Plumbing The Depths Of Aquarium Science

What happens if you mix fat puffers with sponges? Do clownfish do better alone or in pairs? What's the best way to prune staghorn coral? Joseph Yaiullo, co-founder of Atlantis Marine World in Riverhead, N.Y., and the curator of the aquarium's 20,000-gallon tank, shares tank tips.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

Up next, Flora Lichtman is here with our video pick of the week. Flora, welcome.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Hi, Ira.

FLATOW: What do we got today?

LICHTMAN: This week, we have a good one, I think. We visited with someone who has a very unusual job here in New York. His name is Justin Muir, and his company is called City Aquarium. And basically, the only way to put - he's an aquarist to the stars.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: I mean, literally.

FLATOW: Yeah?

LICHTMAN: He works with a lot of celebrities, mostly rich people. I mean, to be blunt, his aquariums are really expensive. They're custom designed and built and installed, you know, tailored specifically for his client's penthouse in Time Warner building. That's a true story.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: And there - they run, you know, $50,000 to $400,000 with his top aquarium.

FLATOW: Wow. And so what do you - what makes it so expensive? What's inside these tanks?

LICHTMAN: I mean - I think it's partly the manufacturing and the design, but one of the things that we wanted to find out is where these luxury sea creatures come from, and it turns out they come from New Jersey.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: So we went fish shopping with Justin to Merit Imports in Paramus and got to see sort of how he picks out different fish and what he looks for. And one of the best things he told us was, really - he gave us a bunch of fish selection tips so you don't have to be looking for luxury fish yourself.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: This will work on any fish.

FLATOW: Yeah. And this is not a fish market where you're getting good fish on ice. This is live fish. And if you go to our website at sciencefriday.com, our video pick of the week - Flora's video pick - up there on our left side, is showing us a tour of his fish tanks, right?

LICHTMAN: Yes. So he - so we got to see him buy fish, and then, he also grows his own giant clams and cultivates his own coral in this Brooklyn warehouse. And it's also where he does all his quarantining of his fish before they go into his client's aquariums.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. I remember that. I remember that from my days because I used to actually have a reef tank.

LICHTMAN: Yeah?

FLATOW: I was one of these fish geeks. I had a small reef tank.

LICHTMAN: A reef geek you, Ira?

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: I can't believe it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Well, I think for the rest of the hour, I mean, because we're both interested in this, we're going to try to call all fish geeks, like myself and others. If you have a, you know, you keep a reef tank. You're - I think you coined a great word.

LICHTMAN: I didn't coin it but yes. Coralholics, please call in. And I think this is relevant, too, because what Justin does especially anytime but in this economic climate probably feels pretty irrelevant to most people. But you don't have to be a celebrity to keep a reef tank.

FLATOW: Yeah. And you can keep them on all kinds of sizes. And if you have questions, if you'd want to participate, our number is 1-800-989-8255. Maybe you want us to start a reef tank. Or what, you have one.

LICHTMAN: You have one maybe, you know, you'd like to know. You're just thirsting to know how to prune Staghorn coral or, you know, perhaps you have coral (unintelligible) that you're...

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: ...trying to manage or maybe you want to keep your clownfish happy and you just don't know how. If any of these questions apply to you, they apply to our next guest. His name is Joe Yaiullo, and he has built one of the biggest saltwater aquariums in the world. He's the co-founder and curator of Atlantis Marine World in Riverhead, New York, and he joins us from WBLI in Long Island.

Welcome to the program, Joe.

Mr. JOE YAIULLO (Co-founder, Atlantis Marine World): Hello. Appreciate it. Thanks for having me.

LICHTMAN: So tell us - well, let's, first, start with the specs on your tank at Atlantis. How big is it? Give us a sense of the scale.

Mr. YAIULLO: The tank itself is 30 feet long. It's 14 feet front to back, about six and a half feet deep, a little over 20,000 gallons.

LICHTMAN: Wow. And how long have you been working on it?

Mr. YAIULLO: The aquarium now is in its 10th year. There are some corals within the tank that I've had in my collection for over 20 years now.

