Why Matt Pedersen Is Breeding Banggais, Again?

March 27, 2012 in Project Updates, Slideshow, The Breeding Room

An Unapologetic Introspection

Harlequin Filefish, at 0 hours post hatch above, and 28 days post hatch below, shown to scale.

Harlequin Filefish, at 0 hours post hatch above, and 28 days post hatch below, shown to scale.

While I’m normally pretty humble, for literature’s sake let’s whip out the unabashed ego for a quick credentials check. I’m Matt Pedersen, 2009 MASNA Aquarist of the Year, groundbreaking breeder of Harlequin Filefish (Oxymonacanthus longirostris). Generally, I think of myself as a “professional hobbyist,” an “experimental breeder” who goes off and does brazenly crazy things—like pairing Rock Beauty Angelfish (Holacanthus tricolor) in a 15-gallon round black tub, or buying a half-dozen Powder Blue Tangs (Acanthurus leucosternon), hoping that I will be lucky enough to get a compatible spawning pair, but realizing I may have to find new homes for all those Powder Blues if I can’t get them to cohabitate. I try to do things that can’t be done, and I love proving the naysayers wrong time and time again. I believe that among the people I consider my peers and those I look up to, my track record has given me “license to try”—that, and the fact that I know how to experiment responsibly: there are always plans to back up the backup plans. My experiments are not whims, but are generally well researched beforehand. And perhaps most importantly, I’m not afraid to fail and when I do, I always try to learn why I failed and then share what I learned with the world.

My days as an aquarist are spent pursuing my dreams and pushing the boundaries. Owing to the fact that I am located in the upper Midwest, and thus lack access to wild plankton (one of the main tools that drives breeding research these days), I am certainly at a disadvantage compared to breeding operations situated on the coasts. Being a solo hobbyist, I also lack the ability to leave an experiment in progress. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve left to go give a speech, only to return to a project that failed or rotifers that have once again crashed. With my far-reaching projects, I am resigned  to see what else I can do with existing methodologies. Most of the time I have no delusions that I have the materials to actually go beyond a spawn, but hey, I would have thought that about the filefish, too. Recently, I’ve been thinking a school of Moorish Idols (Zanclus canescens) might be just the ticket for the 300-gallon pond in my basement. While this idea may sound ludicrous to most well-read aquarists, the first reported spawning of the species was by Robert P. L. Straughan in 1976, if not earlier (I have the fourth edition of his book; it’s hard to say which was the first edition to include this spawning report!).

The Foureye Butterflyfish, Chaetodon capistratus, which Pedersen hopes to spawn soon!

The Foureye Butterflyfish, Chaetodon capistratus, which Pedersen hopes to spawn soon!

So my “insanity,” my “crazy ideas” are often rooted in the minutia of information buried in the public record—you just have to have combed through enough of it to be aware of it in the first place! I’ve been patiently working for years on what is arguably my childhood dream fish, the Foureye Butterflyfish (Chaetodon capistratus), with nothing to show for it, but loving every minute of it. I have half the aquarists in the world in excruciating agony, some frustrated to the point of calling me a hack and questioning my ability to breed anything, while they’re forced to let nature take its course with the Lightning Maroon Clownfish (Premnas biaculeatus) from Papua New Guinea.

My History with the Banggai

I bred the Banggai Cardinalfish (Pterapogon kauderni) years ago. One of my fellow aquarists, when learning of my plans, looked at me and said something to this effect: “But you told me you really didn’t want to set these tanks up anytime soon…especially not to breed something you’d already bred or do something everyone else can do.” So what on earth am I doing setting up two new walls of my fish room to house a couple dozen pairs of Banggai Cardinalfish, just so I can breed the proclaimed “guppy” of the marine aquarium world? This fish is certainly beneath my talents, right?

One of Pedersen's original male Banggai Cardinalfish, juggling eggs.

One of Pedersen's original male Banggai Cardinalfish, juggling eggs.

