money… were lucky to ever get together in the first place."

At various times while penning this article, I suspect I’ll be wearing Sea Bands, drinking carbonated soda and eating ginger snap cookies. A Dramamine and Merlot cocktail is likely in my future, too. Today, I have been invited by good friends and fellow mods to share my biased opinion about some less than favorable reefkeeping trends that do little to serve our beloved hobby. These issues are at least occasionally frustrating, if not outright nauseating, for me to watch evolve – as a hobbyist, and as someone with tremendous love for the industry machine.

Readers that favor my style of writing, and of sharing advice and opinions, will not be disappointed here. I write like I talk… I type like I think, and I frequently smell strongly of garlic. At least two of those things have merit in this piece. This article is about unoriginal thinking, nefarious merchant practices and misguided consumer habits.

Let me begin with a story. I know a local aquarium club member who thinks of himself as a progressive hobbyist. He’s always buying the most expensive goods and livestock that are en vogue (the state of fashion, not the magazine) and then making complete knee-jerk shifts away from them months later to follow the next trend. One day he announces, “I’m getting rid of my multi-colored Montipora collection and doing something totally new!” I’m thinking to myself, “Please don’t say you are buying Tort Acropora, please don’t say Tort Acros, please don’t say Tort Acros!” He then boldly declares, “I’m doing Tort Acros!” Ughhh! Good call, Poindexter. Pardon me while I try to eat my own shoes.

Not even a year later he then says, “I’m giving up on Tort Acros and doing something totally different!” I’m thinking to myself, “Please don’t say Ricordea, please don’t say Ricordea, puh-lease don’t say Ricordea!” He says… (yep, you guessed it), “A tank dedicated to Ricordea!” Aieeeeeeeeee! If I were wearing a tie I would have hanged myself with it at that point.

Some months later, he decides he is “sooooo bored with Ricordea” that he is going to do something truly different, “Something that no one else is doing!” I’m thinking to myself, “Please don’t say Acanthastrea, please don’t say Acanthastrea, please don’t say Acanthastrea!” He proudly says… “I’m searching for Acanthastrea!” At that point I’m wondering if I can feign death to get out of the conversation. It’s either that or drink the entire bottle of Tabasco sauce I have learned to bring with me to such meetings and pray for a sudden case of explosive diarrhea.

Indeed, many of these trendy creatures are very beautiful and popular for good reason. But the extremes to which some folks get caught up in during the buying frenzy are, well… extreme. An artificial and grossly inflated market price then emerges. And rational thinking folks like the rest of us (insert your own joke about me being rational here) begin to doubt our own choices, if not suffer outright ridicule and berating from unoriginal reef aquarists who paid way too much for their animals and must now justify it by making us feel bad for not joining their idiocy.

At this point you fairly might want to play devil’s advocate. Is “idiocy” really an appropriate description for the bandwagon jumpers? Of course not. I’m using the word to make an exaggerated and superlative statement. But nor will I tolerate the same bandwagon jumpers, or anyone on the fence, hiding under a blanket defense of “market law” to justify the ridiculous prices that some of these animals are being pitched for as of late. Do you really think for a moment that the island collectors, who earn mere dollars per day or pennies per piece for other pretty, but “common,” corals, get rewarded with tens or hundreds of dollars for finding the trendy coral of the week? Please - give me a break… No! If that were the case, the only thing on importers lists and in retailers displays would be that sole coral of the week or month. Message-board bandwagon jumpers create a fallacious environment with their hype, which ignorant (as in “not-knowing”) and/or impressionable aquarists then accept as the real state of the hobby. This is hardly the case at large, yet the outspoken minority would have you cover your eyes with one hand and stick out your wallet with the other to belong to the “popular” coral club. It’s funny to me that such traders and sellers so freely label some animals as “ultra” this, and “rare” that without ever having been to a reef, worked as a transhipper or importer, or having any real qualifications otherwise for making such statements. Worse still are those scumbags taking pale, stressed and or bleached cnidarians and offering them as “rare” pink, yellow or white specimens. It’s profoundly ironic to pay a premium price to an unworthy seller for an inferior specimen.

