Monday, January 28, 2013

Looking Back: Segrest's past and some 'ancient' history

A few weeks ago, I helped create a powerpoint presentation about Segrest Farms that we could use for a hobbyist or non-industry audience. Just a basic overview of who we are, how we operate, etc., but with a section entitled "back in the day" which covered the company's history. This was a very interesting project, and it involved not only listening to the stories of some of our "veteran" employees but also getting the privilege of sifting through our founder's personal photo albums. This little detour through the annals of Segrest Farms (and by extension the entire fish industry) got me thinking about the fascinating evolution of the tropical fish industry over the years and just how far we've come from the days of steel-framed aquaria, whisper air pumps and undergravel filters (not to mention the heady days of flying in previously unknown fish from Manaus, Malawi, and Managua on DC-3's).
Founder Elwyn Segrest (left), ever the enterprising aquarist, with local fish store owner
Bob Gallo and what appear to be early saltwater aquaria in the background.
It's interesting to think about how the hobby and industry developed, from basement breeders running banks of sponge-filter powered tanks raising guppies and angelfish to the incredibly vast global network of supply in place today. For people who weren't around for the early days, it's hard to imagine how wild cardinal tetras or a new variant of Aulonocara could have been so coveted but then again, in 20 years who can say what fish that we now consider rare will become commonplace? Already, marine fish breeding techniques have improved to the point where many incredible rare species may soon find their way to the general public as tank bred specimens. And of course we're always looking for worthy candidates for intensive culture on the freshwater side...we have a few we're already getting excited about but only time will tell how successful that may be. Being able to look back at a long history like ours is a great source of perspective, but it is our collective ability to look forward and see the challenges and opportunities ahead that keep us relevant in an ever-changing industry. With that said, let's take a look back at how we were, then and now:

One of our first production ponds, Ellenton, circa 1970:

Current growout pond, Ruskin, on one of our major farms
And last but not least, this little gem came across my desk last week and I just had to share it. Our saltwater night manager, Marie, had mentioned in passing how she had had her picture in a magazine years ago in an article that covered Segrest Farms. Intrigued, I asked her to see if she could find a copy, and sure enough, she brought in a battered copy of the May 1989 issue of Smithsonian Magazine which included a feature story on the tropical fish industry. It is a fascinating snapshot of how things were. I especially enjoyed complaints about the $25-30 price tag of the Blue Eyed Pleco (a fish that now retails at $600-1000) and the colorful stories of Florida fish farmers (who are, as a whole, no less colorful today).
Pdf below: I hope you enjoy the walk down memory lane and hopefully I'll be sharing some more aquarium hobby/industry history in future posts. It's a fascinating topic and one that exists almost entirely in the memories of those who lived it, and through anecdotes passed down over the years. Very little written history exists and what does is typically hard to come by. Please feel free to share your stories and experiences or just memories of how things were in the comments section!


Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Marine Aquarium Hobby in Jeopardy: PIJAC seeks support to defend the industry and hobby from legislative threats in 2013

Friends, fellow hobbyists, and readers-->we urge you to read the following letter and share it with all those you know who are passionate about marine life and the care and culture of saltwater fish and invertebrates:

To our customers, fellow members of the ornamental fish trade, and all marine and reef aquarium hobbyists,

The trade in both wild collected and aquacultured marine ornamentals and our mutual hobby which it supports is facing unprecedented legislative threats in the coming year. Despite the great strides made in recent years toward sustainability in collection and the incredible advances in ornamental marine breeding and rearing, opponents to the trade are advancing legislative measures whose repercussions would be felt from the largest wholesalers to the individual hobbyist breeder/propagator.

In response to the mounting pressures facing our trade, hobby, and livelihood, the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC), has formed a Marine Ornamental Subcommittee to act as a unified voice for industry members, aquaculturists, and hobbyists against anti-aquarium legislation.  Segrest Farms, as a founding member of this subcommittee, would like to affirm our strong belief that the trade in marine fish and invertebrates can become a well-managed and sustainable use of this precious natural resource. Peer-reviewed research has demonstrated that this trade, with careful management, provides a powerful economic incentive to artisanal fisheries to avoid destructive practices and maintain viable, healthy reefs for future generations (Rhyne et al 2012, Wabnitz et al 2003). 
            In light of this, we urge all of you who benefit from the keeping and breeding of marine organisms to support PIJAC’s Marine Ornamental Subcommittee as it defends the industry and hobby against blanket bans, anti-aquarium legislation, and bills based solely on appeals to emotion and fear, not sound science and best management practices.

Your support is critical to ensuring a future for this wonderful hobby and the livelihoods of all those in the industry it supports—from your local pet retailer to the source country fisherman who collects ornamental fish as a means to provide for his or her family. Please see the attached membership forms for more information on specific issues and how to pledge your support with an annual membership to PIJAC. All donations received will go directly to the Marine Ornamental Subcommittee to be used for the protection of the marine and reef aquarium hobby.


Segrest Farms

Membership information for Hobbyists:

Membership info for Industry Members (retailers, breeders, manufacturers)

For further information on this issue, and for a review of the specific legislative threats we face in 2013,  we strongly recommend Coral Magazine's excellent coverage:

NOAA Proposes Endangered Listing for 66 Stony Coral Species 

Hawaii’s Aquarium Fishery at a Critical Turning Point

And in print, J. Charles Delbeek's article, Lawyers, Corals, and Money in the January/February issue of Coral (p. 124-129).


Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Fish Rescue

Just a brief anecdote we wanted to share about the often-chaotic logistic aspects of the tropical fish industry and the unsung dedication of so many whose job it is to get fish from distant points across the globe to a local pet shop to a home aquarium safely. The journey a fish makes before it is comfortably floating in its bag in someone's living room is a thoroughly fascinating topic that I hope to cover in great detail in future posts, but for now enjoy this story of how a few of my coworkers and I went on an impromptu fish rescue expedition a few weeks ago.

It was a few weeks before the holidays, a busy time for us and traditionally the beginning of the busy season for fish sales. Our import buyer had outdone himself bringing in shipment after shipment of incredible fish from all over the planet but the fish geeks among us (namely just about everyone here) were holding our breath for the holy grail of imports: Czech Republic.

The Czech Republic, unlike many of the tropical regions we receive ornamental fish from, is not known for its breathtaking biodiversity and has no native fish of interest to the hobby. What it does have, however, is a large network of dedicated breeders and small scale fish farmers which is renowned for exceptional quality and for the availability of species and line-bred variants seen almost nowhere else such as the black cory cat and mind blowing color variants of Apistogramma (see our Facebook album for more pictures).

Where once Czech fish were available in the trade with some regularity, increased cost of fuel, unfavorable exchange rates and increasing difficulty finding appropriate flights had conspired to all but eliminate Czech-bred fish from the industry and hobby. As of late, there were few in the US with the resources and logistics to even consider undertaking the time and effort (not to mention cost) to be able to bring in a shipment. But our import buyer (with the help of almost constant nagging by the sales team) made it a priority to see a CZ shipment before the year's end and put in the time to make it happen.

The excitement was palpable, especially after many of us got a chance to look over the vendor's availability list and make suggestions. The diversity of available fish was stunning and by the time the shipment was due to arrive not only the Segrest Farms staff but our customers were anxiously waiting to see this once-in-a-blue-moon event.

Then the first round of bad news hit: the shipment had been delayed en route. OK, nothing to worry about just yet, but a little disappointing as the fish wouldn't arrive until late that night.

Then more bad news, as we received word that the shipment had not left Heathrow airport in London as planned. Anyone familiar with the vagaries and challenges of dealing with international air freight knows that a second setback on such a complicated routing (Prague-London-NY-Tampa) is not a good sign. The hours ticked by with no updates but with an increasingly negative email thread making the rounds between sales and purchasing (very heavy on facepalm and fail memes). The prevailing mood soured quickly, and it's hard to express how upsetting this experience was for anyone other than a true fish geek, but suffice it to say it came very close to "Christmas is cancelled".

After an interminable delay, what seemed like the final blow came across in an email: CZ was finally en route, but wouldn't arrive until late that night, long past our last truck to the airport. We would have to pick them up the following morning and hope for the best—which after 50+ hours in transit did not look hopeful. 

Loading the truck
Toward the end of that somber day, as we all got ready to head home, a plan was stirring—an attempt to make a daring late-night fish rescue. After discussing it with a few of the sales reps and the import buyer, and procuring a vehicle, the plan was set: we would meet back at Segrest at 9PM then head to air cargo to retrieve the shipment just after it landed. Then, we would bring them back to the facility, inspect, sort, acclimate, and tank them as best we could. 

After a (very) brief rest, the two reps and I, already tired from a full day at work, convened at the farm, armed with red bulls and an airway bill number, and headed out to the airport at full speed in a borrowed pickup. Our excitement was tempered by the knowledge of how long the order had spent in transit but we hoped to at least be able to save some of the hardier specimens...More delays at Air General, waiting, waiting, waiting until finally we got the signal to back the truck up to the loading gate and a waiting forklift drove over with our pallet.
After a looong wait, the airway bill is signed and we're ready to go!

The first fish out: beautiful black cory cats!
As we loaded the boxes into the bed we all became a bit more hopeful—not one box was damaged, crushed, or leaking. Good signs! Driving like crazy back to the farm, we pulled up to freshwater receiving still uncertain of what we would find when we opened the boxes. Despite the fact that it was almost 11PM, our freshwater and R&D managers were both still there and ready to assist as we started the unpacking. It was truly an impressive team effort even with all of us as tired as we were, but as soon as the first bag was removed from its boxan entire bag of black cory catfish alive and healthy(!!!!)—we were jolted awake with renewed excitement and got to work. Only hesitating briefly to ogle at the spectacular fish we were unpacking, it still took us until almost 1AM to finish sorting and acclimating boxes and boxes of fish. 
Acclimating and tanking fish late into the night
While a few fish were slightly worse for the wear having been in transit so long, it was a testament to the care and excellent packing procedures used by our vendor that the fish arrived not only alive, but thriving. And of course, a lot of credit needs to go to my two coworkers and our incredible building crew, who voluntarily gave up their whole night to rescue a wayward shipment of fish for no other reason than their passion for what they do. It was a good night, and one when I felt particularly proud to work where I do in an often-overlooked part of the industry. A part of the supply chain that hobbyists only rarely consider but one which makes sure that fish from across the globe reach them safely and efficiently.

We went home that night exhausted but with the satisfaction of knowing that due to our efforts those fish would soon be on the next phase of their journey to retailers and into home aquariums around the US and the world.
A good night.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Welcome to the Segrest Farms Aquablog!

Welcome friends, followers, fellow hobbyists and fish lovers to our blog! We are excited to launch this blog in the first days of the new year, 2013, which promises to be a big year for all things aquatic!

So why a blog? Put simply, to connect. In early 2012 Segrest Farms took the plunge into social media, and now less than a year later it has proven to be the most powerful and useful tool for engaging, sharing, and connecting with not only our customers and fellow members of the industry but the wider world of passionate aquarists and hobbyists to which we are inextricably linked. And now more than ever before we feel that connection is of critical importance to ensure the continued success of the aquarium hobby, ornamental aquaculture, and the trade which supports them.

This blog will allow us to share candidly and in detail our thoughts, comments, and opinions on a number of subjects relating in some way or other to fishkeeping. It will present a nuanced voice- and speak for us- as a large and influential member of the aquatics industry, as a major supplier and producer of ornamental fish, as fishkeepers and aquarists on a grand scale, and, perhaps most importantly, as hobbyists ourselves with an innate appreciation and deep passion for the husbandry, care, and culture of aquatic organisms.

We hope you enjoy reading and following us as we make this venture into waters unknown (another bad pun- sorry!) and shed a little light on what has traditionally been a largely 'behind-the-scenes' aspect of the industry. We look forward to suggestions about what content would interest you most, and hope you will feel free to share and comment on our entries. Most importantly, we wish you happy fishkeeping in 2013 and beyond!