In the first article in this series I presented some information on my attempt to get a feel for the online saltwater aquarium community, and introduced the concepts of Community of Practice and shared practice. At the end of the article I suggested that hitchhikers should be treated with respect and that the shared practice should be “ISOLATE and IDENTIFY” instead of “FREEZE and FLUSH.” Can anyone guess what I was doing with Part 1 and this related article? If you answered scaffolding (Greenfield, 1984) and chunking (Driscoll, 2005), you were right!

While respecting the life that comes with our live rock is beneficial to those animals, and researching them will benefit beginning hobbyists, it appears to have limited potential to help wild reefs. With the current state of the hobby this is probably true, but this article will present a community that I have been working on that may allow some beneficial hitchhikers and popular invertebrates, with a little help from their hobbyist caretakers, to reduce wild collection from the reefs.

A New Shared Practice: Using Appropriate Invertebrates

One thing that has always concerned me about the saltwater aquarium hobby is our reliance on imports from wild reefs. A recent report estimates that only 2% of the fish and, at most, 1% of the stony corals traded in the marine aquarium sector are captive-bred or aquacultured (Wabnitz et al, 2003). This sounded very low to me, but a follow-up conversation with Eric Borneman confirmed it is low, but probably closer to 15% for fish and invertebrates combined, with the majority resulting from recent advances in in-situ mariculture operations and intra-hobby coral fragmenting efforts rather than breeding efforts (Borneman, pers. comm.).

Photo 1: A Trochus sp. snail, frequently over harvested in the wild.

While limited data exist regarding the relative percentages of captive-bred vs. wild caught fish, even less data are available for invertebrates.  This is especially true of invertebrates such as snails and shrimp, which carry low price tags and have no additional uses, such as subsistence living, e.g., jewelry and buttons. The only relevant reports I could find (Wabnitz et al, 2003; Sant, 1995; Heslinga & Hillman, 1981) describe many cases of Trochus sp. (See Photo 1) and Turbo sp. snails being over- harvested for use in the food, jewelry and button industries. A major reason for the paucity of data is that there are no good reporting requirements required regarding the importation of these species.

In some regions these snail species are locally extinct or no longer commercially collectible (Sant, 1995). Other reports (Report For Environment Australia, 2002) admit that the size of wild populations simply isn’t known. While wild collection does provide a source of income for impoverished people when done sustainably, data to tell whether collection practices are sustainable, and whether government regulations are followed, are mixed and only required if local management requirements exist or if the species are governed by CITES (CCIF, 2001).

Some retail organizations do breed captive invertebrates (e.g., Indo Pacific Sea Farms; Inland Aquatics), but the cost of running a large culturing facility can make their snails more expensive than wild caught snails. Several aquaculture facilities produced snails in tropical countries for the aquarium hobby, but few remain today and most of their snails are produced for the button and food industries (Sant, 1995). These factors tend to limit the purchase of these snails and invertebrates to people who are willing to pay more for the environmentally responsible choice.  

So if some snails in the tropical Pacific Ocean are being over exploited, and captive-raised snails are sometimes more expensive and scarce, where does the hobby get the remainder of its snails for sale? Data are hard to find, but a trip to the local fish store usually reveals an abundance of various specimens of “Astraea snails” (Astraea sp.), “Mexican turbos” (Turbo sp.) and “margarita” (Margarites sp.) snails. These snails are typically collected from Mexico, the Sea of Cortez or other cold-water locations. An examination of recent trans-shipper data (Borneman, pers. comm.) reveals that a single trans-shipper distributes 5,000 –10,000 Astraea sp. snails per week (approximately 400,000 annually at that rate). However, a recent study suggests that this resource is now starting to be overexploited, or that the population data that could reveal whether they are being over harvested does not exist (Rodriguez-Valencia et al, 2002). It is also common to hear of eBay sales of the invasive “Nassarius mud snails” (Ilyanassa obsoleta), so hobbyists who are unaware of these issues return to the LFS to “replenish” their snail population, or order the cheap Ilyanassa from eBay. An additional problem with these invertebrates is that they are cold-water snails that live shortened lives in our tanks (Shimek, 2004).   

Why do hobbyists purchase these inappropriate animals? Part of the reason is price and availability, but another reason is the information overload that hobbyists go through when they first enter the hobby. With so many things to read about and do when first cycling a tank, time is limited and hobbyists may not discover that many snails sold in the hobby are not appropriate for reef tanks, or they may rely on whatever supply they can get at their local fish store (LFS).

