FRANKLIN – Snowbanks were still piled high around the Center for Cooperative Aquaculture Research, where the thermometer last week struggled to reach the 40s and the temperature in Taunton Bay remained killer cold.
But conditions were tropical inside the quarters of the center’s newest tenant, Sea and Reef Aquaculture. There, hundreds of tiny, brightly colored fish darted and shimmered about in dozens of warm-water tanks. The fish are being raised for sale to pet stores and wholesale distributors nationwide. It is one of only five marine tropical fish hatcheries in the country, and likely the only one operating in a northern climate.
“No one has ever done it in a climate like this,” said Soren Hansen, president of Sea and Reef Aquaculture.
The business grew out of doctoral work by Hansen and Chad Callan at the University of Maine School of Marine Resources. Hansen, a native of Denmark, and Callan were both interested in tropical fish and wanted to find an environmentally safe way to raise them.
Ninety-five percent of the 1,500 saltwater tropical fish species sold for use in home aquariums are collected in the wild from coral reefs in the Pacific Ocean, such as those off the Philippines and Indonesia. They are harvested by divers who use dynamite or squirt a poisonous solution to stun the fish, killing already fragile coral and other non-target organisms.
The mortality rate among wild-caught fish is 80 to 90 percent even before they land in the pet store, and about 50 to 60 percent of the initial survivors after that.
“A lot of these fish are being driven towards extinction, and if we can learn how to raise them, we can preserve them,” Hansen said.
About 30 million fish are collected each year from reefs around the world for the marine ornamental hobby market. Sixty percent, with a value of $250 million, are sold in the United States annually. Aquarium sales make up about 10 percent of the $8 billion-a-year pet industry in the United States.
Hansen and Callan figured if they could find a way to raise the fish from eggs in captivity, the odds of survival would rise significantly and there would be no damage to reefs and rare species.
But first they had to find out how to do it, since little is known about how particular species breed in the wild. With the help of David Townsend, a professor of oceanography who found funding for the operation, they settled on the business of raising clownfish and dottybacks.
For the first few years, Hansen and Callan researched the fish, determining what the larvae eat when they hatch — a species of zooplankton — and how they breed. Clownfish and dottybacks are known as demersal spawners. Their eggs are attached to the bottom and cared for by the male. The young are fairly developed when they hatch.
But 90 percent of marine tropical fish are pelagic spawners, laying up to 3,000 unattached eggs at a time into the water. The larvae are primitive and take several days to develop enough to be able to eat. Hansen is now doing advanced research to figure out how to raise pelagic species in captivity.
He has managed to keep the larvae of the pelagic flame angel fish alive up to day 15, with the goal of extending their survival in captivity to 60 days, when it is assumed they will be able to survive through adulthood.
The business, founded in 2003, has been part research and part money-making from the start.
Each step has required study, such as how to transport the fish in a minimal amount of water to reduce shipping costs, and how to heat Maine’s chilly waters to 80 degrees without racking up exorbitant energy bills.
Hansen said there were a few disasters. They lost a year of work early on when the fish mysteriously started dying. Hansen said they finally figured out that several inches of copper filament had entered one of the tanks when an electrician was doing work — the remnants of the filament were discovered in a sump pump.
“But our biggest challenge was to persuade people this was a good idea for Maine,” said Hansen.
Callan moved to Hawaii to do similar research while Hansen has managed to convince people there is a future for tropical fish farming in Maine. This month, he is moving the business from Orono to Franklin, with help from a $200,000 development award from the Maine Technology Institute and an $80,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture Small Business Innovation award.
Hansen and his employees, and aquaculture center director Nick Brown, designed and renovated the existing building.
Today, the business is run by Hansen and two full-time employees. They are selling 1,000 fish — 14 species — a month to pet stores and distributors around the country by word of mouth.
Hansen’s goal is to move 16,000 fish a month when the business is fully operational in its new quarters and launches its website during the next year. He will also be farming sea horses, marine ornamental shrimp and sea anemones.
The clownfish fetch about $5 each on the wholesale market. Several of the strains Hansen has developed, such as a brown and black Maine Mocha clownfish, retail for about $25 each, while all-white clownfish called the Maine Blizzard sell for nearly $500 a pair.
Hansen said raising tropical fish is actually easier than raising food fish, such as cod and halibut, which are raised in separate operations at the Franklin center. Tropical fish spawn year round, compared with groundfish, which take years to mature and spawn only three times a year.
Customers say the fish raised by Sea and Reef Aquaculture are superior to anything from the wild. They are disease-resistant and hardy, said Denis Ducharme, owner of Deep Sea Creation in Auburn.
“For us, it is awesome because the shipping time is literally within hours,” said Ducharme.
The Maine-bred fish are in big demand as well, he said.
He sold three pairs of Maine Blizzards in the past two weeks.
Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at: