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The Story Behind Blue Zoo's PNG Lightning Maroon Clownfish

Fishermans Island, Papua New Guinea (Ret Talbot Collection)Blue Zoo Aquatics was much honored to be chosen earlier this week as the retailer to handle one of the rarest fishes to enter the North American marine aquarium hobby in quite some time. The fish, a so-called PNG lightning maroon clownfish (Premnas biaculeatus) came to Blue Zoo from the SEASMART Program in Papua New Guinea (PNG) by way of Dave Palmer at Pacific Aqua Farms (PAF). “The first time I saw this fish,” says Mark Marin, director of marine ornamental research at Blue Zoo Aquatics, “I just about flipped! I was so excited to show Kris Wray, our Collector’s Choice livestock manager, as this is undoubtedly the coolest WYSIWYG fish we have ever had in our possession.” Even though the fish has already been sold and arrived at its new home (we’ll tell you where in a minute!), we thought you wouldn’t mind if we still profiled it here in this week’s Collector’s Choice email.

Collected from Fishermans Island, Papua New Guinea

PNG Lightning Maroon ClownfishThe PNG lightning maroon clownfish was collected by a local fisher from Fishermans Island, which is located just off the capital city of Papua New Guinea. The fisher, Steven Paul, had been trained in sustainable collection techniques by the SEASMART Program, which is the joint effort of the PNG National Fisheries Authority (NFA) and the Virginia-based EcoEZ Inc. Since 2008, the SEASMART Program has been working hand-in-hand with PNG’s National, Provincial and local governments to efficiently develop a sustainable, equitable and profitable marine aquarium trade throughout the country. This is not the first fish Blue Zoo has sold from Papua New Guinea, but it is the first one to garner so much attention.

As soon as the fish was seen by the SEASMART export facility staff in Port Moresby, PNG, the excitement started to spread. “I was on my way back from Keapara Village several hours south of Port Moresby when I heard the news,” says Ret Talbot, friend of Blue Zoo and a freelance writer and photographer who frequently covers the trade. Talbot was in Papua New Guinea researching a story on SEASMART when the PNG lighting maroon clownfish was collected. “I was with Dan Navin, the person in charge of mariculture, aquaculture and reef restoration at SEASMART, and we were returning from the graduation of 25 newly trained SEASMART fishers when we got the text message from SEASMART’s export facility manager, Mark Schreffler. It simply read, ‘Dude!  We just got a super cool, super rare maroon clown! I just had to tell someone!’.”

Upon arriving back in Port Moresby, Talbot had a chance to see and photograph the fish at SEASMART’s export facility. “It was every bit as incredible as Mark had indicated,” Talbot says. Meanwhile, Schreffler was starting the process of determining to whom the fish would be sent. “Pacific Aqua Farms has been a frequent supporter of the SEASMART Program,” said Schreffler in an interview with Talbot. “As a result, we were happy to get this fish into Dave’s very capable hands, as we knew he would ensure that the fish made it to the right retailer and, ultimately, the right aquarist.”

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

A Long Journey from Reef to Marine Aquarium

Even before the fish made it to the SEASMART facility in Port Moresby, a lot of time had been invested in it. “Fishermans Island is about forty-five minutes by boat and car from the SEASMART export facility,” says Talbot, who had made the trip to the Island the week before the PNG lightning maroon was collected. “The Fishermans Island Fishery Management Area (FMA) was established in 2008 and includes a number of different habitats adjacent to the island,” Talbot explains. “Once a week, the SEASMART facility staff sends an order to the SEASMART-trained fishers at Fisherman’s Island. Then, several days later, and on a pre-determined date, SEASMART sends a boat to the island to pick up the order.”

Screening Fish at Fishermans Island (Ret Talbot Collection)The process of picking up the order is quite involved and, according to Talbot, takes the better part of a day in most cases. “Each animal is carefully screened,” he says, “before either being accepted or rejected by the SEASMART screener. It is amazing the amount of time that goes into this process, but the thorough screening is, Meme Purgatorio tells me, essential to ensuring that only quality, healthy animals are exported.” The rejections, Talbot tells Blue Zoo, are returned to the reef. Purgatorio, who is the SEASMART Packing and Screening Supervisor, was in charge of the aforementioned Fishermans Island screening.

Across the Wide Pacific – PNG to Los Angeles

After being accepted by the screener, the animals are then either cupped, oxygenated and bagged or placed in large tubs for the trip back to the mainland. Once at the pier, the animals are whisked to the facility. In the case of the lightning maroon clownfish, the stay in the facility was short, and, on Saturday night, the fish was packaged for shipment to Los Angeles. The trip across the Pacific takes about 27 hours via a short layover in Brisbane, Australia. As one might imagine, PAF’s state-of-the-art facility adjacent to Los Angeles International Airport is just the ticket for recovery and rejuvenation.