LICHTMAN: Wow. I mean - and you started doing this when people didn't know that you could actually grow coral in captivity, right?

Mr. YAIULLO: Yeah. Back in the mid to late '80s, it was a little known science I had to maintain and keep these creatures alive and happy and healthy. So it's been quite a run over the last 20 years.

LICHTMAN: Well, tell us a little bit about that. I mean, what, you know, what were some of the landmark moments for you in coral - keeping coral alive?

Mr. YAIULLO: Initially, when I first started volunteering at the New York Aquarium in Coney Island and I was eventually hired on as an aquarist - and they had a small reef tank there that had some corals that were doing OK. Some would linger. Some would fade away. But there was a few that were quite hardy and grew. And the moment I saw them grow new polyps was the instant I was hooked. That was back in 1987.

LICHTMAN: That's when you became a coralholic?

Mr. YAIULLO: That's - yeah, yeah. I coined that term in the very early '90s, when myself and a bunch of friends were looking at a coral shipment and I - we just looked like a bunch of addicts around this reef tank and realized we really do have a problem.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: Are there coral that you have your eye that you haven't figured out how to keep alive in your tank but you'd like to?

Mr. YAIULLO: The area of interest now is going into corals that are non-photosynthetic that need particular foods which sometimes we're not quite sure what they are yet. So that's the new area of reefkeeping that's gaining a lot of attention now. And that normally would have to be done on a smaller scale, because the concentration of food is so great.

LICHTMAN: I wonder if people are learning more about coral from reefkeepers than - or as much than the people studying them in the wild, because you have to - you must have to know their exact environmental demands if you're going to keep them alive.

Mr. YAIULLO: Yeah. That's a good point. Initially, a lot of the coral researchers were only looking at corals in the wild. And a number of things that they wanted to study, they weren't able to do in the reef proper itself.

And - but a lot of times, some scientists are not the greatest animal keepers. And Dr. Bruce Carlson at Waikiki Aquarium at the time was realizing that the home hobbyists were maintaining, you know, luxurious reef tanks in captivity and that these could actually be scientific tools. And he was a great individual for bridging the gap between the scientists and the hobbyists.

LICHTMAN: Hmm. Let's go to the phones, 1-800-989-TALK. Rocky(ph), do you have a question?

ROCKY (Caller): Hello? Yeah, I do. I'm actually one of these fish geeks myself. I got married and I bought an entire - I don't know. I invested like $6,000 and bought a bunch of aquariums. And I thought I was going to be some huge rare breeder of African Cichlids from Lake Tanganyika and do all this. And I was wondering how did you - at what point did you decide this is how I'm going to earn a living, what I do? Because, like I've been doing aquariums for, like, 20 years now and I've thought about when I made the investment into buying all these aquariums and the right piping and pumps and stuff. But when you make the jump and, like, how did you find the means to design these aquariums? And just how did you get started, I guess, is my big question?

Mr. YAIULLO: For myself, within the public aquarium industry, I was, you know, grew up on Long Island and was fishing the local bays and kept tanks as a kid. It just seemed to be a natural progression. I worked at the New York Aquarium in Coney Island for about eight years.

About a year and a half into that process, I realized that this was a career that I wanted to pursue but not in Brooklyn. So I ended up meeting a guy, Jimmy Bissett, and co-founded the public aquarium out at Atlantis. And it was a great marriage because, well, he didn't know anything about a fish tank but knew he wanted to do an aquarium. And I handled all the filtration and exhibit design and life support. So I just - I basically get paid to do what I did as a kid, which is a pretty good deal.

LICHTMAN: Thanks, Rocky. Thanks for calling. Let's also - let's keep with the phone calls because people are really interested. We've got Mary in Harvard, Mass.

MARY (Caller): Hi. Thank you for taking my call. I hate to...

LICHTMAN: What's your question?

Mr. YAIULLO: Hello.

MARY: Well, I hate to be a Debbie Downer, but my husband was a fish collector for a number of years in Hawaii in the late '70s. And he got out of the business. You know, he would catch all kinds of tropical fish, ocean water fish, juveniles, all kinds. And he got out of the business when he realized that keeping an aquarium, especially a saltwater aquarium, was predicated on the death of the fish and the continuing, continuing death of the animals.

Mr. YAIULLO: Well, that may have been true in the early years, especially in saltwater reefkeeping, but that's hardly the case now. We're captively breeding many marine fishes now. In fact, there is a whole boxful of clownfish in my truck at the moment. I'm going to a reef club meeting tonight. We're growing and propagating many of these species. So there's - a lot of the pressures are removed off the wild. And if they are collected in a sustainable way, these fish are - there are more than enough reef fish out there to be collected.

LICHTMAN: Thanks for calling, Mary.

FLATOW: Do you see yourself as a preservationist, as someone who's keeping fish alive that might be dying out in the wild or keeping soft shell coral or hard shell coral out there now that coral are dying everywhere around the world?

Mr. YAIULLO: Well, it's a way of increasing awareness to the general public, to the importance of maintaining these habitats within the wild. Regarding the animal breeding and coral propagation, I mean, we're breeding and propagating so many corals, not that they would be re-introduced back to the wild.

But, you know, if it came down to it, applications like Ken Nedimyer that's using down in Florida, he's replanting reefs that have been impacted tremendously with corals that were devastated, the elkhorn and staghorn corals. And he's been able to take what we've done in reef tanks and is rebuilding actual reefs down in Florida at this moment.

So, you know, there may have been a little curve there in the beginning on trying to figure out how to keep some of these animals alive and some - there were some mortalities. But it's part of the process of trying to figure out what's going on. And now it's gotten to the point where, you know, pretty much anybody can go out. And as long as the tank is set up properly, you can have a flourishing reef.

LICHTMAN: You know, Mary does bring up a good point though. When I was in Paramus with Justin Muir, we - one of the fish buyers who was taking care of the fish there said, you know, mentioned some of the collection techniques that maybe are being phased out now. But using cyanide on reefs and dynamite and he, you know, he avoids fish because they don't survive that well. But this is a concern in the aquarium trade, right?

Mr. YAIULLO: Oh, it's definitely a concern. Wherever humans are involved, you know, there's - it's - we're not a great species as far as being - doing things in a sustainable way. But, in general, there's a lot of hobbyists - not hobbyists, a lot of collectors, this is their livelihood, raising the awareness of the local peoples in those areas that these are worth preserving. So if you can treat the - if you can teach them how to collect in a sustainable way so they're not destroying their reefs, they have more food, they have more money, and they'll end up protecting the environment a lot better in those areas instead of using the cyanide or dynamite fishing. A lot of their collection practices, a lot of it is based on ignorance and not realizing there is another way to do it.

LICHTMAN: Joe, I think we have a caller with a question, a reef geek with a question for you that you may be able to help him with.

Mr. YAIULLO: Okay.

LICHTMAN: Brian(ph) in Naples, what's your question?

BRIAN (Caller): Hi. I was calling - I have a hair algae problem. And I've gone - we have two reef stores in Naples and one has had me purchase sea hares and blue tang and yellow tang. And the other store says that you just have to live with it because it doesnt help. The sea hares will just die off. So I was wondering if you could give me some advice because I just can't seem to (unintelligible).

FLATOW: Yeah, I had that. That's what drove me out of my - out of the aquarium, the algae, the slimy hair algae that take over...

Mr. YAIULLO: Yeah. Well, if those were the two answers you were given, I would suggest maybe looking for another store, first off.

BRIAN: Exactly.

Mr. YAIULLO: Because that information is kind of limited. You really want to attack the source of the problem, and it's usually organic nutrient buildup that is fueling these algaes. So you're going to need to really take a close look at your phosphates and nitrate levels, detritus accumulating in the tank. By buying the sea hares and things like that, you're treating - you're not curing the symptom. You're just treating the ailment.

BRIAN: Right.

Mr. YAIULLO: So you really want to look at your water qualities, your lighting and also your circulation is crucial in those matters.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

LICHTMAN: Thanks for calling, Brian. You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY on NPR.

