Northwoods Commerce: Foster & Smith coral farm
There’s no doubt that Doctors Foster and Smith have mastered the challenge of running a successful business out of the rural Northwoods. Their mail-order pet supply operation employs hundreds of residents and has put Rhinelander on the world map.
But dog beds and flea and tick medications aside, it’s the “coral farm” (Aquaculture Coral and Marine Life Facility) that shows incredible innovation and acumen. From navigating the complexities of import regulations to the propagation and successful shipping of tropical marine life all across the country, teamwork and knowledge have prevailed.
Much of the current success can be attributed to Kevin Kohen, director of LiveAquaria. “I had my first aquarium when I was just 6 years old,” he recalls. “That turned into 21 tanks of fresh-water and marine animals lined up in my parents’ basement by the time I was 16.”
He was still a teen when he began working for a retail fish store, and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in marketing. From there, he moved on to oversee the operations of one of the largest tropical fi sh import/export businesses in the Midwest which was located in his native Dayton, Ohio, learning every aspect of the aquaculture business along the way.
“I started a website, Liveaquaria.com, in 2000 for Pet Warehouse,” he says. “Doctors Foster and Smith purchased the company in late 2001, which included the website, and I was fortunate to be offered a position to continue on with the operations.”
The move wasn’t easy, he admits, from a large metropolitan area to rural northern Wisconsin, but he has adjusted. “I took up snowmobiling, which has helped. And I do a lot of traveling, speaking about aquaculture and keeping in touch with others in the industry.
“The owners here, Dr. Race Foster and Dr. Marty Smith, have really embraced this operation,” he continues. “They’ve outlaid millions in capital. I don’t know of any other retailer who would have done this. Outside of laboratories and universities, we have one of the largest marine-life facilities I’ve seen.”
Another thing Kevin is passionate about is education, of not only his fellow workers, but customers as well. “Through the website, I talk about where our livestock are coming from and how we, as a company, are trying to play a leading role in maintaining a sustainable industry.”
Coral reefs all around the world have suffered from human intervention and pollution, as well as global warming and other changing climate patterns. Study and management of these delicate ecosystems has become a priority.
Many areas in the Indo-Pacific, Western Pacific and South Pacific, which supply the majority of marine life harvested for the trade, are still relatively healthy, but no one takes anything for granted. “Human population growth continues to have a huge impact,” says Kevin.
“In many of these areas, deforestation for farming of sugar cane and taro root has resulted in run-off that has suffocated coral reefs. And the fertilizer from farming has a devastating effect on the surrounding oceans. This all has a big negative impact on the future of aquaculture.”
“It is a highly regulated business, and we are glad of that,” Kevin continues. “Experts from the scientific community perform population studies and present their findings to the CITES Committee (Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species) who in turn issue permits for the legal harvest of a given number of each species. The goal is to maintain balance.
“The fishermen who harvest and sell marine life for aquaculture are getting considerably more money than they would if harvesting animals for the food fish industry,” he explains. “I believe this makes them much more interested in protecting these habitats. Having local people concerned about their own environment is very beneficial.
“We pay a premium for sustainable harvested product, but I see that as setting an example for others in this industry,” Kevin says. “The level of professionalism we maintain, the knowledge and research behind our products and methodologies, means we can better serve customers and help the industry be self-sustaining.”
Kevin’s office has several tanks of colorful species. Two large fish that catch the eye are called McCulloch’s Clown Fish (Amphiprion mccullochi), a rare breed that lives only on a small atoll between New Zealand and Australia.
“A researcher obtained collection permits from the Australian fisheries minister to harvest several pairs of these fishes and found they will lay eggs in captivity,” he explains. “We bought this pair for $7,000 a couple years ago and they’ve been breeding like clockwork.” Whenever possible, species are propagated at the local facility. Coral are, perhaps, the most easily multiplied. Although corals are animals, they are cloned much as plants are.
The first step is to break off small pieces, or “frags,” then attach the frag to a base with Superglue and grow a new one. Most of the coral prized for home aquariums are fast-growing and the ones that come in from the wild are small and just about a year old, according to Kevin.
Overseeing the day-to-day operations of the coral farm for the past seven years is Steve Krogh. The 20,000 squarefoot facility under his care is complex, including hundreds of tanks fed by a series of eight different water filtration systems that snake around the rooms through PVC piping.
“Our water comes from the city of Rhinelander. We run it through reverse osmosis to strip out impurities,” Steve explains, “then we add a special salt and mineral mix that matches what these animals experience in the wild.
“Each of the eight systems is separate from the others. Some of the systems include copper-based medications. Others, such as the coral and invertebrate holding systems, are copper-free, depending on the needs of the marine life,” he explains. “Plus, this minimizes the risk; if one system were to go down, we don’t lose everything.”
Temperatures inside the building are carefully controlled by large air-handling systems pumping warm, moist air out of the facility year round. Water is constantly running through filters to keep it clean and clear, pumping in and out of the tanks, seeming to mimic the waves and tides found in the ocean.
Light is an essential element, especially for coral, which gets its energy from photosynthesis. “Above each tank are lights on rails that move very slowly back and forth,” Steve says. “This eliminates hot spots-spreads the light out. We’ve been adding more LED lights which are more efficient and don’t overheat like the halide lights.”
New livestock that comes in gets special handling to acclimate properly and to make sure it is free from contaminants or disease. “Some of the corals that arrive need to settle for awhile before we can see what they really look like,” said Steve. “The special ones will be set aside, so we can collect frags.”
Fish are dealt with carefully as well, cleaned and medicated before being distributed to small holding tanks. “You get to know which species are likely to get along with others in a tank. But they have different personalities, so we keep a close eye on them throughout the day to see how they’re doing.”
A large Bandit Angelfish arrived in December. A beautiful specimen, it had a damaged fin, and has been kept at the facility to recover. “We discovered it loves to be petted,” said Steve, putting his hand into the water and letting the fish swim up to him. “That’s something we don’t see much in wild-harvested fish, but they’re all different.”
Generally, livestock are held at the facility for two or three weeks to ensure they are adapted well to captive conditions. Keeping them healthy and happy is labor-intensive. “The simplest duty affects everything,” said Steve. “Even cleaning a tank can make a difference to the rest of the operation.”
The 17 employees are supervised by Veronica Duvall. She was previously supervising the call center staff and is happy with her move to the coral farm. “I have my own aquarium at home now, and my grandson just loves it,” she says.
The core group of staff members has seven or eight years in, a testament to a well-run division. “Our people need to be very flexible,” Steve notes. “We’re dealing with live animals here and sometimes we have to work overtime.”
Mondays are the busiest days for shipping, and the complex process has several employees hopping. After carefully checking labels, each animal is placed in a water-filled plastic bag, set into a cardboard box and surrounded by packing peanuts.
Then the box is set into an insulated container with either hot packs or cold packs. “Cold packs in summer and hot packs in winter,” says Steve. Fall and spring are when things get complicated.
Staff members need to watch weather forecasts all around the country to see what temperatures the packages will be traveling through. “Sometimes when we’re shipping to friends, we will include a data logger which records the temperature inside the box at 15-minute intervals,” said Steve. “That helps us determine how we’re doing.”
Their success rate for shipping live marine animals is quite good. “We pack for a two-day trip, but sometimes things happen,” said Steve. “Last year with the hurricane on the East Coast, we had several packages come back to us after six or seven days. The animals were still alive.”
Three times each year, the public is invited to the facility for an open house and tour. Anyone interested should watch for announcements in September, November and February. For more information, visit LiveAquaria.com.
Sue Schneider is a freelance writer who lives in Rhinelander.