The end of 2010 marked my tenth year in the hobby, and even in that relatively short time I've seen an enormous amount of positive change, advancement in all aspects of the hobby and trade. From the wider implementation of macro-algae refugiums, to the employment of more energy efficient lighting systems such as LED's and the continued advancement of aquaculture, even with animals many believed were impossible to keep, these advancements have made our hobby more ecological and self sustaining.
There are however some practices that despite, or perhaps in spite of, widely available information continue to trend. It amazes me that in 2011 certain animals remain staples in the trade, it amazes that in 2011 amateur aquarists are still regularly dabbling with the likes of Moorish idols, cleaner wrasses, and Goniopora sp. The list could go on to the point that it depresses me so I won't. Likewise I am also amazed that certain animals which are prime candidates for the ornamental trade, both in their success rate and sustainability in collection, continue to remain fringe choices at best.
While the cynical aquarist might point to the "evil" or "greedy" local retailer, I believe this is an issue born much more so out of ignorance than maliciousness, nevertheless economics are involved. Unfortunately many if not most aquarists use local retailers as their sole source of information, as such they do not learn to request more appropriate animals of their retailers. This creates a viscous supply and demand cycle where importers continue to order less than ideal choices from exporters because the demand remains for them.
In short your local dealer does not stock animals you do not ask for, and because of the lack of knowledge among consumers, you don't know to ask for them because you never see them, see the problem here?
One ideal species, that in my experience, continues to suffer from this unfortunate conundrum is Serranus tortugarum; the Chalk Bass. It's attractive, small, easy to collect, ships well, accepts most prepared aquarium fare, is compatible with a multitude of other fish, invertebrate life and it's vastly under utilized in our hobby. (A note to significant others: It's pretty cheap too!)
In the Wild
A decidedly Atlantic species the chalk bass has a wide distribution in that ocean, hailing from Florida's eastern coast, to the Bahamas, Virgin Isles, even Honduras, though it's largest populations are in Caribbean reefs. It has a wide distribution within the reef as well, inhabiting depths of 35-1,310 feet (10-400m).
They are typically found in close association with the benthic regions of the reef and substrate, not too often daring into open space due to their diminutive size, quickly retreating from would be predators into the nearest possible crevice or empty sea shell.
While singular specimens are seen, they are a social animal typically occurring in loose small groups of harems or shoals with a distinct pecking order. S. tortugarum is hermaphroditic, synchronous hermaphrodites to be specific, meaning they maintain both male and female reproductive organs simultaneously but as far as what is known can not self fertilize to asexually reproduce.
This species is a zooplanktivore, though larger specimens have been known to consume crustaceans that they could fit whole in their mouth. Mature adults can reportedly reach a maximum size of just 3 inches (8cm) in the wild, though there (and in captivity as well), 2 inches (5cm) is much more common.
This is an extremely resilient animal that is highly suitable in adapting to captivity and healthy specimens have very little trouble doing so.
Once they've overcome the shock of the initial transition and their natural predisposition to be reclusive they should quickly begin accepting prepared foods. I would wait until this animal has been in a dealers tank for upwards of 10 days, two weeks even to be safe as those that succumb to the rigors of poor collection should be expunged from the group by that point. Also be sure to ask your dealer to offer it food in your presence and shun those specimens which seem uninterested.
If you plan to keep more than one S. tortugarum in your display it's best to purchase them in groups that were collected together at three or five. Certainly if keeping a group they should be quarantined, added to the display simultaneously to avoid aggression and rejection. Also avoid specimens that are emaciated and/or have visible contusions and injuries.
Acclimation to Captive Life
It's quite normal for S. tortugarum to be reclusive when first added to the home aquarium, retreating into whatever shelter you make available to them. You can encourage them into the open by utilizing a subdued lighting scheme initially and offering live Artemia or Mysids to encourage natural feeding behavior. During this initiatory phase to new surroundings, Chalk basses are also very likely to jump, so if you do not employ a hood or cover you may want to consider this for the first few weeks.
S. tortugarum and members of the Serranus genus in general make a great addition to biotopic displays of the tropical Atlantic. Their relatively small size makes them ideal for smaller or even Nano marine aquaria if keeping a lone specimen, if you plan to keep them as a group allow 15-20 gallons (55-75l.) per individual. Providing protection via some form of shelter, preferably live rock and larger seashells is a must for the chalk bass in order for them to thrive, avoid psychological stress.
While you should keep a regular regime of water changes and utilize other forms of nutrient export, such as a protein skimmer, established S. tortugarum's are typically very tolerable of water quality that temporarily lingers outside of acceptable parameters making it ideal for beginners.
As I've mentioned several times prior, S. tortugarum will readily accept a wide variety of prepared captive fare. Being mainly zooplanktivores they will prey on the naturally occurring, live mircrofauna found in most reef displays or aquariums employing the use of live rock. A variation of finely chopped meats of a marine origin should be offered including but not limited to, mysis, krill, squid as well as other bivalve and crustacean meats.
Established specimens should eventually accept more convenient dried fare as well such as pellets and flakes with a high protein content.
Like their other larger cousins within the family Serranidae, is hardy and resilient against most protozoal diseases and bacterial infections. This is certainly a fish I would quarantine before introduction to the main display, though if you don't already, I would add PVC pipe or some other form of inert shelter during their stay.
Excluding their own kind and other members of the genus Serranus, S. tortugarum are compatible with a wide array of other fish that won't outright consume or harass them.
This means that predators such as Scorpaenidae (Lion fish), Balistidae (Triggers), and larger members of it's own family Serranidae (Larger true bass) should be avoided.
In close quarters (smaller aquaria), aggressive Pomacentridae (Damsels, including clown/Anemonefish) should be added with extreme caution.
Alternatively S. tortugarum is safe with sessile invertebrates and larger crustaceans but hungry or curious adults may attempt to consume smaller shrimp like Thor amboinensis (Sexy Anemone Shrimp).
Easily attainable if you know to ask for them, these miniature sea-basses are a great addition for veteran and first time aquarists alike. One of the more obvious examples of animals mis/underrepresented in the ornamental trade, the lack of promotion given to the chalk bass is a frustrating as nails on a - well, you get the point.