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Bob Fenner on The Conscientious Marine Aquarist
Author of New Edition the Marine Aquarium Hobby's Bible Speaks with Blue Zoo about the Book and Lots More

Bob Fenner
Bob Fenner, author of the new edition of The Conscientious Marine Aquarist

Bob Fenner is one of the most recognized and respected names in the marine aquarium hobby. He has experience with nearly every aspect of the marine aquarium industry, but it is his commitment to providing outstanding content (often free via his website WetWebMedia) to marine aquarists of all levels that makes him such a valuable resource to all aquarists. Having said that, the recent publication of the second edition of Bob Fenner’s The Conscientious Marine Aquarist is nothing short of “an event” in the marine aquarium world. We want to celebrate that event by sharing with Blue Zoo News’ readers an interview we recently conducted with Bob about his own background, the new book and a whole lot more.

BZN: First, thank you so much, Bob, for taking the time to share your thoughts with us. You have been such a good friend and mentor to the hobby for so many years, and we greatly appreciate your willingness to answer our questions. Obviously we want to talk about the new edition of The Conscientious Marine Aquarist, but before we get to that, will you please share some of your background in terms of hobby experience, education and continued involvement in the industry with our readers?

BF: Mmm, sure… I started in “the life”—the pet-fish addiction/hobby—as a young lad in Japan. My dad was a lifer in the NAV… and there weren’t many folks that had companion animals—like dogs and cats. Quite a few dependents—the kids of active duty personnel—and nationals—Japanese citizens—however, were keen aquarists. Like many folks I started with fancy goldfish, and I often say if people live long and well enough they go through other types of livestock, systems, etc. and then come back to goldfish, which I, in fact, now keep again. In addition to goldfish, I also kept other small captive aquatics such as rice fish and salamanders. There weren’t many jobs for the dependents; we were always hoping the more-established kids’ families would get shipped out (relocated) so the few money-making opportunities like bagging groceries at the PX, commissary would open. So I was fortunate to work in a combination restaurant and fish store in Sasebo as a boy. I soon graduated to a couple years of working with Bettas—mostly cleaning bowls (I still can’t get the Malachite stains out) and doing some service work there.

The Conscientious Marine Aquarist
New Edition of The Conscientious Marine Aquarist

When I came to the United States in the late sixties, I was fortunate to be hired by some other retailers in the interest, including a gentleman who helped build out quite a few stores, wholesaled to them and had a very progressive LFS [local fish store –Ed.] himself, Don Wolfe. When in college, a good friend, Mike Stempleski, and I formed Aquatic Life Services, doing installs and maintenance on fresh and marine systems. Most unfortunately, Mike passed on in 1975, and I continued, along with getting and using a secondary teaching credential. After the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, I tried to hang on as a substitute teacher, but I finally gave up this honored career to work in the petfish industry full-time.

I was extremely lucky to meet up with some very good friends and partners, and we formed a Chapter C California Corporation, Nature Etc., Inc. Nature Etc., Inc. in turn was an umbrella for our aquatics divisions: Wet Pets (retail stores), Aquatic Life Services (service), Aquatic Environments (water feature design, construction), and Aqua-Chem-Tech (manufacturing). These companies ran until 1991, when I turned to the mass merchandiser PetCo as a consultant, then a buyer. I helped PetCo transition into livestock for three years, and left in late 1994, right before the company went public the first time. Since 1994, I’ve largely retired, managing real estate I’d purchased through the years. I am still very active as a content provider—both as a writer and photographer—in the industry and hobby of ornamental aquatics, as well as sport diving and adventure travel.

BZN: Which, I suppose, brings us nicely to The Contentious Marine Aquarist, the first printing of which was in 1998. This first edition of book had such a huge impact on the marine aquarium hobby; I have heard more than one aquarist refer to it as “The Bible”. The book has been described as “one of the best-respected, time-tested, hands-on marine aquarium books ever published,” and “the ultimate reference, with enough information to take the complete newbie from a simple fish-only setup to a reasonably advanced reef system.” It seems reasonable to say that, in many ways, this book changed the hobby—did you intentionally try to do something different with the first edition compared with the other books that had been written for the marine aquarium hobby at the time? What do you think it is about the first edition that has led many in the hobby to simply refer to it as “The Bible”?