The heavy reliance on wild collection of inappropriate or temperate and cold-water invertebrates continues today. This wasteful practice is one of the many reasons that our hobby has a somewhat negative image and repeatedly faces legislative attempts to reduce or stop wild collection (MASNA, 2006). Aquarium industry experts are pledging change (Weiner & Borneman, 2004), but their resources and time are limited, and it is unknown whether the average hobbyist is also pledging to change this inappropriate practice of constantly purchasing animals that are not suited for our tanks and that must be repeatedly replaced.

What Can Hobbyists Do?

What can hobbyists do to help this situation? Responsible hobbyists have been buying captive-bred invertebrates for years now, but little seems to have changed in the LFS. One solution would be to increase the number of large culturing facilities that produce captive-bred snails and invertebrates. Another solution could be to use existing aquariums to rear captive invertebrates. So here’s a quick quiz: what is the largest collection of saltwater tanks in the USA?  If you said the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, IL, that would be a good guess, but it contains only a mere 1.2 million gallons. What about the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, CA? Nope, just a little over 1.3 million gallons. For those of you who said the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, GA, with approximately 6.1 million gallons, you were closer, but also incorrect.    

I apologize, but it was a misleading question! A recent survey (Alencastro, 2004) asked aquarium hobbyists what size tank they maintained. Of the respondents, 83% said they maintained a tank 50 gallons or larger. Let’s just conservatively estimate that the average tank’s size is 50 gallons. Multiply that by the estimated 600,000 saltwater aquarium hobbyists in the United States (Wabnitz et al, 2003) and you get a whopping 30 million gallons of saltwater!   

Now imagine if we could get those hobbyists’ tanks to produce a surplus of appropriate invertebrates instead of purchasing inappropriate ones that need frequent replenishment. It has been suggested that hobbyists or reef clubs should band together to tackle breeding projects (Shimek, 2005), but few projects are ever expanded beyond a local club. Part of the problem is that fish and corals can be difficult to breed and, in many cases they need special setups that require additional expense and time that many hobbyists simply cannot afford. Another issue preventing a group project from starting is that reef clubs are made up of individuals with varied interests that may or may not include breeding.

Many problems and hurdles are listed above, and some of them seem quite insurmountable. I would like to be able to tell you I could solve or reduce them, but I cannot do anything to have a significant impact. You might be thinking, “Then why am I reading this? Why are you writing this article?” Because if we work together as a community of hobbyists, I think we could have a significant impact. By banding people together with a centralized website, we can work together to find the best ways to breed invertebrates and raise awareness.

I would like to introduce you to a project I have been working on since 2004, the Desirable Invertebrates Breeding Society, which I call Project DIBS for short. It is designed to address some of the issues I have noted above.  First, I will take you through the project’s mission statement, then its design and structure, and finally I will explain how anyone who wants to help can contribute.

Mission Statement

The mission of the Desirable Invertebrates Breeding Society (Project DIBS) is to create an online community collaborating on openly sharing knowledge of how to breed marine invertebrates. Gaps in knowledge of Project DIBS’ animals will be used to design science experiments to be conducted in K-12 and post-secondary educational institutions. Project DIBS will examine ways to increase the availability of captive-bred invertebrates in the aquarium hobby, with the ultimate goal of reducing wild collection of inappropriate or over harvested animals.

The Influence of Communities of Practice and SETI@home

I am currently writing part of my dissertation on how Communities of Practice and SETI@home influenced the design of Project DIBS, but I will keep this discussion brief to prevent everyone from falling asleep at the computer. I think that many aspects of the current saltwater aquarium online community are hindering the community’s advancement. I hope to address some of these issues in a future article, but for now I will briefly discuss two of them.

First, I think that some hobbyist websites suffer from a vague domain of knowledge and contradicting shared practices. My last article explained that communities of practice need clear domains of knowledge, a defined membership and coordinated shared practices to function at their highest level. I have attempted to create Project DIBS with a very clear domain of collaboration, distribution and education related to breeding marine invertebrates. Later in this article I will detail concrete ways hobbyists can help.

