A Discussion of US and European Reefkeeping

I do not consider reefkeeping to be a competitive activity, but during my recent trips to Europe and then travels around the states the most...
  1. A Discussion of US and European Reefkeeping

    I do not consider reefkeeping to be a competitive activity, but during my recent trips to Europe and then travels around the states the most frequently asked questions I got were “Are the states better than us” or “how far ahead of us are the Europeans”. I would love to be able to say definitively that one group of reefers or country or even continent is ahead of another, but from what I have seen that simply is not the case. I say this for several reasons: firstly, I have not been everywhere and have not seen enough tanks, especially in Europe to say one of us is inferior or superior to the other. I also do not have a set criterion on which I can even base such a judgment on. That is how do I say something is better? Is it size of tank, size of corals, color, age of tank, etc? There simply are too many variables to consider so I do not think I would do anyone any favors saying this group or country or group of reefers do it better than someone else. Lastly, if I did this, all it would be would be a generalization based on a limited sample size, which would be equally pointless.

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    The magnificent tank of David Saxby

    Having said this, there are significant differences between how reefkeeping is practiced in the US versus how things are done in Europe. Again, I do not want to generalize and these observations are my opinion, so I had a couple of my friends go over this to confirm my observations. The first, and I think most significant of these differences is simply how we versus Europeans approach the hobby. Both have passion for the hobby and try their best to have beautiful healthy thriving tanks, but in my opinion their approaches are completely different. First, more and more Americans seem to view reefkeeping as a hobby/business, while the Europeans view it as a relaxing endeavor that they do for fun and to add beauty to their homes.

    This starts from how each goes about setting up a tank and goes through how they stock and maintain it. Europeans seem to focus on getting the best equipment and most beautiful looking tank, stand and hood with the goal of having a tank that adds to the beauty of their homes and that will be successful for an extended period of time. While they like colorful corals, they are not focused on “named” corals nor are they willing to pay a king’s ransom for a “multidimensional rainbow anything”. Americans on the other hand often try to “save” by cutting corners when buying equipment and have no problem buying equipment that they know they may have to replace quicker than if they had bought a more expensive better piece of equipment. Also unfortunately, we often do not even consider how a tank fits into the décor of our homes and how it effects the overall aesthetics. Conversely we are usually willing to pay significantly higher prices for our corals, especially if they are named, even if they are just tiny frags. This willingness to pay higher prices then manifests itself into why I think many of us have this as a hobby/business. Since we pay so much for a “rare” frag, we then try to recoup our cost by cutting frags off the frag or small colony as soon as it is possible. I believe this is why we now see so many tanks that look like a frag collection rather than like the reef tanks I used to see or like those I saw in Europe where big colonies predominate. This is not a criticism, but rather an observation of what I consider the biggest difference between hobbyists on the two continents.

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    The automated zooplankton reactor

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    The Destaco calcium reactor

    This difference is further manifested in how the tanks look once they are set up. In most of the European tanks I saw there seemed to be a plan in place when the tank was set up that maximizes the impact that the different coral colors when the tank is viewed. For lack of a better term, the Europeans seem to have a better sense of how to “harmonize” the colors of the corals in their tanks then we do. This may be due to their having a better understanding of how the corals will look when they grow out in their tanks and their willingness to let them grow to large sizes. This was apparent even in the tanks that were relatively new, in that it was apparent that once the corals grew in, the look would be pleasing to the eye. I don’t know if this ability to match and harmonize colors is learned or passed along among reef keepers in Europe, but it is clear that this is a strong part of how they set up their tanks.

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    Martin Lakin's tank in England with some of the largest Acropora heads I have seen

    What is curious is that despite how beautiful their tanks look and how the colors in the corals are set up in such a way that each coral stands out due to the corals that are near it, many Europeans complained that they felt their corals were not as colorful as ours. Many told me that after looking at our corals on the internet, they were sure we were getting much more colorful corals here than they ever saw here. To this I answered that this simply was not true, in that the suppliers who supply the US with corals also supply them with the same corals. And these suppliers are not likely to be giving their most colorful corals only to the US and not to Europe since from what I saw we were both paying the same for these corals at the retail and wholesale levels. I think this difference in coloration or perceived difference is due to several reasons. First I think it is due to many hobbyists in the US using significantly more blue light than I saw on most European tanks. That is, unlike most US tanks where the switch to LEDs and specifically blue LEDs in one form or another, European tanks I saw were still using metal halides or even more were using t-5s. If they were running LEDs or “leads like the metal as they called them”, they ran them more towards the 12-14,000K temperature range rather the higher color temperatures like we do, and specialty blue LEDs like ReefBrites were unheard of. This lack of running their lights at the higher color, more blue, in my opinion is why they think their corals are not as colorful as ours. Having seen European tanks and sharing them with you I think you will agree that their tanks are at least as colorful as ours. I also think they think our corals are more colorful as due to the internet they focus on how frags look, and for the most part they are more colorful than colonies, so for that reason they also think our corals are more colorful. Lastly, and I hate to bang on this again, but when most Europeans buy or trade corals off of the internet, they do not allow them to be photoshopped to improve their colors. I know this may sound unimaginable to us, but if a vendor uses photoshop to enhance the color or their corals they are often called out and when this occurs the reefing community there, unlike here, stops buying their corals. So needless to say, some corals that they see that have been photoshopped here are not as colorful as they think.

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    The thriving tank of Enrico Ormetto

    So other than color perception and the price each of us is willing to pay for corals how else do we differ. The next big difference that I saw is that most European tanks still run with substrate or in a lot of instances deep sand beds. From the tanks I saw, the bare bottom tank, that many of us use here prefer is not used as much there. When I asked them why they did not run bare bottom tanks the main reason I heard was aesthetics. That is, they felt that a tank with substrate looked significantly better than a tank without. When we discussed whether running a tank with substrate also meant that they could not run strong current I was told that that was not really a concern in that if they directed the current properly with good pumps and powerheads they could keep the substrate from moving about. While I agree that a tank with substrate is pleasing to look at, I am still not convinced that the substrate can be kept from moving about.

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    Another tank in Italy this one done by Roberto Spinoglio, notice it is an sps tank, but with no acros

    As I mentioned above, it is my opinion that the Europeans focus more on having the best equipment possible on their tanks as they build them to last for decades not months or years. They do this with the intent to grow large healthy colonies over time, with patience being something they seem to have a lot more of than we do. In terms of using the best equipment, I did see several pieces of equipment that were widely used and available there that had not made their way to the states yet or if it had was only being used on a limited basis. This equipment included a calcium reactor by Destaco that was on all the high end tanks I saw in England, an automatic zooplankton and phytoplankton reactor by Planktontech that automatically fed the tank both every night, and tanks and stands by Elos that were aesthetically better than most tanks I have seen here and also included some innovative designs. I also saw various pumps, skimmers and lights, that to my mind would make keeping a reef tank easier than it is here currently. So yes some of the equipment available in Europe is ahead of the equipment here in some regards, but by the same token some equipment and products like Radion lights and powerheads, Two little fishes products like Acropower and Seachem products are widely used in Europe. So there is a lot of sharing between both groups of reefers.

    One thing I should point out, is that unlike some of our perceptions, the countries of Europe are not like the United States of Europe. While in the states we all seem to do things at least to some degree in a similar fashion, in Europe each country I visited was different from the others. Most of the reef tanks I saw in England were larger than those in Italy on average, while those in Germany were also on the larger side. As one might expect the tanks in Italy were done in such a way that they added to the aesthetics of the home, that it they had some “style” for lack of a better term. This is not to say that the English or German tanks lacked this, it just seemed that these tanks were not just “tank”, per se, they were more a nice piece of furniture in the home. Another interesting thing that I noted is that unlike here, female reefers were more prominent and in greater numbers in England than they are in other places, where the numbers are pretty close to here. In an unofficial poll that I saw the number of female reefers may be as high as 20% which is significantly higher than any other place I have visited or here. I do not have an explanation for this.

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    The tank of Marcus Resch in Germany. Note the school of thriving anthias that he feeds 8-12 times per day with his secret formula

    Lastly one of the other significant differences that I saw between us and the European countries is in the shops. While there, I rarely came across what I would consider a large shop and there are no “Big Box” stores like we have here anywhere. The shops for the most part were very clean and organized. Actually due to the high cost of space, virtually every nook and cranny is full of equipment or tanks. Like here most of the shops also had a display tank to show off not only the corals they wanted to sell, many sold corals out of these tanks, but they were also designed to show off the latest equipment as well. Some of these tanks showed off their sps collection, but many more showed off soft corals instead, which I have not seen done here in a lot of stores for a while. I should also note that not every store I visited sold or kept a lot of sps corals. When I asked why the response was kind of startling: to the shop owners sps corals were easy to grow and frag and as a result they said these corals were often traded or sold by hobbyists so having them in their shops was not cost effective. This seemed to especially be the case in Italy. So while frags do not nearly fetch the price there that they do here, there still seems to be a significant market for them, but most of this market is between hobbyists or individuals aquaculturing in their homes.

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    A selection of sps frags in Italy. Note their large size

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    A soft coral display tank in one of the shops in Italy

    As I have said many times, I consider myself to be especially blessed that I have gotten to travel to many interesting places that has allowed me to see many beautiful tanks, shops and corals and meet many great reefers in the process. I find it funny that the competitive juices still flow between hobbyists all over the world. A curious observation I have made is that often the Europeans look to the US for what the next trends or breakthroughs in the hobby will be, while at the same time US hobbyists often look to Europe for what the next new technology will be. It is nice that there is kind of a mutual admiration between hobbyists everywhere. In my opinion, I do not think any one place I have visited is significantly better at the hobby than any other, but just as here, everyone kind of does things a little differently, and in just about all instances with great success. More importantly after talking with many of my fellow hobbyists I am heartened to know that most of us realize that we are all in this together and as a result most of the people I met were happy to share their “secrets”, which I try to pass on to all of the other hobbyists I encounter. It also made me feel good that all of these hobbyists also know there is no “magic” to this hobby, it takes patience, money and a certain amount of obsessiveness to be successful. While the internet has helped shrink the size of the world and has allowed for information to be shared easily, I must admit that I still learned more by visiting and seeing these tanks and talking with their owners than I could have gotten just from getting bits of information from the net. Hopefully this sharing of information will continue to increase and improve everyone’s level of success.

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    About Author

    Mike Paletta
    Michael Paletta’s actual career is working in genomics in breast and colon cancer for Genomic Health. He has been an avid reef keeper since 1984. He has kept personal reef aquaria ranging in size from 20 gallons to 1200 gallons and has helped set and build other reef aquaria up to 4,000 gallons in size. He currently maintains several reef aquaria including a 300 gallon sps dominated tank and a 75 lps tank. He has also consulted for The National Aquarium in Baltimore as well the Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium.

    Michael has published over 100 articles on various aspects of reef keeping in SeaScope, Aquarium Fish Magazine, FAMA, Practical Fishkeeping, and Coral Magazine. He has also published two books: The New Marine Aquarium and Ultimate Reefs. Michael has been invited to speak at various venues around the world and across the country and has given over 200 such talks.
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