Quantas Shipping Container (Ret Talbot Collection)Martin, who chipped in with unpacking the PAF shipment at LAX was surprised by how good the PNG lightning maroon clownfish appeared upon arrival. “This particular fish was the most active and alert clownfish that I have ever unpacked,” says Martin, who points out that maroon clownfish often ship poorly. “I was shocked. In fact all the maroon clownfish in this shipment looked great. Often they lay on their side and gasp in the acclimation bucket, but these guys were perfect—certainly a testament to a short supply chain, sustainable collection, excellent screening, and great packing.” Given the excellent health of the fish, Palmer and Martin decided to do what they could to get the fish into the right hobbyist’s hands sooner rather than later, and that meant using the BZA network.

The Right Aquarist for this PNG Lightning Maroon Clownfish

“Bids started coming in as soon as word got out that Blue Zoo would be handling the retail side of this sale,” explains Martin. “We wanted to see this fish go to a respected independent breeder, not simply the highest bidder.” On the short list of possible independent breeders was MASNA award winning marine fish breeder Matt Pedersen. For those of you who do not know, Pedersen is a well-known breeder who garnered significant and well-deserved attention in the hobby for pioneering the breeding of harlequin filefish. He is also a loyal Blue Zoo customer and has been profiled in Blue Zoo News previously. There was, however, one potential impediment to Pedersen taking this fish. You see, Pedersen is not at all interested in what have come to be called “designer clownfishes,” and he has been a vocal advocate against “man-made hybridization” and the "guppification" of marine fish. Luckily, while this clownfish may look to some like the most guppified designer clownfish ever, this PNG lightning maroon clownfish is a one hundred percent “natural” fish.

“My prior experience as an African cichlid breeder first taught me an appreciation of natural forms and variations over man-made ornamentals,” Pedersen explains. “When this fish was first brought to my attention by Mark at Blue Zoo, I told him that I thought it was pretty darn cool.” Provided it was indeed a wild-collected fish, Pedersen told Martin that he “couldn’t wait to see this animal’s natural biodiversity being preserved by talented breeders.” The problem, however, was that there was no way Pedersen would be able to afford the fish given bids of over $5000.

A Compromise in the Best Interest of the Hobby

To make a long story short, Pedersen scrambled to sell some of his “more common” fish like his wide band clownfish, and Blue Zoo worked with Pedersen on price until the deal was sealed. “In the final equation,” Martin remarks, “the ones who made out the most are the fisher and the SEASMART Program.” He quickly goes on to say that, in this case, that is exactly as it should have been given the potential value of this fish to the hobby if the variation can be replicated in subsequent generations. Pedersen has offered to provide Blue Zoo with right of first refusal on at least the first couple batches of offspring he can produce from this fish. “I do not anticipate asking astronomical figures or getting rich off the offspring,” says Pedersen, “but if this project works, and no one beats me to the punch with some other lightning maroons, Blue Zoo may be the place to watch for the first F1 offspring if the project is a success.”

On Tuesday, the PNG lightning maroon clownfish was shipped to Pedersen. Blue Zoo also sent a large, female “normal” maroon clownfish collected from the same reef in an effort to provide Pedersen with the best mate. Blue Zoo is also planning to obtain two more juveniles from the same reef in the event that the initial pairing is unsuccessful. For his part, Pedersen is looking forward to undertaking what he is now calling The Lightning Project in full view of the hobby.

“My vision is to not develop any strain behind closed doors,” says Pedersen. “I intend to document and share the work.” Pedersen expects the first offspring (the F1 generation) to look like normal maroon clownfish. “It will be pairings of those F1s that have the greatest hope for recreating the variation in the F2 generation,” explains Pedersen, who plans to spread out the F1 offspring to breeders and hobbyists around the country. “By pooling resources in this way,” he says, “we can increase the odds that someone gets lucky.” 

From the outset, Pedersen is the first to caution that the entire project is a huge gamble. “Nonetheless,” Pedersen says after taking receipt of the fish, “the quality of the fish I received is extremely high.  Disregarding the ‘lightning’ variation, the truth is I received exceptionally nice maroon clown broodstock with a known collecting location. This is what I am looking for with all my broodstock, and that alone was impressive.”  Pedersen goes on to add that the fact that these fish are “the product of sustainable practices and fair trade” means that he really couldn’t be happier. “Even if they never turn out a single lightning maroon,” says Pedersen, “they will still turn out some fantastic F1 Papua New Guinea maroon clowns.”

Excitement at the End of the Day

It is exciting to see the marine aquarium hobby so enthusiastic over a single animal. “In many ways,” says Martin, “there could not be a better ambassador for Papua New Guinea, the SEASMART Program and the future of the hobby.”

Collector’s Choice Livestock Manager Kris Wray agrees. “This fish is more than just a new morph to us here at BZA Collector s Choice,” he says. “It is a new chapter in clownfish genetics and morphology.” Some may criticize Blue Zoo’s choice to not simply allow the market to drive the sale of this fish, but Wray disagrees. “This animal is so unique that making sure it is only offered to a well-known and renowned fish breeder is absolutely the right thing to do. This choice about how to deal with this ultra rare animal is, I believe, proof that we truly care about the success of a healthy and sustainable industry. It also represents the fact that Collector’s Choice can have unique and rare animals at the ready in a responsible manner. If you were not a believer in us before, now would be a good time to give our World Famous Collectors Choice Store a second look!”

All photographs courtesy of Ret Talbot. All rights reserved.

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