The marine aquarium community seems to me to represent a budding family, but what is a family without its members? During the first weekend in May reef enthusiasts from all over the country came together and celebrated their love for marine life in the windy city of Chicago. Whether they were the older pillars of the hobby or new fresh faces, we all had fun contributing our energy and knowledge towards the growth of marine husbandry. We were all there to communicate and share our stories, thoughts and ideas for the hobby we so dearly love. It is truly a special feeling to be in the company of lecturers that truly recognize the need for conservation and study that will sustain our hobby in the future. We all have our place in the family, and events like the International Marine Aquarium Conference (IMAC) facilitate our family reunion each year.

The Chicago weekend at the Hyatt in Schaumburg spawned several themes for the conference that were by no means coincidental. Martin Moe, Ron Shimek and Bob Goemans did not let us forget our family history. Julian Sprung and Eric Borneman pushed for clarity and education in our hobby. Their tireless energy and boldness challenges us to do more for our tanks as well as our hobby. Rob Toonen, Michael Janes and Richard Harker spoke out on the need for scientific thought through experimentation and data collection. All the speakers at the conference spoke of concern for the misconceptions that are bantered about in forums, magazines and advertising that only serve to confuse and stifle us all. Eric coined the phrase "my tank never looked better," which echoed through future lectures, from aquarists' inevitable response to all that they do to their tanks that make them... well... "never look better." IMAC - Chicago overwhelmingly provided a forum for these and other topics that succeeded in presenting a direction for the marine hobby and goals for our future.

Martin Moe
Water Motion: On The Reef And In The Tank

Martin Moe, the keynote speaker for the conference, spoke of the need to understand what is happening in our tanks with respect to water motion. He stressed the need for quantifying water movement in an aquarium and presented a wave motion sensor prototype that could do just that. The instrument is nothing more than a row of straws that were attached to a piece of tile by string. The idea is that water motion will cause the more buoyant straws to bend and sway, indicating direction and quality of water movement. Martin suggested that the angles created by the straws in currents could be used to establish a measurement for quantifying the water flow and used in the collection of data. Martin showed slides of his wave motion sensor at work in the Florida Keys and in his home aquarium, welcoming any comments or ideas to improve upon its design. He briefly discussed the use of flow augmentation using an eductor device that constricts water flow, thus increasing its expelled force from a power head or pump. This device could be used to compensate for the reduction in water pressure from, say, a 4-foot head on a main return pump. I found some of these eductors available at the Living Sea Aquarium vendor booth. A brief overview was then given on dump buckets, siphons and valve surge systems which gave way to Martin's incredible 30-gallon marine multi-environment aquarium. This aquarium manages to include no less than nine reef aquarium habitats. This tank is based on mechanical surges for water movement that are generated by a tank above the main aquarium that flushes water out via a float valve. He has promised a full description of this amazing aquarium in a future publication, hopefully in the not-too-distant future.

Ron Shimek
Some Natural - And Some Unnatural - History Of Sand Bed Organisms:
A Discussion Of The Ecological And Biological Relationships Found In Sand Beds

As deep sand beds become more and more utilized throughout our hobby, more talk is being generated about them than ever before. Dr. Shimek talked about the pathways that energy (food) takes, cycling through organisms in the ocean and in our tanks; from the smallest scavengers and filter feeders that live in our sand beds, to the predatory fish that roam above it. Ron demonstrated through a food pyramid how it takes 2500 pounds of phytoplankton to make a single six ounce can of tuna. He stressed that, for all practical purposes, an aquarium fits the definition of an ecosystem and should be modeled after the natural ocean. Ron named three main communities that occur in an aquarium. The water, hard substrate and soft substrate communities work together to move energy (or waste - however you choose to look at it) from one organism to the next, eventually ridding the tank of undesirable chemical byproducts. It was brought to listeners' attention that our sand beds have far less diversity of organisms (copepods, worms, etc.) than was originally suspected, and the demand for providing additional diversity was not being met by live aquaria suppliers. Reefs, on average, contain 100 - 250 species of organisms that manipulate energy into, through, and out of the sediments. Ron surmises that a typical reef tank contains only 25 - 50 species. He stated that the only solution was to collect and cultivate true sediment from a reef by suppliers; however, little interest exists in this area of collection. An audience member's question prompted Ron to suggest that the trading of sediments among aquarists would be a move in the right direction towards increasing the diversity of sand bed organisms in our tanks.

Eric Borneman
Reef Aquarium Myths: Tales From The Dark Side

Eric Borneman's energy and enthusiasm for the hobby means that his lecture was rapid-fire non-stop information. It was not until I received the VHS taping of his lecture that I was able to make sense of my incomprehensible notes. For this reason, I recommend that Eric's lecture be purchased through the IMAC website for $10.00 plus shipping and handling. Of all the lectures that I listened to, Eric's lecture covered the most topics and provided clear and often blunt truths about the misconceptions, myths and equipment that are talked about in the hobby today. I will touch on a few of the subjects that he covered in his lecture about dispelling the misinformation that he deals with on a daily basis through his moderation of The Coral Forum at Reef Central. Due to the repetitive questions, Eric worries that his contribution to forums is not making a difference. He found that much of the thread responses from aquarists give either unsubstantiated or anecdotal information.

We seem to describe and define information based on what we see rather than what is truly known. This is very evident among vendors who give common names to corals meant only to entice the aquarist to buy. Eric used the colt coral as an example of the variety of names that can be found to describe this species. In an internet search, Eric found Fiji and red tipped colt coral as names for what may or may not have even been colt coral. Even when scientific names are applied, they are often wrong as well. It is hard to tell species apart and vendors, as well as aquarists, should label their animals to the genus level and leave it at that. In a final note on taxonomy, Eric pointed out that there is no "zoo" in the spelling of zoanthid.

As for lighting, "there may be no ideal light." No correlation exists between polyp size and the light needed to saturate photosynthesis in any given coral. Soft corals can require a higher saturation than some stony corals. Our obsession with the K spectrum of artificial lighting bulbs is zany, according to Eric. Irradiance is the most important factor in photosynthesis and the primary control for pigmentation, photosynthesis and calcification in corals. When we observe coral growth, it is anecdotal to contribute that growth to the K value of a bulb. Also, corals do not reach for light. The perceived extension of coral polyps is a response to water flow and desire to optimize prey capture. Eric clarified for aquarists that the term "sps" (small polyp stony corals) is misapplied due to the fact that small polyps on a coral are a result of genetics not ecology. Once a coral is labeled as such, an aquarist assumes a habitat and husbandry method that may not be suitable for its care. All "sps" corals do need to be fed, as was demonstrated in an energy budget of Acropora. Borneman pointed out that coral coloration is largely a result of fluorescing proteins that look very different under natural light as apposed to ultraviolet light. The actual coloration of a reef is mostly made up of various hues of brown and gray. Collectors will harvest the more attractive colored corals because they are more desired by the hobbyist. This, by no means, represents the true coloration of a reef, and the light we use in our aquarium makes all the difference in the colors that we see in our tanks.

Eric moved on to address the chemical warfare that exists among corals in our tanks due to the chemicals they exude. A toxic coral's presence in a tank is all that is need to have a negative impact on other corals. Proximity is not a requirement to do harm. If you watch any animal documentary on television it is inevitable that a discussion of man's impact on animals is included in most programs, and Eric's lecture was no different. He provided some sobering information on the decline of yellow tangs, Potter's angels and other fish species endemic to the Hawaiian Islands. His own surveys on corals showed that some species of corals, particularly elegance coral, show a significant decline and apparent inability to recover in test areas. The aquarium trade "absolutely requires monitoring and management." Again, I encourage you to buy Eric's lecture video, I did. Eric is funny and connects very well with his audience. It is a pleasure listening to him.

Richard Harker
Relationships Between Coral Growth And Spectral Quality

I anticipated this lecture as I thought it would be "the lecture" that told us what metal halide bulbs we should be using. Alas, Harker spent much of the time for his lecture covering the history of our hobby. However, I feel that it is important that we know from whence we came in order to move into the future. Other lecturers also followed Richard's format and spent a fair amount of time covering hobby history. I could not have been more thrilled to hear Richard give Albert Thiel his deserved mention. I purchased and read Thiel's books in the early 90's and fortunately figured out quickly what his books offered and moved on. Nevertheless, Thiel did mark a beginning for the "how-to" books on reef keeping, followed by Julian Sprung and Charles Delbeek's book that changed our literature to a more scientific based teaching. This meant no more cookbook recipes for reef keeping. Richard did stress that subsequent to current publications, such as Eric Borneman's book Aquarium Corals, a plateau seems to have been reached in written information about the habitat, care and husbandry of corals. Harker went on to discuss the origin of spectral quality study and what little information exits. He emphasized that in nature the majority of a reef is visibly colored in shades of brown and tan due to the lack of a specific color wavelength penetration deeper on the reef. This statement was also driven home in Eric's lecture as well as others. Richard finally got to the meat of his experiment and showed slides that described his observations of coral fragments growth under both Ushio and Blue Line metal halides. His conclusions were somewhat inconclusive. Richard did acknowledge the more pleasing bluer coloration of the Blue Line bulb and stated that more data was needed and would be forthcoming in the future. Richard also touched on the theory that the reason for lack of sexual reproduction of corals in the reef aquarium may be due to immaturity of our specimens. His observation of sexual spawning in nature was primarily from large mature corals, and space may be the limiting factor in getting sexual reproduction of corals in the home aquarium.