Second, for those of you not familiar with SETI@home, I suggest visiting its website or reading Anderson et al (2002). Briefly, SETI@home is a project designed to look for signals from extraterrestrial intelligences. It uses the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico to record vast amounts of data. The data gathered are far more than even the most powerful supercomputer can process. The designers of SETI@home came up with a way to use the computing power of idle desktop computers through the use of a specially designed screensaver. Suddenly, they had much more collective computing power than any supercomputer. Plus, they were using a resource (the idle computers) that was already in place to send back the processed data to their central location for additional work. SETI@home is essentially a public-resource project that needs a significant number of participants to accomplish its goals.

The Project DIBS Breeder’s Network (see below for more information) is basically applying the SETI@home approach to breeding marine invertebrates. The demand for snails and other invertebrates (analogous to the vast amount of data in SETI@home) far exceeds the current combined captive-breeding and aquaculture projects’ possible supply. Eventually, the demand may be more than wild collection can supply in a sustainable fashion, especially with the current decline of coral reefs. The DIBS Breeder Network is designed to use existing aquariums (analogous to the idle computers in SETI@home) to breed invertebrates in large numbers. These invertebrates are then returned to Project DIBS (analogous to the processed data being returned), where they can be used for additional work in educational experiments, supplying new Breeders and ultimately, Local Fish Stores.  

Some people may think that breeding invertebrates will take extensive special training, monetary support and equipment to be successful and have a meaningful contribution.  The same thing was once said about data collection on fish populations.  However, a dedicated group of people formed Reef Check and enlisted non-scientific divers to increase data collection on fish populations with a few simple instructions and a little education.  I hope to demonstrate that a few simple instructions and a little education can also have a significant impact in the area of breeding marine invertebrates.

How Anyone Can Help?

Project DIBS is an ambitious project, and it shares another characteristic with the SETI@home project: project DIBS needs a significant number of participants to accomplish its goals. SETI@home would never have worked if it had 11 home computers processing data. People can help in many ways, and I have detailed them below.

My Role: Founder and Community Facilitator

Several parts of Project DIBS will be the focus of my dissertation project for my doctoral degree. As a full-time graduate student I’m in the rare position of being able to spend the next two to four years working full-time on Project DIBS. My role in the project is to analyze how it is proceeding and to find ways to foster its growth and success. Project DIBS will not end when my degree is finished, as I am already examining ways to continue it afterward.

There are always ways to improve a project, and to move this project forward I will be researching literature in the library, soliciting suggestions from Project DIBS’ members and examining different technologies that may be more suitable than what we use currently. The community facilitator’s role (Wenger et al, 2002) is not to dictate the exact path the community takes, but instead to focus on supporting the communities’ needs and finding ways to allow it to grow and improve. As Project DIBS grows, I’ll be looking for people with new ideas that will allow the community to grow, and finding ways to implement them.

DIBS Data Miners

A lot of information about invertebrates is already available on numerous saltwater aquarium websites. Information on breeding invertebrates, however, is much more limited and scattered. By gathering the information in one location, we will know what has already been done, and where we need to start looking to generate new knowledge. I’m especially interested in links to threads, articles or websites describing the successful reproduction of invertebrates in aquariums.

DIBS Data Miners are the project’s eyes and ears; they are the ones who will find current information and, hopefully, discover other people who are already breeding invertebrates and who will be willing to join the project. Many more invertebrates should be successfully breeding in aquariums around the world and, hopefully, we can add them to the project once they are discovered by Data Miners. Information found by Miners will be deposited and displayed in The DIBS Data Mine.

DIBS Educators

Science education has always been one of my passions. The poor quality of public science education in the United States’ K-12 schools is reaching a crisis point (NCES, 2006; NCES, 2004) and appears to be contributing to students not pursuing science careers (ECS, 2003). One of the proposed causes of this is a focus on learning scientific terminology and definitions, combined with a lack of interesting science projects that demonstrate how science is done. The many gaps in knowledge of marine invertebrates that Project DIBS identifies can be used to design interesting hands-on experiments for K-12 classrooms to benefit public education and generate new knowledge for use by the aquarium hobby and other interested parties.

