Frank Baensch ’92: Marine Biologist, Fish Breeder, and Underwater Photographer

March 07, 2012

Frank Baensch ’92
Frank Baensch ’92 prepares to photograph ocean life.

Frank Baensch ’92 has had a passion for marine life since as far back as he can remember. After majoring in biology at Rollins and then earning his master’s degree in aquaculture from the University of Hawaii, Baensch turned that passion into a career. “I’m a marine biologist and fish breeder. I develop culture methods for aquarium reef fish,” explained the Oahu resident, who also dabbles in underwater photography.

“Most of the fish species we keep in marine aquariums are still collected from the reefs, largely because the complex biology of the adult fish and/or the larvae creates bottlenecks that keep them from being farmed.” At his company, Reef Culture Technologies, Baensch focuses on working out those bottlenecks by developing a cost-effective and scalable technology to breed the fish normally pulled from the reef. In the process, Baensch is doing his part to protect the ocean.

Why did you start Reef Culture Technologies 11 years ago?

Aquarium fish collection can have serious environmental impacts. In heavy collection areas, like Indonesia and the Philippines, collectors often use sodium cyanide and dynamite to collect fish, causing severe damage to the reef. The stress posed upon fish from the time they are collected through the various distribution facilities to the retail store weakens them considerably. It is estimated that only one out of four fish survive from the reef to the aquarium. Collection also depletes wild stock populations, especially of rare and valuable species. Reef Culture Technologies was founded to bring more species into culture and help lessen the aquarium hobby’s dependency on wild-caught reef fish and resulting negative impacts.

Do you see aquaculture as being one of the ways the threat to our oceans and marine life can be mitigated?

Yes, definitely. Some intense food aquaculture (such as salmon and shrimp farming) has developed a bad reputation due to the damage it can cause to a local ecosystem. In general, however, food aquaculture always has considerably less impact on the global environment per weight of farmed versus fished product. Marine ornamental farming has far less negative impacts on the environment than food aquaculture due to it smaller scale, lower waste production, more land-based location, and negligible use of antibiotics and hormones.

Farming aquarium fish is by far the greenest approach to reducing the dependency on collecting wild fish and its associated impacts. Unfortunately, it is not the best short-term solution, because farming technology for most heavily collected fish species still has to be developed. Educating collectors to use more sustainable methods such as nets rather than sodium cyanide and dynamite; imposing import bans on fish that are collected unsustainably; and more stringent regulation along the distribution chain (collection facility to retail store) need to be implemented in the short-term to reduce the negative impacts.

How did you make the journey from marine biologist to underwater photographer?

I spent a lot of time in the ocean growing up in the Bahamas. I’m crazy about marine life and am very fortunate to now work in a marine biology-related field. But my breeding research kept me too busy to dive for many years. Underwater photography was a way to get back to and learn more about the underwater world that I had fallen in love with as a kid. I can’t really call it a job because it's so much fun, therapeutic, and gratifying. It helps me with my research and allows me to share the ocean’s wonders with others.

What has been the most spectacular thing you've ever photographed underwater?

blue reef underwater
Hundreds of fish swarm the reefs off the coast of Papua New Guinea. (Frank Baensch ’92)

My favorite subject to photograph is a healthy, pristine reef packed with colorful fish and corals. An experience in Eastern Fields comes to mind. Eastern Fields is a large, submerged atoll located between Papua New Guinea and Australia. It is rarely dived or fished because of its remoteness and exposure to severe weather. The reefs are all healthy and pristine but one reef stands out. This site, about the size of an Olympic-sized swimming pool, holds the richest marine life I have ever seen.

Hundreds of species of small colorful reef fish make their home around a variety of elaborately structured stony corals, bright soft corals, and large sea fans. Large groupers and snappers hunt from within and big schools of jacks and barracudas, as well as tuna and sharks from above. The life on this reef is fantastic all of the time but when the current picks up the place gets mind-boggling. Massive schools of small bright purple reef fish (magenta anthias) congregate in the currents on the reef top among the corals, sea fans, and schools of larger fish.

The little three-inch fish swim into the current forming streams close to the reef, that look like super highway. Groups of thousands of these fish periodically rise up and feed while allowing themselves to be swept 10-30 feet downstream before dropping down into the flow of traffic and making their way back up current to repeat the cycle over again. The amount of fish was sometimes so thick and so close to me that that I could not see through it. It was an absolutely incredible blizzard of form, motion, and color!

Do you think the average person is really grasping the gravity of our ocean crisis?

No, they are not. We live on land and so most people have no inner connection to the ocean. The damage that we do to land is visible and quantifiable. It’s in our obvious best interest to care for and protect the environment around us as best we can. But, even though we all depend on the ocean in some way, most people are removed from it. It’s vastness, power, and depth makes it seem invincible with an infinite supply of resources. Aside from what is seen on nature shows or in the media, the average person is not confronted with or even affected by the damage that is done by overfishing, pollution, habitat destruction, and climate change. Most of us do not understand (and some do not care to understand) the ocean’s complexity, fragility, and the extent of the damage that has already been done.


By Kristen Manieri

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