FLATOW: I'll tell you, happiness is a yucky protein skimmer.

LICHTMAN: Ira said that twice today.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Right?

Mr. YAIULLO: Yes. Oh, yeah. If you're a true reef geek, you just can stand there and look at a head of foam forming on your reef tank protein skimmer and just actually enjoy it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: It's yucky and it's healthy because you want to take the protein, the fish food, the feces out of the water because that's what...

Mr. YAIULLO: Yeah.

FLATOW: ...pollutes the water. And it comes out in something called a skimmer.

Mr. YAIULLO: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Basically, the protein skimmer is the - if you ever go to the ocean on a windy day and that foam, that froth is blowing ashore, that's loaded with organics. And we're duplicating that process within a protein skimmer. The skimmer I have at Atlantis is quite large it's over 10 feet tall. It processes 200 gallons per minute. And...

FLATOW: I've got skimmer envy here.

Mr. YAIULLO: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. YAIULLO: And yeah, I mean, I muck it out, you know, by hand. I could put an automatic cleaner on there, but I just - I like to see the consistency of the foam and make sure that it's, you know, operating at peak efficiency. And, yeah, it's...

LICHTMAN: I think we've hit a new level of reef geek here.

FLATOW: This is the...

Mr. YAIULLO: Yeah.

FLATOW: This is true aquarium geek talk.

Mr. YAIULLO: Yeah. I actually weighed the muck one time, and that's when my reef buddy friend was like, now you've gone too far. You're actually now weighing exactly how much stuff is coming out of there.

LICHTMAN: You know, one thing I wanted to ask you, because I don't have a saltwater aquarium and I never have, but I really love fish and sea creatures. And it seems like for reef geeks, it's really the main attraction here are the coral. And I think people don't quite understand, who are not coral enthusiasts or coralholics what - it sounds like watching paint dry, you know? I'm looking at a rock. What the big deal? Why is it - why does it bring you pleasure?

Mr. YAIULLO: Yeah. Well, I mean, corals are animals and they are quite dynamic in their growth and their form. They're a constant challenge. Of course they - as they do grow in, it changes the ballpark and the ball field and you're trying to figure out how to keep them alive even further. The colors and the shapes and the textures, it - you know, sometimes people just view them as the colorful background to these reef fishes.

LICHTMAN: You've had - sorry, go ahead.

Mr. YAIULLO: Yeah. Go ahead. No, go ahead.

LICHTMAN: I was - you described it as a game of chess. And I wanted -what do you mean by that?

Mr. YAIULLO: Well, you plant your garden basically, even though they are animals you call them like a coral garden. And as they grow in, you have to meet their challenges, and they're challenging you to meet those challenges. So it's this ongoing chess match, where you're maneuvering the parameters of the tank, your lighting, your circulation. And just like a garden, if you dont tend to it, it'll get overgrown and you'll end up with, you know, just a couple of large bushes instead of a nicely planted garden.

And you have to do the same thing with your reef tanks. And you can maintain your reef tanks and have really old corals that aren't very large because you can have them as a, like a bonsai reef tank. Or you can allow them to grow in to be quite large. I mean, I was just - got back from Fiji and I saw individual coral colonies that were the size of two-car garages.

FLATOW: Wow.

LICHTMAN: Wow.

Mr. YAIULLO: It was just mindboggling...

LICHTMAN: Wow.

Mr. YAIULLO: ...mindboggling.

LICHTMAN: Joe, thank you so much for joining us today.

Mr. YAIULLO: Oh, my pleasure. My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

LICHTMAN: Joe Yaiullo is the cofounder and curator of Atlantis Marine World in Riverhead, New York.

FLATOW: And thank you, Flora. And if you want to see Flora's Video Pick of the Week, it's up there, right?

LICHTMAN: That's right.

FLATOW: Where - what do we see in that video?

LICHTMAN: Oh, so many sea creatures. I stuck as many in as possible, and some coral too, don't worry.

FLATOW: All right. Go to our website at sciencefriday.com and see the Video Pick of the Week. If you want to think about building your own coral reefs, that is one way to start doing that.

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