Turning over a new reef

Posted April 02, 2009, at 8:45 p.m.

FAIRFIELD, Maine — Walking through the door of Penny Harkins’ saltwater coral reef shop is like that scene in “The Wizard of Oz” when everything goes from black-and-white to amazing Technicolor.

If you can look past the stunningly colored fish and the wiggling tentacles of the anemones, the reef coral is a cornucopia of color, movement and shape.

There are corals that look like cups, others wave arms or open and close like flowers. Some look like morning glory blossoms scattered across the sand. There are fat orange tubes with peach tentacles and clear blobs in a pile like bubbles or sea glass. Some resemble toadstools, while others look like night lights, with a glowing green phosphorescence.

Everywhere there is movement — swirling, undulating, almost sensually weaving.

These are not the stiff, dead coral skeletons that decorate bathrooms. These are alive, and Harkins is a coral farmer.

Harkins’ is the largest soft-coral aquaculture facility in the United States, selling hundreds of varieties of coral as well as fish and other sea creatures.

But she said it is the part she plays in saving some of the more endangered species that truly gives her pleasure.

“Some of these corals are already disappearing from areas of the world,” she said. Harkins said weather — divers collecting reef samples were killed in the 2004 tsunami that struck the Indian Ocean — is a primary executioner. But deforestation in Third World countries that allows silt to spill into the ocean, tourism and human traffic, and pollution are all to blame.

“The number one threat is that the glaciers are melting,” she said. “That is dropping the salinity of our oceans. It is happening so quickly that evolution can’t keep up. It is killing a lot of coral.”

Harkins said the day may come when businesses such as hers — which breed coral rather than harvest it from the wild — will be able to restock decimated reefs.

Coral is very picky, and growing coral is even more difficult, she said. The brilliant colors come from the coral’s need to reflect UV rays so they don’t burn up. Light, temperature, salinity and environment are key. Harkins’ tanks are kept at 75.9 to 76 degrees Fahrenheit, the lights are on timers to simulate conditions from sunup to sundown, and salinity is maintained precisely at 1.024 percent.

“The ocean is 1.026 percent,” Harkins said, “but we operate just under that because the corals are stressed in an unnatural environment.”

In the wild, when weather or humans change the exact conditions in which corals thrive, they die off.

“This is so much more than a hobby for me, or even a business,” Harkins said. “I feel connected to this entire web of life.”

She turned and looked at the waving coral in one of her tanks. “You’ve got to see what you are harming,” she said. “Then this becomes personal.

“And by raising corals in captivity, we are not raping our natural resources,” she added. “I don’t think the day is that far off when we will be able to take some of these hand-raised corals and re-propagate damaged reefs.”

Harkins has customers from Honduras to Prince Edward Island, all seeking her advice on saltwater aquariums and soft-coral reefs. She began her business four years ago after growing coral on her own for 10 years in her basement. “My husband had to move his tools out because they were all rusting,” she said.

She attempted to mimic the natural sea environment. She studied and failed and studied some more, finally coming up with what she calls “the recipe for success.”

The recipe is based on movement, light, the correct sand base and maintenance.

Jeannine Brown of Sidney is one of Harkins’ customers. “I started on my own and went to a lot of pet stores. I failed miserably but they all recommended this place. This is the complete opposite,” she said. “With what I have learned, I can grow corals on my own and my fish live.”

“I like to see a customer before they make any decisions,” Harkins said. “This place is not about sales, it’s about success. I teach. I hold hands. I take care of you.”

AquaCorals is located off Route 201 in Fairfield and may be reached at 453-4188 or at www.aquacorals.com.

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