It is hoped that by involving students, schools and marine biology experts in an active community examining ways to increase the supply of captive-raised invertebrates it will help the students to understand the issues facing coral reefs and what they can do as concerned citizens. Students will conduct breeding experiments in their classrooms that will likely generate new knowledge and a better understanding of ways to increase the success of small scale breeding efforts. This new knowledge can then be used by Project DIBS to improve its efforts and to design improved science experiments that others can attempt. The entire process will expose the students to the “nature of science” and give them a deeper understanding of why and how science is done. This is a very brief explanation, and I will cover this topic in more detail in the TalkingReef Podcast and a subsequent article in this series.

DIBS Partners

Project DIBS is happy to be a partner with Reefkeeping Magazine, the Marine Aquarium and Reef Society of Houston and the TalkingReef Podcast. The project would not have reached the point where it is today without their support. While Project DIBS can succeed with only hobbyists’ participation, I think there is the potential for a much greater impact if other stakeholders are identified that are not normally involved in the hobby. Communities of practice are strengthened when diverse groups of participants are involved (Wenger, et al, 2002). By bringing in other groups the project will benefit from knowledge that is not normally found in the saltwater aquarium community of practice.

Project DIBS has partnered with the Galveston Bay Watershed Academic Partnership (GBWAP), and we have begun working together on educational efforts related to the aquarium hobby and invasive species. I have been working together with Dr. Ronald L. Shimek and privately with several other invertebrate identification experts. I should be announcing some new public partnerships on the Project DIBS website soon. Project DIBS continues to search for partners who can assist the project and will find benefit from partnering with Project DIBS. As Project DIBS grows I will be focusing on using the data we collect to demonstrate to stakeholders that we can make a difference if we work together.

DIBS Breeder Network

In my conversations with LFS owners and saltwater managers, they have said that over 50%, and sometimes as high as 80-90%, of their business comes from walk-ins who do not use the web or belong to a reef club. So any captive-breeding efforts that rely solely on the web for distribution and sales to individual aquarium owners will ultimately have little impact on wild collection, because it will miss the majority of the people in the hobby. Getting educational materials to all LFSs is cost prohibitive, and people rarely go to a LFS to read; they are there to look and buy. One of the best ways to help people who don't even know about captive-breeding efforts is to supply captive-bred animals in the LFS, where they can buy them.

One of the long-term goals of Project DIBS is to produce enough captive-raised invertebrates to provide a consistent supply of appropriate invertebrates to LFSs.  The best way to do this is still being examined, but it obviously starts with captive-breeding a large number of invertebrates. This is where the Project DIBS Breeder Network comes into play. As people dedicated to the project begin captive-raising animals in their home aquariums, the supply of captive-raised invertebrates will continue to grow, and by working together the Breeders will discover ways to increase production. Once a Breeder has stable reproducing invertebrate populations, he or she will no longer need to purchase inappropriate animals and can begin to supply others in the hobby with the offspring from his or her tanks.

About the Term "Breeder"

I have introduced Project DIBS to many organizations and aquarium hobbyists. In almost all those presentations and conversations, when I mention the Breeder role I receive many questions about how much effort is involved and how difficult it is to breed invertebrates. People typically comment about some dedicated person they knew who had 20 tanks full of clownfish or freshwater cichlids.

I have always marveled at the fish breeders in this hobby, as it takes a lot of dedication and extra time to breed fish. Breeding clownfish requires a steady supply of phytoplankton, rotifers and baby brine shrimp and at least a couple of extra tanks dedicated to the fry and grow-out systems. The clownfish must be fed several times a day to ensure their survival. I applaud fish breeders for their efforts, as they are supplying a very high demand product, but few hobbyists are able to dedicate the time and money necessary to breed fish.

Each invertebrate in Project DIBS has a set of conditions required to raise it in captivity, ranging from very easy to very difficult. To keep things simple I have divided the invertebrates into “easy” and “difficult” categories. “Difficult” invertebrates require many of the same things needed to raise fish in order to be raised successfully. Without special tanks dedicated to the raising effort, it is unlikely that a hobbyist could raise them successfully in large numbers. Any Project DIBS Breeder who successfully raises a difficult invertebrate is considered an Advanced Breeder. While I hope that Advanced Breeders become common in Project DIBS, the reality is that many people do not have the time to dedicate to raising difficult invertebrates.

The “easy” invertebrates in the project are what I hope will bring many new hobbyists into the practice of captive-raising animals. “Easy” invertebrates are those that are capable of reproducing in a standard display, sump or coral fragment tank, given the appropriate conditions. All that is required is supplying the appropriate food, proper water conditions and a lack of predators.  

For example, the warm water DIBS Turbo snail (see Photo 2) feeds on surface algae/diatom/bacterial films and does not accept food other than some types of dried algae sheets. It does have a few known or suspected predators, but this snail is typically an excellent invertebrate for first time breeders. The snail lays a direct developing egg mass, which the babies simply crawl out of and proceed to feed on surfaces (see Photo 3).  After approximately three to six months of growth, the babies are ready to be harvested and returned to the project.

Photo 2: The DIBS Turbo snail, a warm water snail originally found on a Fiji live rock shipment, rarely disturbs corals, unlike cold-water Turbo snails from Mexico. Identification is still pending, but this snail is probably Turbo (Marmarostoma) argyrostomus.

Photo 3: A DIBS Turbo egg mass with direct developing larvae embedded in a sticky gel.

Breeder Challenges

While Project DIBS currently focuses on easy to breed invertebrates that can have an immediate impact on reducing wild collection, we have started to examine literature and hobbyists’ reports of invertebrates that are more difficult to breed. We have chosen to attempt to breed three difficult species in 2007, and we are currently gearing up to start the first two in February/March. The first two selections are the corals Manicina areolata (Linnaeus, 1758) (see Photo 4) and Pocillopora damicornis (Linnaeus, 1758) (see Photo 5). The third species will be a snail or shrimp to be voted on by the community after examining potential candidate species, and this project should start during the summer of 2007. Each breeding challenge has a list of required equipment and conditions necessary for breeding it based on the best currently available knowledge. Hopefully, by collaborating together we can succeed in the challenges and add new knowledge to the hobby.

Photo 4: Manicina areolata, a Caribbean stony coral species, reported to brood its young.

Photo 5: Pocillopora damicornis, one of the most widespread coral species in the wild, with some reports of suspected aquarium reproduction.

A Special Note to Saltwater Aquarium Clubs and Websites

Many excellent saltwater aquarium clubs and websites already contain some information on breeding invertebrates. However, it is not feasible for me to visit all these websites and search for information. If you know of a thread or page on your local saltwater aquarium club’s website, I suggest that you sign up as a Project DIBS Data Miner and deposit the information into the DIBS Data Mine.

Aquarium clubs are an ideal way to collectively breed Project DIBS invertebrates. By collectively shipping or receiving invertebrates, aquarium clubs can reduce the cost of shipping for both the Project and hobbyists, allowing Project DIBS to run more efficiently. It should be fairly easy to gather up invertebrates at club meetings and have one person be responsible for shipping. This will reduce shipping materials, waste and cost. I also am available for presentations at aquarium club meetings and to answer any questions that hobbyists have.

Questions and the TalkingReef Podcast

I have been introducing people to Project DIBS for the last two years, and it invariably raises numerous questions about the project. How do you breed these animals? Is your main focus education or sales? What does it take to be a Breeder? I will be conducting a podcast with that will provide additional project details and answer many of the common questions I have encountered since starting Project DIBS. Hopefully, it will be released the same time that this article is published.

I will also be available, as always, on my Reef Central author forum or on the Project DIBS website.

A Call to Action

This project’s long-term success depends on obtaining the help of many people who are dedicated to breeding invertebrates and working together as a community. Without a centralized community it will be impossible to accurately track the impact of Project DIBS, and a great deal of information will be lost. Without these data we cannot demonstrate the level of impact Project DIBS is having to the hobby and other interested parties.

We can choose to band together as hobbyists and work together to advance the hobby, or we can continue to do nothing and let the hobby remain in its current state. At Project DIBS we have voted to advance the hobby together. If you feel the same way, please join us at


I would like to thank MarkieB of the Marine Aquarium and Reef Society of Houston for coming up with the name and acronym for the project, and Rich Cotter for his help in the design of the Project DIBS logo and role graphics. I cannot thank industry experts Eric Borneman and Dr. Ron Shimek enough for their advice and participation in the project. Last, but definitely not least, my thanks to the Project DIBS Partners, Sponsors and all the hardworking Project DIBS Breeders, Educators, Moderators and Data Miners that have contributed countless hours in building the community.

If you have any questions about this article, please visit my author forum on Reef Central.


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Hobbyists Advancing the Hobby, Part II: An Introduction to Project DIBS by Brian Plankis -