Israelis raise coral out of the blue

Feeding his coral what he jokingly terms a “body-builder’s” diet, Almalam helps the coral grow twenty times faster than they would if they were growing naturally in the sea.While other criminal lawyers are spending their afternoons preparing court cases, Israeli …

Feeding his coral what he jokingly terms a “body-builder’s” diet, Almalam helps the coral grow twenty times faster than they would if they were growing naturally in the sea.While other criminal lawyers are spending their afternoons preparing court cases, Israeli attorney Ofer Almalam is taking off his tie and heading over to an unusual aquatic farm to dote on some special clients.

In a secret location not far from the city of Haifa, Almalam and his partner Alon Efergan, a former engineer, are working around the clock raising coral for their new company – Advanced Coral Propagating Technology (ACP Tech).

The coral they produce – about 8,000 pieces of 6 cm. coral a year – is living proof that coral can be cultivated in captivity and in a closed system. It is the first large-scale operation of its kind in the world where coral are reared with no connection to nutrients in the sea.

The zoological research done by the unlikely pairing of a lawyer and an engineer, they hope, may one day save the world’s coral reefs from extinction – or at least make it to the pages of National Geographic.

Pet stores and reef keepers around the world are taking notice of ACP Tech, which has been having a hard time meeting the demand for their colourful sea creatures. Distributed by Israeli food and agriculture giant Agrexco, major pet store distributors in the US such as Segrest Farms in Miami and Merit Import are placing orders faster than they can be delivered. The wholesale cost – about $15 apiece.

Like the secret location of the tanks, the precise methodologies used in raising the finicky coral are under wraps until the company acquires patents. What they can say is that it has taken them late nights of hard work, a whole lot of intuition, and a special combination of technologies that give the coral the specific conditions needed to grow.

Coral reefs in the sea serve as one of the world’s most important marine ecosystems. The exoskeletons of the small animals are home to thousands of other aquatic plants and animals. Coral are necessary for nutrient cycling in the sea; they are important for tourism in island economies, used in medical studies for skin grafts and could be sources of new medicines.

But coral are sensitive to the smallest fluctuations in pH, chemical mixtures and temperature. Global warming, fish farming, pollution and a whole host of man-made activities are proving to be disastrous to their survival. Some scientists believe that one-third of all coral in the sea has already died. This year, reports CNN and New Scientist, has seen record amounts of coral die-off.

“I feel that we are heading into a period where the coral will become extinct,” Almalam told ISRAEL21c. “They have existed for 500 million years and have passed a few extinctions. But we are going into an era that may have immeasurable consequences for their survival.”

“And hard corals, like the ones we are growing, are the most sensitive kind,” says Almalam. “They need special conditions to live and require components in the water present in a narrow range that includes such chemicals like calcium and strontium.”

Feeding his coral what he jokingly terms a “body-builder’s” diet, Almalam helps the coral grow twenty times faster than they would if they were growing naturally in the sea. Those grown on his farm are more colorful than the native sea varieties; they also adapt better to aquarium life.

The way ACP Tech packs and ships its coral, in special brine, also ensures a near one-hundred-percent survival rate for coral that have to brave the long journey from Israel to the United States.

Although environmentalists try to sway people from stealing coral in the sea, the marine animals remain a hot commodity for hobbyists looking to add them to exotic home aquariums.

By propagating and selling coral, Almalam says, ACP Tech is helping to offset illegal poaching of coral. At any rate, he adds, poached coral has a low chance of survival once someone removes it from the sea.

Much of what ACP Tech does is under wraps until the company receives patents on their technologies and methodologies. What they can divulge is the fact that the coral is propagated from smaller pieces of the substance through a process known as fragmentation; the pieces are glued to a cube of concrete and then placed in an aquarium environment that contains minerals and elements in the “perfect” combination that coral love.

And “love” is the word Efergan uses when describing the most important ingredient in the rearing process. “I give them the best that I can- like the love I give to my children,” he says. “I also give them the highest quality food. They speak with me. I can feel how they feel.”

“The environmental aspect is also important for me and I live the principles I believe,” added Efergan, a vegetarian who doesn’t eat fish.

After studying mechanical engineering at Tel Aviv University, Efergen decided to try his luck in the pet store business. It was then, about five years ago when Almalam took an interest in aquariums, the two met.

Within three months of raising lionfish, Almalam had moved on to soft coral, hard coral and then a 600 liter aquarium that found a home in his living room. Besides buying materials and equipment from Efergan, Almalam was ordering specialty supplies from the US and the UK.

Through their mutual love of coral and environmentalism, Almalam and Efergan forged a bond like brotherhood, they say.

Today the aquariums are too large for the house and have been moved to a small village outside the coastal city of Haifa.

Almalam’s father Avraham Almalam an engineer with a background in agriculture also deserves credit for ACP Tech’s success. “Of course,” says Almalam’s father, it was a dream of his and his wife’s that their son would grow up and become a lawyer. But it was no surprise that he would end up dedicating the better part of his day to growing coral.

“Ofer always cared about animals and has since he was a young boy. He raised snakes, dogs, butterflies and many kinds of varieties of mice at our home. He grew up knowing how to be close to animals,” says his father. “Developing a closed system of raising coral was not a strange thing for my son to do. And it is such an important thing for the world.”

ACP Tech could one day – if the right investor comes along, they say- supply coral to every corner of the world. Already, they have started supplying coral to reef-keepers used for transplanting them in the natural environment in efforts to keep reefs alive.

“Our production could be higher at the moment,” says Almalam. “We just don’t have the system big enough to satisfy the demand.”

About Karin Kloosterman

Karin Kloosterman is an award-winning environment news publisher who founded Green Prophet (www.greenprophet.com) to connect North Americans to issues that matter in the Middle East. She is the CEO of the Internet of Things startup flux, a company that is making social grow tools for urban farmers everywhere (www.fluxiot.com). Karin can be reached at karin (at) fluxiot.com.