RUSKIN, Fla., April 29 (UPI) -- Researchers in Florida, helped by donations from SeaWorld and Busch Gardens, are behind a successful and growing effort to breed aquarium fish in captivity.
Once almost impossible, captive breeding of colorful reef fish is quickly growing in scope and variety at a University of Florida research station near Tampa and in a few other research facilities around the world.
The key to success has been finding the right type of plankton -- microscopic crustaceans and other tiny marine life -- that the fish can eat when they are just tiny specks themselves with microscopic mouth openings.
Scientists like Matt DiMaggio have to pay close attention to water quality, temperature, light and other factors. This year, they even are experimenting with different kinds of green or brownish algae that might help the tiny fry see their food.
"Understanding how to breed fish like this in captivity will be more vital as the world population grows," said DiMaggio, assistant professor of aquaculture at the University of Florida. "Half the seafood we eat now is grown. Even though we are not eating these fish, it's farming."
Each year, about 10 million tropical fish are imported into the United States, where enthusiasts have at least 1 million saltwater aquariums, according to the American Pet Products Association.
National Geographic noted in a 2018 article that captive breeding doesn't nearly satisfy demand, and most of the 2,000 species in trade are captured in about 40 countries, with most coming from the Philippines and Indonesia. Those numbers spur researchers like DiMaggio to greater effort.
Fish raised in captivity actually are better suited to living in an aquarium, he said. Commercial aquarium companies like Segrest Farms, also based near Tampa, are partners in the work.
"Once we get them past the difficult larval stage, they become more accustomed to eating pelletized food," DiMaggio said. "And they are more resistant to many diseases."
Sandy Moore, president of Segrest, said many people would prefer to have tank-raised fish, which allows breeding for specific colors or other characteristics.
"We think the work is really critical to the sustainability of the marine ornamental trade. The hobby demands a shorter supply chain," Moore said.
A big milestone was reached in 2016, when the program got the Pacific blue tang past its larval stage and able to feed on its own. That was the same year Disney's movie Finding Dory came out -- an animated feature starring the blue fish with the voice of actress/comedian Ellen DeGeneres.
The species was targeted for more breeding partly because everyone knew it would be more popular with the release of the movie. In 2018, the fish that hatched two years before also spawned in captivity.
Popular aquarium favorites like wrasses are among the success stories. New attempts are being made with the bright red flame hawkfish and other varieties.
Because saltwater aquarium fish come from so many places around the globe, numbers and populations in the wild are mostly uncounted. Data is lacking on how many fish are taken and by what methods, which can include cyanide and dynamite to shock fish. That also damages reefs.
The University of Florida team built on research on the yellow tang, the first success story, by Chad Callan and his team at the Oceanic Institute at Hawaii Pacific University.
SeaWorld funds such efforts through separate not-for-profits that received $1.6 million from the entertainment company in 2016, according to the last report available. The fish breeding program is a standalone organization called the Rising Tide Conservation Fund.
"This is a new chapter in ornamental fish aquaculture," said Judy St. Leger, president of Rising Tide and vice president of research and science at SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment.