TBT - The Trouble With 'Live Rock".

Before you jump to conclusions - this is not about music. Unless making money is music to your ears. And taking on the man sounds good too.

Back in the early 90's my wife Barbara and I were living in Miami and engaged in the business of collecting marine life for the pet trade and public aquariums. It was an interesting and physically demanding occupation that we really liked. We got to spend a lot of time in and on the ocean, and we had a great independent income source - no jobs or bosses! Being successful as an independent usually requires skills at risk assessment and finding a niche - and some luck helps a lot too! As an entrepreneur - If you are waiting on funding, or get into something very competitive - you are going to be very dependent on the luck part of this formula.

Our niche was the 'Live Rock' business in the marine life trade. Live rock is actually small pieces (2 to 6 pound) pieces of loose dead coral laying on the bottom of the ocean covered over with various sponge, algae, and inverts (and microbes!) living in and on the skeleton of what was once living coral. This dead coral we are talking about eventually degrades into the sand bottom - it is not part of the reef building process.

Technology in marine aquarium science at that time was rapidly advancing and it was discovered that a prolific and balanced microbiome in the aquarium results in a healthier system. Just like the human body (which has a ratio of 10 microbe cells for each human cell) - trillions of commensal and symbiotic microorganisms are necessary for a healthy equilibrium. Aquarists saw that using live rock containing these microbes was the best way to create and maintain a natural marine system. And so began the commercial rush for 'Live Rock' - and we were on the leading edge of collecting and shipping this marine product from coast to coast.

Unfortunately, due to the ignorance of the general public and the political/financial ambitions of some conservation groups, after a couple years of this activity the collecting of live rock was demonized - they called it "destructive exploitation of the Florida reefs". The facts of where and how the rock was collect had been ignored, just as the main causes of coral death was ignored - degradation of water quality over the living reef by big agriculture run-off and the constant beach restoration dredging projects. As usual - the real villains had the politicians and conservationists in their pockets. Follow the money.

The State of Florida then made us divers for live rock the scapegoats for 'reef destruction' and banned live rock collecting in State waters - which is limited to three miles from the coast. We then went to the Army Corp of Engineers, who had jurisdiction outside the 3 mile limit, and we received a permit to continue collecting live rock in federal waters.

Part of our success in the biz those days was two pieces of expensive leading edge technology. Getting the first fax machine available (Sharp - $1,000) - made us look like established marine life distributors to our buyers, and the other key purchase was a 'Lowrance Loran' ($1,500), the most precise location device before the common use of GPS equipment. Our live rock collecting area was located off Key Biscayne, just east of the 3 mile limit and just north of the waters included in the Biscayne Nation Park. So to stay out of trouble with authorities we had to know exactly (and sometimes prove it! ) where we were diving and collecting. The tax dollars spent on monitoring our activity must have been hundreds of dollars per day on those occasions when every possible law enforcement agency checked us out to see what we were doing and if we were doing it legally. The Florida Marine Patrol / Fish & Wildlife Service, Dade County Sheriff's Dept., Biscayne Park Rangers, U.S. Coast Guard, kept checking us out - and we even had the U.S. Customs helicopter hover over us to see if we had bales on the bottom!

To their great disappointment - everything was always in order. But hey - they needed to justify their jobs running around out there on the water, getting a tan and checking out the bikinis.

Then came Hurricane Andrew. Miami was going to be a mess for a long time, so we decided to get out of Dodge and look for new adventures - in Micronesia and Asia.

With us gone - that must have saved the tax payers many thousands of dollars!