Field Report from Solomon Islands - Coral Farmers of Marau Sound
These Solomon Island Coral Farmers are Producing Brilliant Frags that Benefit the Hobby and Remote Coastal Villages
Marau Sound is the easternmost point on Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands. A collection of white sand-ringed islands rising from gin clear water and surrounded by colorful reefs, Marau Sound is home to a group of farmers (including Rose, pictured here), mostly women, who, since 1996, have been growing coral in the ocean for the marine aquarium trade. I was fortunate to spend the last few days living in a stilt hut overlooking a channel between one of those islands and the mainland. The setting is idyllic, and while I could have spent the entire time diving the reef and enjoying extraordinary meals cooked by my host, I was here to see the coral farming operation firsthand and that’s exactly what I did.
Since the mid-nineties, coral farming in the ocean—known as mariculture—has provided steady income for between 25 and 30 farmers here in Marau Sound. The money generated by marine aquarium hobbyists who purchase Solomon Island maricultured coral for their reef tanks has supported these farmers’ families and their communities. I first heard of the coral farming project in Marau Sound from Dave Palmer, who owns and operates Aquarium Arts Solomon Islands. In an email to me several years ago, Dave described the operation and sent along pictures of woman fragging corals on a sun-dappled tropical beach. Ever since I have dreamed of seeing it for myself. Thanks to my editor at Coral Magazine, here I am.
On my second day at Marau Sound, I am invited to watch the farmers “plant.” I catch a ride on a small fiberglass skiff with a temperamental 15-horse outboard motor to New Island, situated just inside Marau Sound’s barrier reef. On this particular day, the farmers of New Island are fragging mother colonies of Acropora and other stony corals and attaching the small frags—an inch to an inch-and-one-half in height—to small cement discs with monofilament. I had met most of the farmers the day before when I was greeted as a guest of honor at “a meeting,” with a coconut, a lei and poignant speeches about the impact the trade has had on this island.
When I arrive on New Island to observe the planting, one of the first things I notice is that, in addition to supporting peoples and communities, coral farming in-and-of-itself is a family activity. I see a young boy carry a large Acropora colony to his mother to frag. There is a girl of no more than four years of age clinging to her mother’s back as she attaches frags to small cement discs. The village gossip is bandied about amid shrieks of laughter.
While coral farming may well be viewed as a social activity in Marau Sound, make no bones about it—these women know coral. Their hands are never idle as they cut and “sew.” They have tricks I have never seen for fragging and affixing corals to substrate, and while Aquarium Arts has provided them with necessary materials, their ability to improvise would make NASA jealous (Eunice is pictured above).
Planting involves fragging parent colonies and affixing the frags to cement discs using monofilament. Nearly 100 of these discs may cover a rectangular piece of wire mesh, which, when full of frags, is affixed to rebar racks at the farm site in areas for optimal growth. A single parent colony—sometimes collected from the reef and sometimes collected from racks overgrown with broodstock—can fill multiple racks, although these market-savvy famers place an emphasis on diversity (Makulata pictured here fragging a large parent colony).
The “farms” I observed were in two to five meters of water within swimming distance of shore. Each farmer plants in an area adjacent to her or his land based on traditions of customary use rights. Depending on the size of the disc and its accompanying frag, the hard coral is grown out for anywhere between three months and four to six months before being harvested by the farmers and packaged for sale to Aquarium Arts in Honiara. Soft corals grow-out may be shorter.
Aquarium Arts places weekly orders with the farmers in amounts ranging from 200 to 300 frags. The price paid to the farmers is based on the size of the frags with the small ones selling for around S$4.50 and the large ones selling for S$8.00. The current conversion rate is about seven and one-half dollars Solomons to every U.S. dollar. The corals’ journey usually begins by dugout canoe then small skiff to the grass airfield about twenty minutes by boat from New Island. Here the corals are loaded in a small eight-person passenger plane with other luggage and flown to Honiara, just a short hop to the northwest.
From Honiara airport—which is one and the same as the famed Henderson Field that was the object of the World War II Guadalcanal campaign—the corals make the short, albeit jarring, trip by truck to the Aquarium Arts facility along the waterfront between downtown Honiara and the airport. Once at Aquarium arts, the corals are immediately transferred to holding tanks labeled with the farmer’s name. A few days later, these coral frags are screened and then repackaged and driven back to the airport for the trip to Los Angeles by way of Fiji.
Once imported to the United States, the corals are sold to retailers like Blue Zoo Aquatics where, you, the hobbyist have an opportunity to purchase them and grow them out in your own tank. Not only are these frags beautiful, as they represent the remarkable diversity of coral from the Coral Triangle of which Solomon Islands is a part, but they also tend to be remarkably hardy and adaptable. Given the relatively short supply chain, they also tend to arrive healthy with good polyp extension occurring almost immediately. Best of all, however, is the knowledge that buying these corals has had a direct impact on the people of Marau Sound, Solomon Islands. Our hobby is certainly a luxury, but the ability to use our purchasing power to have real, measurable impact on islanders half a world away is what makes me so passionate about supporting source country mariculture activities such as I observed in Marau Sound.
Ret Talbot is a freelance writer who is travelling in the South Pacific researching a story on sustainability for Coral Magazine. He is a longtime customer of and friend to Blue Zoo, and this series of field reports was written exclusively for us.