One thing is certain: the electric meter is chugging away, says Craig Zievis, a University of Maine student who is experimenting with ways to accelerate the growth of aquacultured corals used in tropical reef tanks. With funding from UMO and the Maine Technology Institute, Zievis hopes his two-year master’s thesis project will provide information that can make large scale coral aquaculture economically viable in Maine. He wants to find ways to accelerate coral growth and determine which species are easiest to keep and propagate with consistent quality and at the same time, have the most value.

So far, he is focusing on “hard corals,” different from the “soft corals” raised by Penny Harkins of AquaCorals. If his work is successful, Zievis plans to establish an autonomous business, Bio-Reef Maine, which will supply wholesale live corals to his parent company, Bio-Reef, Inc., located in Jacksonville, Florida, and to sell retail to coral reef enthusiasts in Maine and over the Internet.

Zievis also envisions providing scientists with live coral for basic and applied research, including experiments to develop coral calcium carbonate products for pharmaceutical application. He says calcium from coral has been shown to be more easily assimilated by humans than other forms. In addition, he hopes his corals could be used in rebuilding and conserving reefs around the world.

The electric meter could be a stumbling block. To reduce reliance on electricity, instead of growing his corals indoors like Penny Harkins, who operates out of her home, Zievis has built a greenhouse attached to the University’s Aquaculture Research Facility. This, he says, cuts down on the number of hours he will use high-powered lighting to give the corals the amount of light they require for optimum growth. And although it seems that heating water to 70 degrees for a warm water species would be prohibitive, Zievis explains that Maine could be an optimum environment for raising corals because cooling water is more expensive than warming it, and our summers are short and rarely hit extreme temperatures. “Keeping the water cool in Florida would be astronomical,” he says.

Zievis came to Maine several years ago after working in the aquarium industry for about 10 years. He began his training at Bio-Reef under its previous owner, left to work on a commercial diving boat, then worked at another aquarium shop before buying Bio-Reef with a friend and his father. At first the business served both freshwater and salt water aquariums, but after three years, the partners decided to specialize in tropical reef organisms and selling and installing custom aquariums to businesses, museums and wealthy patrons like NFL football stars.

He became increasingly concerned about the ecological impact the enthusiasm for reef aquariums – aquariums in general are the second most popular hobby after photography, he says, and tropical reef enthusiasts are on the rise – was having on the world’s tropical reefs. “With the impacts upon the reef and the coral bleaching incidents caused by El Nino in the late 90s, I was concerned that any impact by the aquarium industry, no matter how small, would be of an additive nature rather than compensatory,” he says. “Also, while I was in charge of livestock and ordering, I sometimes found myself dealing with shady characters.”

He decided to sell his portion of the business (retaining 25 percent stock) and pursue a degree in Wildlife Biology at UMO. Then, he got the idea of expanding Bio-Reef to include an ecologically friendly aquaculture operation, and approached Dr. David Townsend in the School of Marine Sciences at UMO for help. Townsend, who has worked with two other students on an ornamental aquaculture project, helped him develop his proposal as part of a Master’s in Marine biology.

Zievis has two 210-gallon marine reef tanks set up in the greenhouse. For experimental control they can function as one tank
or separately. The tanks’ closed recirculating system is hooked up with the Maine Aquaculture Research Facility’s filtration system. Zievis has installed an oil-filled radiator for supplemental heating in the greenhouse, five 500-watt submersible heaters in the water of each tank and lighting above the tanks for days when the corals require extra light.

At this point, he says he believes he will concentrate on the effect of bicarbonate enrichment on the corals’ growth, as previous experiments have shown that doubling of this supplementation can result in doubling of growth. He hopes to determine the precise supplementation necessary to maximize growth, which would reduce the expense of raising the corals, increase profit levels and contribute to a viable large-scale operation.

So far, he says, things are going well. “I was in at 7 a.m. to check the tanks,” he said on a frigid January day, “and the temperature was about 78 degrees. It was like the tropics.”

To learn more about the research Zievis has done, visit