Simply put, the Banggai Cardinalfish is what started it all. It will be what starts a love affair for countless future breeders. It is an incredibly important fish in the breeding world. Untold numbers of hobbyists have been seduced by the notion that the Banggai is indeed the guppy of the marine aquarium. I was blindsided years ago when Banggais still retailed for $300 in my neck of the woods (I know our literature says $100, but I was there, I saw the pricetags on the tanks!)—how amazing to find a few minute but perfectly formed juveniles in our display reef aquarium in the 1990s! I was a cichlid nut in those days, so when I was bitten by the breeding bug years later, given the relative ease with which most mouthbrooding cichlids can be reared, the Banggai (and in fact any cardinalfish, they’re all mouthbrooders) was a must do. Only later did I learn that the Banggai is wholly atypical of the rest of the cardinalfish (with a few exceptions).

Not Everyone Has It Easy

The Banggai Cardinalfish proved to be anything but guppy-like, at least when it comes to ease of propagation. I battled countless problems with my first pair, who refused to hold eggs past a few days. I thought it was a problem with the pair, but when the second pair did the exact same thing, it was maddening. Artificial incubation techniques used for mouthbrooding African cichlid eggs were utter disasters. After about two years of effort, I finally managed to rear a single clutch of Banggai Cardinalfish via artificial incubation. After that, I threw in the towel and moved on to easier things.

Artificially incubated Banggai Cardinalfish eggs.

Artificially incubated Banggai Cardinalfish eggs.

I’ve long since come to learn that I am not alone in my frustrations with Banggai breeding. I’m pretty sure I know exactly what led to my problems back in the day—small, crowded tanks, the hallmark of my crazy breeding technique back then. However, I’m not content to just leave it at that. Maybe it wasn’t the bustle of the community tanks. So many people have problems with Banggai breeding under different conditions. Assuming you can get broodstock that lives, pairing can be daunting, particularly for first-time breeders. Aborted clutches are an extreme problem, and it seems that if a fish gets in that habit, it’s not going to change. To date, there is still no reliable artificial incubation protocol; this must be worked out, not just to address problematic parents, but also to improve commercial and small-scale production of the species. Another area of “mythology” stems from first feedings. There are numerous protocols and ideas, but I’m particularly interested in the methodologies that skip utilizing newly hatched brine shrimp. I’m even more interested in the mythological concept that you might even be able to skip live feeds altogether.

The Two Sides of the Banggai

Pedersen's progeny of artificial incubation - perfect baby Banggai Cardinalfish taking refuge in an artificial sea urchin consisting of cable ties and marine epoxy putty.

Pedersen's progeny of artificial incubation - perfect baby Banggai Cardinalfish taking refuge in an artificial sea urchin consisting of cable ties and marine epoxy putty.

So when I look at the Banggai Cardinalfish, I see a paradox. I see a fish that is supposed to be “super easy.” For some people, it is. They’re the ones who are wondering why we even need a book that goes into great detail on breeding this fish. But because this species is so easy for some, I think we’ve collectively written it off, leaving an entire subset of unanswered questions and many new breeders stumped and lacking answers. For the beginning breeder who gets hung up on the Banggai, particularly with no real hope for help or solutions, that’s where the breeding ends. No success, no forward progress, so it must be the new breeder’s fault—he or she must not be following the “basic recipe” or something. I also think these issues get magnified when you’re trying to produce this fish in quantity. It’s easy enough as a hobbyist to make a dice roll on a single pair of fish and maybe you’re successful, maybe you’re not—the outcome isn’t really relevant, and many casual breeders don’t even talk about their failures (who wants to publicly admit to endless failure?). But once it’s a business, you can’t afford to have half of your pairs failing to produce anything, especially since Banggais are some of the marine fish with the lowest fecundity around—by my estimate, the average pair may produce only 600 potential offspring in their roughly two-year reproductively active lifespan. With so few chances for success (for comparison, the average clownfish may produce 600 eggs every few weeks, for decades), the Banggai breeder really needs to maximize the success of each and every spawn. Every failed spawn is a big setback in the Banggai world.