You have my solemn promise that in the real world (industry), the early seller links in the chain of distribution are not earning anything beyond traditional (and appropriate) price points for such animals. The collectors, brokers, and larger wholesalers are in the sensible and savvy business of turning over living commodities fast – hours to days - if they are to succeed and be profitable. It’s good business for them, and it’s just plain good business (ethically and financially) to get live organisms into the hands of the final consumers as soon as possible. It’s the animals’ best chance for survival, it keeps the “product” in the best condition for the consumer, and it frankly earns the best profits for everyone in between. It’s a beautiful thing. I love to see good business conducted and rewarded. I also like to see less than optimal business and bad consumer habits tamed or trained fast – hence my small contribution here.

Things get screwy, though, by the intervention of dubious individuals with misguided business tactics… and they are usually well-connected with fellow hobbyists and potential customers (often in big online communities). These folks tend to be small-time players – trading aquarists or small business merchants – who justify their exorbitant prices with supply and demand. “Supply and demand" is an excuse that gets abused too often and shamelessly, in my opinion. If this were not true, how then would you define or even recognize the existence of price gouging? Seriously, please reread the previous sentences and give them some thought. If you believe that there is any such thing as price gouging, then we must agree on some level that using “supply and demand” to justify inflated prices is not a carte blanche excuse.

For example, after a natural disaster such as a hurricane, do you think that merchants who suddenly raise the prices of bottled water, food and gasoline are “price-gouging?” I do. That’s not a supply and demand issue… it goes far beyond factorable expenses and traditional price points. It exceeds conservative, if not dubious, padding of profit margins to compensate for future dips or lean times. It can be extreme, and it’s unscrupulous. It’s also against the law. It’s not even good business, as it does not forge long-term business relationships. People who get cheated are less likely to continue to do business with the price gougers. Does that surprise anyone? It must not, since there is a continuous stream of perpetrators.

I am quite content to set aside personal feelings, love for the hobby, even ethics and the fact that the “commodity” I am talking about in this article is alive (corals, fishes and other reef creatures). Even at the basest level of commerce, price gouging is just bad business, and if you are purely a money-hungry trader, you still need to satisfy your customers so that you have a chance of doing business with them again and again, as well as reaping referrals from those same satisfied folks whether they stay in the hobby or not. Invest in people with good business habits and it will(!) pay dividends! The money-hungry individual (that’s not a criticism… I love Capitalism!) can serve himself best and still be a “good guy.” To do anything less is a patent admission that you have no long term plans for the future and are just trying to scheme in the moment.

As consumers, we control the price of any good or service: if we don't buy it, they won’t sell it!

I’ve often used this argument with aquarists as a reason for letting inappropriate animals (difficult species with no practical hope for survival in captivity) die in a merchant’s care, rather than see a hobbyist buy the animal to “save” it. Not only do such animals in dire straits (the state, not the band) have a slim chance of surviving, but the well-intended purchase likely signs the death warrant of another specimen that will be reordered by the merchant to replace the one just “saved”/sold. What’s worse, such specimens are often the minority of their kind, one of the few that survived the importation process (indeed... their poor survivability being the reason they are inappropriate for captivity), so the purchase of one bad specimen and its replacement is an insult far beyond the premature death of two specimens… rather 10, 20 or more specimens collected might have to die just so two can make it all the way through the chain of custody. But, I digress. Today, I am not talking about inappropriate species… but rather appropriate species that are exploited by bogus marketing and ignorant consumers.

The best defense against bad business practices is simply being an educated consumer. I just wish everyone were as privy to industry news, experience and gossip as some of us salty dogs are. At first, it was mildly amusing for me to see corallimorphs that were listed for many years as “assorted Discosoma” species get renamed overnight for weekly stocklists as “assorted Pacific Ricordea” when the Ricordea fad hit big. Heehee… the same suppliers, the same colors/species… but suddenly better sales overnight for cherry pickers and online e-tailers by renaming them for offerings consumers were willing to buy. Man… what a country!

Some of the specimens in box-lots of Faviid brain corals, that previously were poor sellers for how very common and plentiful they were, similarly got renamed “Acanthastrea?” (note the question mark often added at the end of the listing by those with a shred of conscience but lack of a clue) and suddenly became quite easy to sell to hopeful aquarists, at triple the price, willing to take the chance on what could be a cnidarian lottery ticket.

Between the point of import and the final retail purchase it would be nice to see responsible participants at all levels share the common goal of maximum long-term success and survival of our hobby. The heavyweight professionals on the early side of the supply chain have done this, by and large. But some high-profile rogue merchants and seedy aquarists near to, or on, the consumer side of the supply chain have simply run amok.