Bob Goemans
Getting On The Same Page

The title of Bob Goemans lecture probably sums up the focus of IMAC in a nutshell. The theme of clarifying vast amounts of information that circulate in the hobby was now becoming crystal clear. Bob did not give his age, but he displayed great pride in being one of the elder statesmen to the hobby at the conference. He laid claim to owning the first undergravel filter to ever be used, and backed up his claim with a picture and an amusing story of its acquisition. This was followed by a rather lengthy stroll thru his life in the hobby that was listened to politely- as is often expected of "younger family members." I can only hope to be in his shoes some day. His history faded into an endorsement of the Eco-Aqualizer as the latest greatest thing to.... well... make your tank "never look better." By now Eric's catch phrase had really caught on. Goemans seemed to endorse the plenum system and I was glad to hear it, as I am a staunch believer in its use. After defining the plenum system, the meat of Bob's message seemed to be on driving home the importance of oxygen, or a lack thereof, where desired in the denitrification process. A sand bed coupled with the use of a plenum provides various oxygen saturation zones. Bacteria, defined by their oxygen requirements, work in each zone to break down nutrients and cycle the end product of the nitrogen cycle, nitrogen, back into the water column and out of our tanks. Bob showed that, despite being an elder, he was in touch with technology by inviting people to think outside the box and explore his digital book, titled The New Wave. Bob Goeman's website promises to be one of the premier sites for species identification in the not-too-distant future.

Mike Kirda
How Far Off Are We From Reef Values?

Mike offered up some very revealing raw data on actual light penetration in several reef tanks. One of the issues stressed to conference attendants was that experimentation and data collection needs to be done in the aquarium. We need not wait for scientists to report on their work on reefs around the world, and then try and convert their data as it may apply to our tanks. We need data that comes from our tanks so that we can settle the growing controversies that arise, such as Mike's concern for the best lighting for coral growth. Mike's work used a newly purchased quantum meter that allowed him to demonstrate the photosynthetic light levels (measured as PAR values in his tank) at various depths using different makes and models of lights. Kirda's preliminary data seemed to show that the metal halides definitely provided the most light at depth vs. VHO or power compact fluorescent lamps. His data collected on metal halides also showed a definite difference among makers. He stressed the need for further data collection, and that his data were only preliminary, as was most of the data given in lectures. Problems resulting from a lack of data were coupled with the problem of acquiring money to fund further data collection. This, too, was a sticking point for most lecturers' studies; a lack of funding, followed only by not enough time in life to do all the work that needs to be done. I hope that Mike does write about his findings in the future.

click here for full size picture
In the back row, (L to R): Bob Goemans, Mike Kirda, Todd Gardner, Manny Onate, Tim Birthisel,
Martin Moe and Dennis Gallagher. In the front row, (L to R): David Voessler, Rob Toonen,
Richard Harker, Larry Jackson, Julian Sprung, Eric Borneman and John Brandt.
(Click for larger image).

Michael Janes
Effects Of Closed Systems On Xeniidae Soft Corals:
Form, Composition And Function

If you like graphs, Michael Janes is your man. Fortunately, he filled time between the rather complex graphs with copious amounts of information on a sparsely studied family, the Xeniidae. The taxonomy for these corals is in flux, as with many coral species, and his coverage of morphology showed that there are relatively few names to learn in order to speak the Xeniidae language. These soft corals are found primarily in Indonesia, Philippines, Australia and the Red Sea and may require a species tank setup to prevent chemical warfare among fellow tank mates. Fun facts that one may not know about Xeniidae are that the sclerites are more compact in tank-raised species, the stalk contains the most zooxanthellae, and the muscular action of its pulsating polyps resembles the pulsatility of the jellyfish. Of most interest to me was that Michael reported that potassium may be a causative agent in determining the pulsation of the polyps in this group. The pulsation of Xeniidae polyps is also variable over any given 24-hour period. Michael's finishing request of his listeners was to understand that pulsation is not an indicator of colony health.