And this all raises more questions. How can you breed Banggais for profit? I’ve long since been told that it can’t be done, and I’ve repeatedly said it absolutely can be done. I look to freshwater fish with similar requirements for space and rearing, and I see many happy breeders producing and selling fish and none of them complaining about the profit factor. From where I sit, the only real difference is the expense of salt in the water. The math works. So what is it? Is it just that marine breeders are preconditioned to the notion that a clutch of fish should number hundreds or thousands, as it is with clownfish or dottybacks, and thus it seems that producing only 25 Banggai Cardinalfish can’t be profitable? (I like to needle such breeders as lazy…just looking for easy money). Or am I really missing something? Perhaps it’s time to put my money where my mouth is and prove that it is possible to breed Banggais profitably in today’s marketplace.

The Fish at the Epicenter of Conservation

Perhaps most importantly, the Banggai Cardinalfish, and its uncertain future, provides a tremendous springboard to start a dialogue about conservation-minded breeding in the marine ornamental world. We really lack an awareness of the conservation impacts our breeding can have. Thanks to the freshwater aquarium hobby, I have come to understand that commercial demand for a species helps ensure that species’ survival. However, when you’re dealing with an unpopular species, or when that species is not commercially viable for mass aquaculture, the act of producing and preserving a species falls squarely on the shoulders of the private aquarists and mom-and-pop breeders. While I hope it never comes to that for the Banggai Cardinalfish, I cannot avoid presenting concepts and protocols to help ensure genetically stable, long-term captive populations of this species. Even if these protocols never need to be enacted with the Banggai, it’s my hope that the fish breeder who starts with Banggais and is exposed to this knowledge early on will be well armed with understanding and knowledge, should the real need for conservation-minded breeding arise with some rare, unpopular, or troubled species in the future.

So Why Go Whole Hog on a Banggai Breeding Project?

Matt Pedersen, busy assembling new aquarium stands in the fishroom.

Matt Pedersen, busy assembling new aquarium stands in the fishroom.

I could write my contributions to Banggai Rescue without ever breeding another Banggai Cardinalfish. I could confidently stand behind my work. But in truth, that would feel fake. I would feel like I didn’t really give it my all, that I just “phoned it in.” Therefore, when it was decided that I’d address the small-scale breeding portion of this book, I knew I had to become a Banggai breeder once again. I had the space and some of the resources to really do this right, and on a larger scale than most hobbyists would ever attempt. Even with a short time frame to work with, the worst-case scenario might be that I learn nothing new. But the potential for discovery is immense. As much as I quip that I am a very reluctant Banggai breeder, and I may not be breeding any Banggais a year from now, I know that this new investigative breeding is a critical exercise to undertake. It has already turned out to be a great learning experience as I head back to the basement to put more tanks on racks that, a year ago, I would’ve been hesitant to even build. I hope that my newfound confidence will give the reader confidence.

Without a doubt, the hobbyist is what drives the marine aquarium industry. What they do, and what they buy, matters. What they learn when they start can make or break their enjoyment in keeping aquariums. Success breeds success. And when you make the leap from casual aquarist to first-time fish breeder, it’s as if you’re starting out fresh again. It is my hope that through my past experiences, through the collective wisdom of my fellow breeders past and present, and through anything I learn in my Banggai basement, we can arm the marine fish breeder with the best recipes for success with the Banggai Cardinalfish. I want fewer breeders to suffer setback after setback as I did years ago, and I think we can make that a reality. To do so will be time well spent. Who knows what fantastic discovery the next basement breeder may make? The more aquarists get excited about breeding, the faster the innovations will come. Yes, in the end, as much as the Banggai is a goal in itself, it may also be the “gateway drug” for the next generation’s Martin Moe (who many consider the godfather of marine fish breeding).

For the Future of Banggais, and the Future of Marine Fish Breeding Everywhere

Yes, somewhere out there is the next game-changing breeder, and all that could stand in his or her way is success, or failure, with the Banggai Cardinalfish. I want to make sure that first step is a huge success, because I want to meet that future breeder and see what  he or she will do next. If our efforts help ensure the future survival of the Banggai Cardinalfish along the way, all the better.