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A few years ago, criminal lawyer Ofer Almalam discovered he had a penchant and a passion for nurturing aquarium fish. He moved the hobby into the lounge of his Haifa home and started raising Lionfish. Before too long, specialty pumps and new aquarium equipment were arriving by the boxload from the US and Europe.
Today, Almalam says he runs the only commercial coral farm in the world, through his recently formed company Advanced Coral Propagating Technology ().
At least that's what dealers told him at a recent conference in Las Vegas.
"I thought there would be a few other farms in the world, and I asked other dealers where one could buy aquaculture corals [ones raised in a closed system outside the sea]," says Almalam. "They told me such corals are only sold by private individuals in small quantities through the Internet."
This discovery gave Almalam the impetus to work even harder on his dream of commercializing coral grown in captivity.
Corals are notoriously difficult to keep alive, as they are sensitive to minor fluctuations in pH and temperature and require a specific low-nutrient balance in the water. But as a hobbyist, Almalam knew that corals - especially the less sturdy hard variety - are much in demand by people who want to buy them for their aquariums. Cultivating them artificially without contact to the sea, Almalam reasoned, would offset illegal coral poaching and possibly help rehabilitate dead and dying natural reefs throughout the world.
Worldwide, pristine coral reefs are dying at an unprecedented rate due to factors such as global warming, pollution and the fishing industry. The Nature Conservancy, an international biodiversity preservation organization, estimates that if reef destruction continues, 70 percent of the world's reefs will disappear within the next 50 years.
Corals are one of the most integral components of the marine ecosystem. Closely related to jellyfish and sea anemones, corals attach themselves to the sea floor and form a hard casing that serves as a habitat for a myriad of other sea creatures.
The pressing environmental aspect of coral reefs reminds Almalam that growing coral has to be a labor of love. With the right investor, however, he thinks the company could become the largest cultivated coral supplier in the world.
In a location near Haifa, shallow tanks connected in parallel are producing annually about 8,000 six-centimeter pieces of coral. The wholesale price is about $15 apiece. The lab's location remains under wraps so that curious passers-by will not pluck out pieces of coral, explains Almalam.
Almalam works with his father, Abraham Almalam, and a partner, Alon Efergen. There isn't enough coral produced at the farm, they say, to fill all the orders coming in.
To their surprise, corals grown in captivity exhibit some advantages over those found in nature: They adjust better to the aquarium environment (about one in 10 wild corals die in an artificial tank), and they grow faster.
Almalam explains, "When you take corals from nature, they get a shock and most die. On our farm they are packed with water, and it takes only a few hours from the farm and a short flight until they make it to the distributor. They feel really good."
Furthermore, cultivated corals can grow 20 times faster than they do in the sea.
"I give the corals conditions that do not exist in nature," says Almalam. "It's a similar system to feeding a body builder, who eats a high level of protein to grow faster and accumulate a large mass of muscles."
Almalam will not reveal the exact growing process but explains that they must take pieces of natural mother coral from Indonesia as raw material. They break it into smaller pieces - a process called "fragmentation" - and glue each fragment to a small cube of concrete placed in water.
Over a period of about six months, the corals grow about six centimeters long and sprout several appendages by the time they are ready for shipment. Several families of coral are raised, including acrapora and montipora, although usually, says Almalam, people don't really care about what kind of corals they buy. "They just want the coral to be colorful and beautiful."
The colorful sea creatures are currently available in
the US and UK, where they are distributed by the agricultural export company Agrexco.
Customers are highly satisfied, Almalam reports. "Many people have tried cultivating coral in the past, and many are still trying to build farms that will grow these diamonds of the sea, but they usually lose money before they reach the export stage."
Reef keepers and those responsible for preserving marine ecosystems have also bought some of Almalam's cultivated coral for restocking reefs. With the same genetic material as natural coral, pieces of cultivated coral can be glued to existing reefs to help propagate new colonies.
"On one hand we give them a high quality of coral," claims Almalam. "On the other, it is healthier, more colorful and more beautiful than the natural form."
Prof. Eugene Rosenberg, coral researcher at Tel Aviv University, hadn't heard about Almalam's company. But the professor says that, to his knowledge, at least one company in the US supplies corals.
"In my opinion, it is important both for preserving corals in the sea and for having uniform corals for research," he says.
In the future, ACP Tech is going to attempt to cultivate and breed coral from brood stock, which means they will no longer need to harvest from Indonesia.
In the meantime Almalam, a married father of two, spends his mornings working at his Haifa-based law practice. By early afternoon he loses his tie and suit and heads to the coral tanks not far from his home.
"I am free, and I do what I love to do," he says. "I can work hours and discover everything. When I am working with corals, I see how much I don't know; I understand how wonderful this world is."
There are no tricks in growing corals. It's just hard work, he says.
"Let's say you have one cow in your backyard. She eats grass and gives you milk and it's relatively easy to take care of her. Now imagine you suddenly had 7,000 cows in your backyard. In this situation there are so many new factors to consider, such as how to treat diseases and how the behavior of one animal affects another."
Once they move on and entirely solve the most basic problems, perhaps coral farmers will take coral research to a higher level, says Almalam. He is curious to learn how corals relate to music, lighting and people.
Would he trade his office and tie for flippers in the afternoon?
"Even if I could, I wouldn't swim among my coral. They are much too sensitive for that!"