BF: Again, serendipity and parsimony are largely responsible for my lucky meeting up with Mr. James Lawrence, the owner/manager/head honcho of Microcosm Books in 1995 at a Western Marine Aquarium Conference. John Tullock introduced us, and James—both an excellent editor AND advanced aquarist—asked me if I’d help him with introductions to good writers and photographers who could help produce a new line of marine aquarium books. I told him, “Mr. Lawrence, I’ve been waiting my whole life to meet you! Yes, I will gladly help in whatever way I can/may."

I became Microcosm’s “trade sales manager” for its first few years, and James was kind enough to mention early on that “Everyone has at least one good book in them” and “which title would I like to pen?” I told him that my choice would be the general manual, as it was my impression at the time that there was a “gap” to be filled in this area. For example, Martin Moe’s excellent works were not “quite the market,” as they lacked much color work; Stephen Spotte’s books were too technical; and Hans Baensch’s texts were too expensive and slanted toward European tastes. That being said, the success of The Conscientious Marine Aquarist is largely due to the excellent coaching, editing and layout work by James and his co-workers, as well as the orientation of the work to the “consumer,” with a view on informing and inspiring the user in an orderly, systematic manner.

BZN: Clearly the book did inform and inspire. Any novice aquarist opening to Part One titled “Demystifying the Marine Aquarium” breaths a profound sigh of relief when they come to understand that entering this hobby can be, as you write, about “simplicity and balance.” Here we are ten years later, however, and much has changed in the hobby. As such, the new edition is advertised as being “completely updated from cover to cover with brand new text.” Can you give us a brief idea of some of the more significant changes that might be of interest to our readers?

Bob Fenner
It's Gracilaria parvisipora or ogo algae instead of Caulerpa in the new edition of The Conscientious Marine Aquarist .

BF: Oh yes. I have three good examples. First, the first edition’s text was first “finished” by me in December 1995. At the time there was very little popularly known regarding metal halide lighting, hence I did not discuss it much in the book. Second, there was much in the way of cultured Cnidarian life—corals, anemones and the like—and too much of the imported, wild-collected cnidarians were of poor quality. Hence, my quite-negative lack of endorsement of their keeping. Much has changed in the last dozen years to have softened this. Lastly, my previous wholesale plugging of Caulerpa genus green algae has proven misguided. There are far less noxious, more service-able species (e.g. the genera Gracilaria, Chaetomorpha) proving to be of greater utility.

BZN: You mention Caulerpa, which of course gained some infamous notoriety in San Diego, your own backyard, when a highly invasive species was discovered and then eradicated—at great expense—from a local waterway. Conventional wisdom says the marine aquarium hobby, by way of the actions of one or more un-conscientious marine aquarists, is to blame for the Caulerpa outbreak in San Diego. Likewise, we could point to the relatively recent lionfish invasion of the Western Atlantic—again, most likely the fault of marine aquarists—as another example of ignorance and inattention leading to big problems for the marine environments we attempt to replicate in the hobby. In your opinion, what obligation does the marine aquarist have to understanding what it truly means to be conscientious?

BF: A bunch, but on the “least” end of the spectrum, marine aquarists need to realize and act responsibly in NOT releasing any biota to the wild.

BZN: Should the responsibility extend up the spectrum to aquarists taking an active role in fully researching the animals they plan to purchase regarding the stability of the animal's wild population and acceptable collection practices?

BF: No. I think that is unrealistic.

BZN: So the aquarists should rest assured that CITES and other industry "checks and balances" will do the diligence in this regard?

BF: At the consumer level, likely so.

BZN: Moving back to the book, the new edition of The Conscientious Marine Aquarist is advertised as being “the essential book for all new, intermediate, and serious marine aquarium keepers.” That’s a tall order; how do you serve all of these audiences effectively in a single text?