Many industries have sound checks and balances to ensure that this does not happen… and then there is the reef aquarium hobby. This is a wake-up call, my friends; please learn to recognize attempts to unfairly skew the market and exploit you in the name of “market law.” The overall responsibility ultimately falls upon hobbyists to be educated consumers. We either will tolerate the manipulations, or we won’t. And we will ultimately have to accept the market that we ourselves create!

Do you want to know what the future holds for X coral species’ prices? Then forge that future with your buying decisions and it won’t be a mystery to you! Does $600 for a tiny patch of zoanthids with a ridiculous marketing name sound overpriced to you? Then let the coral remain unsold. Do frags of Acanthastrea offered for over $100 per polyp seem laughable to you? I assure you that price will not endure for months, let alone years.

And beyond forging the market by showing intolerance for price gouging, we must be vigilant not to feed the hype. Gossiping ad nauseam like hens to each other about wild prices and so-called “rare” corals only adds fuel to the fire. It reinforces the illusive ill-usion of owning such pieces of coral and the status of seekers who buy them. My advice is to ignore them all. Don’t buy inflated offerings and don’t talk about them. The quieter things stay, the faster the trend will die. Economically speaking, this is a bona fide market correction. It is good economics driven by good consumer decisions. I’m asking conscientious hobbyists to quell the hype, reward fair merchants handsomely, and disengage from bad merchants or traders. We will all go much farther in the hobby for it.

Hmmm… shall we proceed to address the silly obsession with over-engineered skimmers? I think I can make this one short and sweet. If ever there were an aquarium instrument that served as a manifestation for the mantra that bigger must be better, it’s the protein skimmer. I often read threads about monster skimmer purchases, or visit friends’ tanks and see the same, and find myself just shaking my head in disbelief. Disbelief because some son’s or daughter’s college tuition is being squandered on the purchase of items like some high-end skimmers and the operational cost to drive them. The children are wearing potato sacks to school for clothing, the wife has lost 20 lbs. on the new “malnutrition diet,” the electric company sends hand-signed Christmas cards, and Dad has a swanky new $1000 skimmer driven by two enormous water pumps large enough to split atoms. Please… don’t make me burn frequent flyer miles to come to your house to smack some sense into you.

When so many people are living with high electricity costs, and all of us need to live more gently on this planet by responsibly using resources, the issue of “efficiency” is one that seems to be quickly swept aside in the skimmer hype. I’m hard pressed to find a reason to use or recommend a $600, $800 or $1000+ dollar skimmer. I’ve yet to use one so expensive that is a good “bang for your buck.” Indeed, the material cost of these generally (very) well-built skimmers is dear. Thick acrylic, and tooling and machining expenses, etc. drive the price of these units legitimately high. But are they a good value? On this point they fail categorically. And in the paraphrased words of the inimitable Martin Moe, Jr., “Do you really need a U-Haul to bring back a library book?” Ahhh…. no.

Is it really worth say, 200% more money to get perhaps 10% or even 20% better performance (a generalization, of course)? No, it’s not. Will you get two times as much skimmate production from an $800 skimmer as from two good $400 skimmers? Nope. Will it be more expensive to run a dual pump fed, top-shelf skimmer than a well-designed gravity fed skimmer. Yep… by far.

So many of these top-shelf, top-price skimmers are simply models of excess. Visit me in my forum at Reefcentral.com or let’s chat in person at hobby club meetings – I will be delighted to share my specific, current brand recommendations with you… and these can change in time, of course, as companies, models, quality, etc. change.

In closing, I have lost track of how many thousands of queries I have answered through the years online (although many are archived on various websites). I cannot say how many thousands of aquarists I have spoken to personally as a merchant in business or as an aquarium club presenter. I can promise you, though, that I have depth in my experience in aquatic science and a valid opinion about certain products, and hobby trends and history. I offer some of them here as merely that – my opinions – and as but one component in your information gathering process. Make an informed decision based on an intelligent consensus, but don’t discredit your own instincts, even if unpopular. And remember, there are traders out there thinking that if you are dumb enough to buy it, they are smart enough to sell it to you.

With kind regards, Anthony Calfo… January 2005

If you have any questions about this article, please visit my author forum on Reef Central.

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