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Alumni Profiles - Soren Hansen

Growing tropical

Some of the most colorful species of marine ornamental fish soon will be the newest residents of the University of Maine’s Center for Cooperative Aquaculture Research (CCAR) in Franklin, Maine.

With a $200,000 development award from the Maine Technology Institute, Sea & Reef Aquaculture is relocating to CCAR. In April, the student-owned business will move from the campus-based Aquaculture Research Center to a newly renovated 12,000-square-foot facility, where the development award will fund the installation of state-of-the-art culture systems and energy savings technology.

Sea & Reef president Søren Hansen worked in collaboration with CCAR Director Nick Brown to plan the scaled-up commercial fish culture and coral propagation systems. Development of a detailed blueprint was funded by a $12,500 seed grant from the Maine Technology Institute.

Fifty-four pairs of male and female breeding fish will make the move to CCAR, including some clownfish that have been with Sea & Reef since its inception seven years ago. Each broodstock pair typically produces 800–3,000 eggs monthly. In the new location, Hansen expects to be raising 16,000 tropical fish a month for sale to pet stores and wholesale distributors nationwide.

The relocation also will make it possible for Sea & Reef to raise upward of 30 species, nearly double the number now cultivated. The larger facility could facilitate the development of new strains, like the two that have been recently making waves for Sea & Reef — the Maine mocha clownfish and the Maine blizzard clownfish. The new color morphs were created from selective breeding and fetch a high price on the market.

“This past year, we really developed a strategy to grow significantly in the next couple years,” Hansen says. “The idea is to increase production and the number of species we can raise in captivity. We also want to use the new facility as a platform for branching out into other aquaculture products — corals, seahorses, marine ornamental shrimp and sea anemones. The ultimate goal is to increase product diversity so the hobbyist can stock a reef aquarium in as environmentally friendly a way as possible.”

Sea & Reef was founded in 2003 when Hansen teamed up with Chad Callan, who also was a graduate student.  Their advisor was then School of Marine Sciences Director David Townsend, who Hansen says believed in their talent and mission, and provided the necessary resources. Their goal was to provide healthy, tank-raised fish as an environmentally sound alternative to wild species collected from coral reefs.

“The situation today is the same as it was then: Close to 95 percent of wild organisms from reefs are collected using destructive, even illegal, harvesting methods,” Hansen says. “And there’s a high mortality as the species move from collection areas to retailer. Fish are stressed, and often have diseases and parasites. It’s also harder to get certain species because they’ve been overfished.”

Hansen and Callan had conducted master’s research in fish physiology and fish nutrition at the Aquaculture Research Center. As Ph.D. students in marine biology, their research focused on the earliest stages of life for tropical fish. Callan studied the effects of broodstock diet on egg quality in the flame angelfish, a model species for pelagic spawning reef fish. He has completed his dissertation and is now continuing tropical fish research at the Oceanic Institute in Hawaii.

Hansen’s dissertation, which he finishes this summer, focuses on overcoming the bottlenecks that continue to prohibit nearly 95 percent — more than 1,200 species — of tropical fish species from being successfully raised in captivity.

“In the last 10 years, there have been strides from different agencies and companies, using wild zooplankton. But there’s not significant progress in solving the problem,” Hansen says. “That’s why we’re focusing on incubation methods and different types of prey.”

Last year, Sea & Reef received an $80,000 USDA Small Business Innovation Research Phase I award. The money is funding research to develop culture methods for new species of ornamental fish. Trials are now under way and, if the results are promising, Hansen will apply in early 2011 for phase II funding — $400,000. Phase II will demonstrate that developed methods can be scaled up and also applied to multiple species of pelagic spawning reef fish.

One of the biggest challenges for Hansen has been developing the foods the fish larvae need to survive. Zooplankton currently used in aquaculture is too large for the smallest of the tropical fish larvae. In addition, the larvae of most tropical fish species are extremely delicate in their first few weeks of life.

Species such as clownfish, dottybacks and gobies are the easiest to cultivate because they are demersal spawners, laying eggs on a substrate and demonstrating some parental care. The eggs and larvae are larger than those of pelagic spawners that shed eggs in the water column and provide no parental care. Pelagic fish eggs result in tiny larvae that take up to four days to develop before being ready for a first feeding of live prey.

“The research we’re doing on pelagic spawning is most important,” Hansen says. “If we have a breakthrough in learning how to raise these species, we will be the first company in the world offering many pelagic species as captive raised. Because a lot of the fish species are under pressure and some are currently going toward extinction, there will be a big demand in the future to preserve these species. If we can learn how to raise them in captivity we will be able to prevent species from going extinct and even restock depleted areas.”

Last summer, Sea & Reef hired its first full-time employee, Brandon Weik, who will be the hatchery manager when the company relocates to CCAR. Since its inception, Hansen has offered hands-on learning research opportunities to undergraduates and graduate students. This spring semester alone, Sea & Reef trained eight undergrads. In its Franklin location, internships will be available.

With funding from the Maine Aquaculture Innovation Center, Hansen has conducted research to optimize shipping methods for tropical fish, which can now be sent nationally and overseas. He developed a marketing strategy plan with the help of Paul Myer of the Maine Business School, and has a new technical and business advisory board in place.

“Hobbyists are more aware than ever of where their fish are from and asking for captive raised,” says Hansen. “This is good timing for us. We’re gaining ground in the market share and the marine aquarium hobbyist market is expanding. We’re also producing a high-quality product.”

Spring 2010

Image Description: Soren Hansen

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The University of Maine
The University of Maine
Orono, Maine 04469
A Member of the University of Maine System