Bob Fenner
Bob Fenner Co-Authored Reef Invertebrates with Anthony Calfo

BF: I don’t really think this work does extend to “very serious” marine aquarists. The Conscientious Marine Aquarist, in both editions, is geared to the beginner to intermediate hobbyist. There are many other excellent works like Fossa and Nilsen’s Modern Coral Reef Aquarium, Delbeek and Sprung’s books, and the many fine specialized titles by Microcosm on fishes by Scott Michael and invertebrates and Ron Shimek. There are obviously many more that make fine books for folks to graduate to as they progress in the hobby. The field is so big and vast that really no one tome can or should attempt to present all. In my opinion, an all-levels attempt at being all things to all aquarists book would really underwhelm sophisticated hobbyists and overwhelm the uninitiated.

BZN: That is indeed very humble of you. Perhaps on the uninitiated end of the spectrum, one Amazon reviewer’s suggestion is a good one then. He recommends the new aquarist “first, buy and read The New Marine Aquarium by Michael S. Paletta.” He goes on to say that “[Paletta’s book] is a great starting point. Then read [The Conscientious Marine Aquarist] and give this great hobby a go.” What do you think of that advice? Might the brand new aquarist be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information in this new edition, or can you suggest how the “newbie” might use the text as they get started in the hobby?

Bob Fenner
Mr. Fenner, I Presume?

BF: I do think this is likely good advice for the majority of potential hobbyists—those who will benefit from a briefer introduction, before really deciding whether saltwater aquarium keeping is right for them.

When I was a retailer many years back we used to promote and sell some small excellent booklets produced by Aquarium Systems that we called “yes/no books.” These yes/no books served a similar function—helping folks to decide for themselves just what marine aquarium keeping was, and if they wanted to proceed. The Conscientious Marine Aquarist is a “now that you’ve decided” how-to manual, with examples and much more material for people who’ve made their minds up to go forward with the hobby.

BZN: That makes a lot of sense, although we know many advanced aquarists who will see this new edition as a must-have in their aquarium library. What about novice aquarists who read the first edition last year or the year before? Will they find the new edition contradicts anything in the old edition? Ten years (the time since the first edition) is a long time in this hobby with all the advances in technology and husbandry. Are there some things you included in the first edition that you decided no longer apply or have become irrelevant?

BF: Good question, and actually no. James Lawrence was kind enough to listen to my position regarding the inclusion of undergravel filters, air-driven skimmers, and much more antiquated equipment and practices, and allow their inclusion in both editions. I insisted then, and still do, that these technologies are “good enough” and surely still in practice in many places today. I would not discount their use, and am happy to state that they still have their place in our interest. The one example I have given above abandoning the use of too-toxic (and environmentally dangerous) Caulerpaceans I am glad to admit.

BZN: One obvious change is the cover image on the new edition. Will you share with us the thinking that went into the first edition’s cover and this new edition’s cover?

The Conscientious Marine Aquarist
The First Edition of The Conscientious Marine Aquarist with a Flame Angelfish on the Cover

BF: The first edition had a flame angel (Centropyge loriculus) on the cover, and, if memory serves, James and I conspired to come up with the cover image choices. Originally James had chosen a clown trigger (Balistoides conspicillum), but I told him that, though colorful and rapidly identifiable as a marine aquarium species, the clown trigger it was NOT a conscientious choice.

We settled on the loricula as being a much better cover choice. Unfortunately, in 1998—the year the book was published—economic factors worldwide were conspiring against the Marshall Islands, the major source of the species at the time. The Marshalls’ largest customer was Japan, and Japan was in the throes of a recession and devaluation of their currency. The result was the loss of a primary market for the Marshallese collectors and, hence, they ended up, more often than not, storing their catch. The flames that were collected ended up being kept in small containers tied to boat moorings sometimes for weeks without feeding. This, of course, resulted in much worse survival by aquarists once one of these flame angels finally made it to the aquarist.

