A living business
Ofer Almalam and Alon Efergan, two hobbyists from Haifa, are only people in world who have managed to raise corals in captivity
Last month, an unusual shipment reached London. Inside a packing crate were plastic bags containing water and oxygen; in addition, each bag held a 5-7 centimeter piece of colorful coral. Once the crate had been unloaded and the contents had reached their destination – a British chain of nature stores – Ofer Almalam, 33, a criminal lawyer from Haifa, heaved a huge sigh of relief.
His coral farm, whose location remains a closely guarded secret, is the first in Israel – and according to farm operators, worldwide as well - to successfully raise commercial amounts of coral within a so-called closed system. In other words, the coral comes from an aquarium which is not connected to the ocean.
For now, the farm’s produce is designated for export only. Should the farm’s location be revealed, the place would surely be overrun by families hoping for a view of the marvelous coral and for a chance to acquire samples for their home aquariums.
Since corals grow in seawater, regular glass aquariums are not appropriate. Instead, corals require saltwater aquariums whose conditions mimic those found in nature.
“There’s a marina aquarium, in which saltwater fish grow, and there’s a reef aquarium, which is a miniature imitation of a reef, which contains, besides fish, also corals, sea anemones, crustaceans, and assorted invertebrates,” Udi Russo, a 36-year industry veteran, explains.
Reef aquariums are popular design accessories in fancy restaurants, high-tech companies, and elegant living rooms.
In order to survive, corals, which classify as invertebrates, require controlled conditions and precise water quality, lighting, and temperature monitoring. These conditions are usually only found in areas near the equator. Corals grow at a rate of a few millimeters to several centimeters a year.
Reef aquariums are one of the primary reasons for global coral depletion. When a coral branch is broken off in order to be used in an aquarium, the coral regresses dozens or even hundreds of years backwards; occasionally, the coral is completely destroyed.
Until six years ago, Almalam, one of the new venture’s initiators, did not even own an aquarium. At that point, however, he happened to visit a pet store and noticed a unique and colorful fish. Almalam purchased the fish and placed it in a small home aquarium. Eventually, his pet outgrew the aquarium, and Almalam contemplated a saltwater aquarium.
With the help of Alon Efergan, an engineer working in a pet shop, Almalam constructed an artificial reef in his living room and began raising corals. At first, he focused on soft corals but eventually moved on to rock coral, considered to be the most sensitive coral species.
Almalam estimates that he was devoting anywhere from three to five hours a day to his hobby. He had to feed the fish and the corals, run chemical tests, measure out precise doses of water additives, and adjust the system.
“A system that is entirely pumps, timers, cutoff switches, gauges, and electrodes, and all of it is to ensure that the sensitive corals feel better than they did in their home in Indonesia,” Almalam says. “As the research advanced, I discovered that in the artificial conditions that we generated, their growth rate is two centimeters a month – twenty times (the rate) in nature.”
In early 2005, Almalam and Efergan decided to create a business around their experimental model; they established a farm to raise corals in captivity which they would then sell to hobbyists around the world. Their company, Advanced Coral Propagating Technology (ACP Tech), was funded by Almalam’s father Avraham, a mechanical engineer who has filed several patents in assorted fields and who became the fledgling’s company’s third partner.
They purchased rock coral bushes from Indonesia and the Solomon Islands, divided each coral into approximately fifty 1-2 centimeter long pieces, and stuck them on platforms. Within six months, the coral had grown sufficiently and was able to be planted in the aquarium. The company’s goal is to raise and export around 1,000 corals a month. Since the first shipment went out, the company has made further deliveries to England and the United States, and orders are increasing.
According to Efergan, their product has many advantages over corals that come directly from nature.
“Today, a diver with a snorkel and a hammer breaks the reef in Indonesia,” he reports. “Out of a hundred corals that he picks, thirty die directly because of contact with the sun. An additional forty corals die in transit in the airplane, and when those that remain alive arrive here and are transferred from seawater to artificial water with artificial lighting, another twenty die. Thus, this merchant killed one hundred corals in order to be left with ten.
"We eliminate all this destruction. The water in which we raise the corals is, essentially, purified tap water, which we salted and to which we added elements that convert it into reef water. We want flawless corals with the best color, the most beautiful shape, and the fastest growth.”
The aquariums in the partners’ farm are a visual treat to behold; they are filled with pink cabbage-like corals, phosphoric green corals that look like cacti, and corals with blue heads.
“The coral comes from nature with a certain pigment, and I can only reinforce its colors or cause it to grow faster. There is no genetic intervention here,” Almalam promises.
“It is forbidden to touch them or bother them,” he continues. “If we touch a coral too much, it won’t grow and possibly may even die. Every morning, I go in to see how the corals are doing, like a father who goes over to his children in the morning to see how they are feeling. I look over the coral to see if it’s stressed, if something is not right, if the color changed for the worse, and I quickly go check what the problem is and deal with it.”
Dr. Shai Shapir is the development scientist for “Red Sea Corals”, a Kibbutz Saar attempt at raising corals in aquariums for commercial purposes. At this point, that enterprise has been stalled.
“It is very hard to raise corals in captivity,” Shapir notes. “An electric blackout that cuts off the coolers and the water goes up a few degrees. The corals will die, and it doesn’t matter how much we invested in them.”
“There are experiments all the time,” Yossi Dabul, owner of Coral Farms, a fish and coral import company, discloses. “Every day, another wise guy comes who wants to raise corals in captivity. But it’s impossible in Israeli conditions. No one in Israel has yet reached the cutting coupons stage. I have been involved in the field for thirty years, and I don’t know anyone who managed to do this successfully. Almalam is a nice guy, but he’s not a biologist, and I’m not sure that they’ll be able to do this economically.”
Yet when Almalam delivered the opening lecture at an international conference in Los Vegas this past February, he claims that he received extremely positive feedback.
“Throughout the world, there are people raising corals in reefs and selling them over the Internet. But commercial cultivation in aquariums, disconnected from the reef, and in quantities like ours, does not exist anywhere else,” Almalam insists. “We are the only farm in the world of this type.
“I realize that eyebrows are being raised that we, without any formal education in marine biology, succeeded where everyone else failed. But we invest hours upon hours – twelve hours a day or more – investigating every little change and drawing conclusions. The system is attached to monitors, and even when we aren’t there, we keep track of every change from home. And more than once, Alon or I had to run over to the farm at night, when it seemed that there was a problem. Obviously, we’re basically chained to the farm, because in spite of the automatic systems, if you go away for a week and no one watches the corals, when you come back, you’ll find a graveyard.”