Rob Toonen
Why Data Matters: An Experimental Comparison
Of Sandbed And Plenum - Based Systems

For all of the armchair reef scientists that seem to make up 99% of the hobby, I am pleased to announce that Rob Toonen has won the lottery. He is cashing in for a one-way ticket to Hawaii to conduct research at the University of Hawaii's oceanographic center. (Rob earned his degree in larval biology, and this sort of makes him sound as though he is an armchair reef scientist - he is a scientist who also keeps reef tanks, not the other way around) If only I, too, had taken the road less traveled. Toonen spent several minutes discussing the history of plenum and deep sand bed (DSB) systems and then he showed us a graph of accumulated data that at first looked like the smoking gun: the answer to the question, "Do I use a plenum or just a deep sand bed?" However, he then showed how data can be misleading, and how this type of misunderstanding typifies claims made within the hobby, for the axes of his graph had no meaningful units. Rob spent the next 25 minutes laying out the structure of his study that actually showed that there was no difference in the denitrification functioning in newly setup systems employing either DSBs or plenum-based systems over time, nor was there a difference in the function of DSB depth among the various systems that were set up. The study was done on as many variations within systems as he could afford, yet still remain statistically significant. Again, money and time were the limiting factors to his work. Rob found no difference in denitrification ability of either system, no salinity differences, no oxygen differences or any differences in nitrate levels over time between plenum-based and plain deep sand systems. His data was taken from the water column and did not include any measurements taken within the substrate. He did find that there may be an advantage to using fine sediment over coarse sediment with respect to alkalinity, yet again he emphasized that further study would be needed. Rob hopes to continue his work in Hawaii, as if you couldn't find anything better to do in Hawaii!

Julian Sprung
Captive Husbandry Of Goniopora, spp. With Remarks
About The Similar Genus Alveopora

I first met Julian in the mid 90's at an ichthyology course at the University of Georgia where he lectured at our course-concluding dinner. It was from this lecture that I first understood that my goal as a hobbyist was not only to keep my animals alive, but also to provide an environment for them to thrive. In seven years, Julian is still pushing us to improve our abilities, this time with Goniopora and a similar genus, Alveopora. Goniopora, a commonly imported coral, has long been known to slowly decline in health after several months in a captive system. Many have speculated on why this occurs, yet no single definitive solution has yet to be identified. Julian believes that there are multiple mechanisms at play in Goniopora decline. Goniopora stokesi, the most problematic in captivity, is a free-living species and is found primarily in the muddy environment of lagoons. In collection, Goniopora needs to be shipped in an inverted position to prevent air from entering its skeleton. Goniopora reacts severely to damage during shipping which may account for some of the corals' lack of success. Julian feels that oxidative stress may be of the greatest importance in the decline of Goniopora. While the latest trend in additives suggests that trace elements are not required in our reefs, Julian finds that manganese (not magnesium) and iron are two elements that warrant investigation in the successful husbandry of Goniopora in helping prevent and alleviate the bleaching response that occurs in many cases during its demise. In our tanks, Goniopora require little water movement and low levels of light. For a more comprehensive examination of Goniopora, Julian referred listeners to the online magazine Advanced Aquarist where he has an archived articled on this very same topic.

Photo courtesy of John Brandt.

I must apologize for not including the numerous other lecturers in this review that were present at the conference. I was required to cut my days short so that I could spend time with my wife. I lure her to these conferences with the promise of sightseeing and shopping and she couldn't resist Chicago on either account. We managed to pack in the Lion King at the Cadillac Palace, a Cubs game and shopping on the Magnificent Mile during the conference weekend. Unfortunately, I had to give up a few lectures, including Martin Moe's banquet address on the state of the Florida reefs and his work in restoring populations of the keystone herbivorous long-spined urchin, Diadema antillarum, and, worst of all, the raffles. I just know that I would have won the grand prize instead of Steve Robinson.

Congratulations to Dennis Gallagher for another great conference. Our "hobby" family must continue to assemble as often as possible and I encourage those of you who have not attended one of the yearly marine conferences to come to Chicago in June of next year for IMAC 2004. You will undoubtedly come away with a renewed enthusiasm for the hobby that no other source can give you. It is a true family atmosphere.

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

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“All in the Family:" An IMAC Review by Chris Braithwaite -