For this new edition of the book, the cover was again the domain of the editor, James Lawrence, and the meeting-up with an excellent aquarist, aquatic scientist and photographer, Matt Wittenrich. James and I went over ideas on what verbiage might be changed or added—the addition of the word "new" somewhere, for example—and the layout, but it’s Matt’s cover picture that really adds punch here.

BZN: At Blue Zoo Aquatics, we believe the knowledgeable aquarist is the best aquarist, and we are always looking for opportunities to focus on the intersection of hobby and science. It seems like you are doing something similar with the new edition by, as the book’s description states, “spotlight[ing] scientific research performed by leading authorities that deals with various aspects of biology, ecology, systematics, and conservation.” Will tell us a little more about this and why you chose to make this a focus of the new edition?

BF: I have been exceedingly blessed with a long life of exposure and opportunities in the business, hobby and sciences of aquaristics. I am always looking to capitalize on “syncretizing,” integrating input from and betwixt all three. There is indeed a huge body of useful information, techniques, attitudes, and processes that all fields within ornamental aquatics can lend and benefit from sharing. Doing this sharing in an appropriate, meaningful manner has been a central thread that has run through all my efforts and involvement in our interest.

BZN: In addition to teaching the “how-to” aspects of the hobby, you have consistently encouraged and inspired aquarists to be conscientious. For example, you dedicated an entire chapter in the first edition of The Conscientious Marine Aquarist to the use of cyanide. Was that hard to get Microcosm/TFH to give you so much space for a “conservation issue” in a “how-to” book?

BF: Again, my thanks to James Lawrence at Microcosm for allowing me the space for this topic’s inclusion. I also am indebted to Peter Rubec’s efforts at its writing. This nefarious practice deserves exposure and limiting, foremost, in my opinion, by education of ourselves as consumers and demanding value based on knowledge of the practice. Cyanide use is still in practice, indeed has spread further from the Philippines to Indonesia and Vietnam.

BZN: What is the “new cyanide” of the twenty-first century, in your opinion?

As you suggest, there are larger issues that may perhaps be worded as “the overall role of human activity on our world’s environments, including aquatic.” Choosing to reproduce, our carbon foot-print decisions, waging foolish wars and mis-applying our collective resources towards ends that should be redirected—these are all issues that must be addressed.

BZN: Finally, most of our readers are probably already familiar with WetWebMedia, but we’ve noticed some significant changes to the site in the past six months. Will you briefly give us the history of WetWebMedia and update us on the current site and any plans you might have for the future of this indispensible resource for aquarists?

Bob Fenner
Bob Fenner, Avid Diver and Underwater Photographer

BF: WWM was started in the mid 1990s when I was asked to help Eric Silverman and John Caskie of Flying Fish Express (.com) with aiding their customers with livestock and dry goods issues over the Internet. Early on I asked John if we might, instead of simply answering each question as a stand alone question, develop a database, including photos and graphics, feature length articles, etc. They didn’t want to do this, but as a result of our involvement, it became clear to me that the Net, as a means of informing and helping others to be successful in ornamental aquatics, is unparalleled.
WetWebMedia is an ongoing compilation of many good friends’ efforts, with plans to add video and a new photo database of huge size. We also intend to re-vamp the looks, organization and accessibility of the site. Along with many other excellent on-line sources such as Reefs.org, AquariumFrontiers, Melev’s Reef, Ozreef.org, and more, folks can find a very good deal of readily available, useful input on WetWebMedia. Coupled with good books and club affiliations, this really adds up to a golden age in our interest. [You can find WetWebMedia at www.wetwebmedia.com. –Ed]

BZN: Golden age indeed, and we are pleased to have this new edition of the quintessential marine aquarium handbook on hand to celebrate. We thank you, Bob Fenner, for all you have done and continue to do for the hobby and industry at large, and we especially thank you for taking the time to chat with us about the newest edition of The Conscientious Marine Aquarist. I’m sure many of our readers will be eager to get their hands on a copy.

Published 18 August 2008. © Blue Zoo Aquatics

   
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