The uniquely beautiful islands of Palau are home to seemingly countless species of fish and invertebrates, many of which are marine ornamentals that would make any aquarist drool. Clownfish, anthias, gobies, wrasses, blennies, tangs, and many more staple species of the aquarium trade grace these waters and illustrate the myriad benefits of effective conservation initiatives.
When doing some research before visiting Palau, I discovered that the islands are also now home to an ambitious aquaculture facility called Biota. Biota has been fully operational since 2012 and recently drew quite a bit of attention when it successfully reared a family first, the bumphead parrotfish (Bolbometopon muricatum) in captivity. Workers at Biota collect gametes during mass spawning events—a particularly low impact aquaculture method—and bring them back to Biota where they were reared for the first time, with a goal of eventually reintroducing juvenile bumpheads back into the wild in areas where their current numbers are depleted.
decided there was no way I could go to Palau without visiting Biota, so I contacted Biota’s founder and director, Tom Bowling, who enthusiastically agreed to show me around the facility. In an unassuming building next to a stretch of fantastic mangrove habitat is Biota, a place where the wall-to-wall tanks are filled not just with beautiful saltwater fish, but with renewed hope for a sustainable marine aquarium trade in the near future.
Instead of just writing about Biota, I thought it would be more interesting to hear directly from Tom.
Alex Rose: What motivated you to start Biota?
Tom Bowling: I have been breeding fish, reptiles and other animals for a long time. I love the idea of a domesticated pet; sustainably produced, far more suited to captivity AND you have a minimal to no impact on wild populations. I worked in the marine aquarium trade as a teen and I witnessed a lot of unnecessary deaths of many amazing fish species. This was a turning point for me as I realized most fish could be cultured, we just needed to work out how! This is a passion shared by many and it is a great fortune to be part of such an exciting time in the hobby. There are facilities all over the place reporting new species regularly. It is amazing how many angelfish species have been cultured lately.
AR: Tell us about the fish species you’ve reared in captivity so far.
TB: In the last few years we had success by breeding the Bumphead Parrotfish, Bolbometopon muricatum and the Blue Lined Seabream (Symphorichthys spilurus). The Blue Line Seabreams were not as hard to raise, the difficult part was collecting the eggs at 40 meters depth with a 5 knot current! Oceanic Blacktips up to 12 feet long come rushing into the school to catch the seabream as they are distracted. It is one of my top 10 dives ever, anyone can go, by contacting Sams tours ( ) in Palau. However you definitely want to have a few hundred dives under your belt before you take this one on. The Blue Lines have grown into very pretty fish and I am surprised how well they do in community fish aquariums. Currently I have one with a school of mixed juvenile fish just to see if they prey on other fish at all and they just don’t! Strictly wanting pellets and pieces of fish and shrimp, I guess it’s true what they say about their exclusive crustacean diet in the wild.
Currently we are working on a range of new gobies and I am excited about being able to announce these for sale in the near future.
AR: Which has been the most exciting species for you and why?
TB: That’s a difficult question to answer; they are all exciting in different ways. There is no feeling like looking into a larval tank and seeing a ‘new’ species settle for the first time. Whether other people have done them or not, when you see the larvae shift into adult form of any fish species, it is an awesome thing. We just experienced this with the Rainford’s Goby, which is an excellent tank mate, peaceful, colorful and it cleans the sand.
AR: You just announced that some of Biota’s sustainably cultured fish and inverts are now in the U.S. What species are available and how can aquarists purchase these animals?
TB: We just sent the first shipment in December 2014. It was a small batch of more common species plus a handful of Blue Lined Seabream, which I hear have done quite well. The next shipment happening in February will have many more species and should be made more available to the public. We will announce these shipments in the future once our website is built.
AR: How do you envision Biota, both ideally and realistically, five years from now?
TB: Ah, yes, the classic last trick question that makes me give away my secrets! Ha…nice try Alex!
No, there is nothing to hide here at Biota. Our message is clear and we are a group of very passionate biologists loving our work and our amazing home. Our interest would include finding some deep-water species that we can culture as well as demonstrating that aquaculture can be done sustainably and with minimal environmental impact. I hope to build some large brood-stock tanks in the near future and start breeding far more difficult species such as angels and surgeons.
Other goals aside from the aquarium industry include research involving the release of cultured Bumphead Parrotfish to parts of the Pacific Ocean that no longer have them. They are important for healthy reefs and have been completely overfished in many areas of the Pacific. They are considered ‘Vulnerable’ by IUCN and are under threat as Asian countries slowly move into the Pacific region and increase seafood demand. There are many aquaculture operations around the world that could be used in this way. The fact that fish have been depleted so much means that this technology would actually have a good chance of doing some good. Less sharks from the horrible act of shark fin fishing also (ironically) means that the fish have a better chance at survival upon release.
We are VERY excited as Palau is about to become the world’s first countrywide Marine Sanctuary. It has an amazing blend of marine habitats and it would be great if we could use this status to then actually help other parts of the Pacific restock their reefs with species of significance. Palau is a clean and safe part of the Pacific and the Palauan people have a strong sense of pride in their environmental responsibility, which is one of the main reasons we chose to move here as a young family.
AR: Well thank you Tom for giving us some insight into what can be expected from Biota in the coming years.
Ventures like this one are what keep pushing the envelope and changing our perception of what the aquarium trade can be. Captive breeding efforts can’t get much more sustainable than what goes on at Biota, and I hope we soon have the opportunity to introduce some of Tom’s beautiful Palauan fish to our aquariums in the U.S. It was a real treat to see some of these amazing reef fish as juveniles, the mandarin dragonets in particular because they were recently settled individuals that were practically identical miniature clones of their parents. The prospect of readily available captive bred angels and surgeons is exciting, and would break through some long-standing barriers in the marine breeding world that would ultimately open the door to deciphering the breeding secrets of many other marine fish species. Through the tireless efforts of companies like Biota and dedicated hobbyist breeders all over the world, and with the financial support of an educated marine aquarium community, we can drastically improve the level of sustainability present in our hobby, while supporting marine conservation initiatives with eco-conscious livestock purchases.
Check out Biota’s FaceBook page and “Like” them to follow along with their progress: