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From addiction to business: Upstate New York man grows coral in his basement

Monday, July 24, 2006

DRYDEN, N.Y. -- In upstate New York, famous for its snowy winters and far from any tropical ocean, Steve Lowes is growing coral reefs in his basement.

The 41-year-old English-born Lowes is raising dozens of coral species for his Web-based coral business, Reef Encounters, and is one of a growing breed of coral farmer who have found a niche supporting the booming hobby of keeping aquariums, which in 2005 was a $6.9 billion market.

And in the process, they are also helping scientists learn more about coral and are raising public awareness about a threatened species.

"It brings the ecosystem to life for people in a very effective way that's much more persuasive than reading about it in a book or looking at photographs," Lowes said.

Scientists have identified about 2,000 species of reef-building coral. The coral reefs are typically found in the warm salt waters in region between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn and cover about 1 percent of the earth's surface. The reefs, some millions of years old, are among the planet's most diverse and productive ecosystems.

Their value to the world economy is projected at more than $300 billion as a food source, for tourism appeal and in reducing shoreline erosion. However, they are threatened because of disease, natural disasters, pollution, overharvesting and global warming.

"There's something about life under the sea that attracts the human spirit. It starts with children," said Lowes, a scuba diver whose fascination with the sea began as a child watching Jacques Cousteau documentaries in the 1970s.

Lowes, a chemist for a pharmaceutical company, began growing coral as a hobby more than a decade ago while living in the United Kingdom. In 2002, he turned his "addiction" into a business and became a professional coral farmer.

From $10 to $10,000

Lowes raises 50 species and sells about 200 animals a month to upstate New York hobbyists and wholesalers. Depending on the species' rarity, they sell from $10 to $1,000 or more. He also helps install high-end reef aquarium systems, some of which can cost in excess of $30,000.

Home reef aquariums have been gaining popularity in the United States since the late 1980s, said Joe Yaillo, curator at Atlantis Marine World in Riverhead, N.Y., which features a 20,000-gallon tank with the nation's largest live coral reef exhibit.

Lowes belongs to a loosely knit organization called the Upstate Reef Society with about 100 active members. Yaillo estimated there are more than 100 such groups across the United States.

Lowes' basement looks like a mad scientist's laboratory, with tens of thousands of dollars worth of lighting and filtration equipment hooked up to a 125-gallon aquarium and three 100-gallon tanks.

He propagates his coral by breaking off millimeter-sized fragments and growing them in the tanks. They grow to about two inches in six months, when they are ready for sale and shipment. While its primary purpose is display, the aquarium also allows Lowes to study the interaction among the more than 60 species he keeps.

Lowes is investigating the ways corals' anti-fungal compounds could be useful to humans, one of many subjects he is working on with a Cornell University professor.

By growing coral for home aquariums, hobbyists are reducing the need to harvest wild coral and have contributed significantly to the growing understanding of coral over the past 15 years, said Eric Borneman, a professor of coral reef biology at the University of Houston.

"As scientists, we often only get snapshots of the coral we study, whether in the wild or in the lab," Borneman said. "Hobbyists are filling in the gaps by looking at coral every day, for much longer periods."

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