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TMC opens its doors to UltimateReef

Introduction by Scoob
About a month ago Cam posted in the Admin forum one of those threads that you read and think, 'HELL YEAH'.

He had been in correspondence with TMC, asking them questions about coral sand when they asked him if he would be interested in a visit to their Chorley Wood depot. Naturally he jumped at the chance and being a loyal UR chappy asked about his friends. "if you like, open the invitation to the team, we'll give you an access all areas guided tour".

To say we leapt at it is an understatement. Alternative appointments were cancelled left right and centre in a bid to accommodate such a trip.

The date: March 17th, time: 10:30.

At just after 10:20 we pull into their car park. I had gone up in my car with Reef Bloke. When we pulled in there was already a crowd of likely looking lads. Cam, Craigg, SPS Hoover, Si Garratt, ~Tony~, InstantSquid, MaidstoneMarine and Zimreef, or to make it easier and less like a 3 year olds fancy dress party, Cam, Craig, Simon, Si, Tony, Ian, Chris and John.

Standing with them was Mike, Mark, Ben & George of TMC. Turns out despite driving like the clappers and getting there 10 minutes early, Tony and I were still fashionably late. Mike begins to tell us what we are doing there. We are going to see every single part of the TMC machine, Hatchery, Filtration room, Acclimation room, Electronics room, Stock displays, Storage facilities, you name it we were gonna see it. Anything we wanted to know would be included in the tour but if we think of anything that hasn't been covered, just ask and they'll tell us straight, a totally back stage pass if ever there was one.

Considering that by default we don't work for potential customers and therefore can't exactly bring business this way, I think I speak for all of us when I say it was really very generous for them to open their doors to us with nothing to gain. Also you have to hand it to them for letting us report it back to you guys. We hope you enjoy.
The annual output from this room would keep the European clown trade going for the better part of 2 generations of fish keepers.Hatchery By Simon Garratt

The first port of call after having a brief but detailed introduction chat with Mark Flynn-Ryan, who’s at the helm as sales manger for TMC, was the most coveted possession and shining banner of what TMC represents....The Hatchery.

The clownfish with eggsOn entering through the compulsory foot bath in the doorway, and washing our hands with an alcohol solution to minimise the possibility of contamination. (I later twigged why Scoob was licking his hands all day). There are two things that grab your attention. The first is the hospital style cleanliness and order of the set up. Everything is spotless, without a hint of salt creep anywhere (god I wish I could get a fishroom looking like that ). Everything has its place, with every jug cleaned and hung. Nothing is left lying around, nothing is left uncleaned after use...Its all, absolutely, gleamingly professional. The second thing you notice is the look of immense pride on Mark, and his teams faces. I'll emphasise 'pride' in that statement, and not arrogance. Indeed Mark made it quite clear, he still gets a buzz when he looks at the tanks full of baby clowns and smiles affectionately like some doting dad.

Mark then ran through the way the hatchery runs, from brood stock, to egg laying, to growing on. He added some interesting observations regarding the behaviour of the juvenile clowns under differing conditions. The thing most evident here, is the amount of effort and time that has been put into this operation, just running through some of the following will spell it out.

Some of the tanks at the time of the visit were holding several hundred individuals.

Young fire shrimps in the hatchery6 types of clown are bred at present, plus various shrimps.

Numbers can’t be quoted for confidentiality reasons, but lets just say, the annual output, would keep the European clown trade going, for the better part of 2 generations of fish keepers.

The oldest breeding pair of clowns is a 19yr old pair of tomatoes.

To keep blood lines as pure as possible, occasional infusions of wild caught fish are added to keep things on track. This is the 'only' negative impact the hatchery has on wild populations. The ratio of negative to positive impact is so low, it’s not even worth considering to be honest when you look at how many fish are raised here, it’s absolutely mind boggling.

On our visit, the hatchery was running at about 'half' capacity due to the fire which wiped out the Phyto culture room. Seeing what 'was' there at this time just put the extent of this operation into perspective.

Feeding the hatchery Feeding the hatchery

Each and every batch is counted, and logged, all the way from hatching, through to going on sale. With progress recorded in an effort to limit problems, and make the growth process as natural as possible. As Mark told us, there was some considerable time and effort put into preventing undershot jaw syndrome, and at 16-20 weeks per batch, you only get so many chances within quite a long time frame to find out where things are going wrong. Suffice to say, they found the cause and cured it.

Ah, but what about the snowflakes we hear you shout?

Well, obviously Mark is quite defensive of these fish, but in an educated and logical way it must be said. Contrary to popular speculation these clowns haven't been selectively bred, or engineered. They are (As witnessed by those in attendance) a sporadic and rare 'single' occurrence encountered in occasional batches. The only difference here is that unlike in the wild, these fish are not predated upon.

To put that into perspective... in one batch of over 400 individuals, we saw just 1 snowflake which stood out like a sore thumb. What would its chances of survival be in the wild? This may explain 'why' they are never encountered in nature...They just stick out too damn much.

Fancy counting how many clowns are in this tank? The Brood stock tanks Young pipefish in the hatchery

Obviously, much like the rest of the facility, the hatchery is held in its own building, with its own circulation system, disease controls, and safety features built in. Just looking down the banks and banks of tanks, holding hundreds of juvenile clowns in various stages, ranging from newly hatched ones about the same size as brine shrimp larvae, up to fully coloured and striped individuals ready for sale. It really is a stunning spectacle to see and was an honour to be shown round by the guys.

To put it all into perspective Mark made a comment that we should all bare in mind. "If you go diving on the reef you'll be lucky to see a 'pair' of clowns every 30 yards or so. If you take into account the immense number of clowns sold all over the world by TMC annually, that’s taken one hell of a lot of pressure off of wild populations, especially baring in mind it's usually adult (breeding) pairs that are removed by other suppliers." This is set to increase as methods advance and further species and other families are brought into the loop.

A project truly deserving the obvious pride Mark and the rest of TMC have in this venture.
Filtration Room by Instantsquid
And so we enter the filtration room.

Firstly a warning: For those of you with a fetish for all things "skimmer", what you are about to see and read about, may simply be too much to handle. You have been warned!

Entering the filtration room, you are immediately confronted by one of the biggest skimmers you'll ever see. And then you see its brother behind it. As they say, a picture paints a thousand words...

Three of these skimmers and enough water to fill olympic sized swimming pools flows through this roomThese skimmers are 4.5 metres tall and 1.5 metres in diameter. The collection cup (shown in the photo) alone is 2 metres tall with the remaining 2.5 metre skimmer body below ground level. They were made by Sander, and each one is fed by a pair of 2 horsepower pumps. The collection cup is jet-cleaned several times per hour, but has a large inspection panel on the side, through which some unfortunate soul has to actually enter the skimmer in order to scrub it clean.

These two skimmers are for the "fish system" - the "invert system" has yet another of the same skimmer. The rest of the details of each system are basically the same.

After passing through the skimmers, the water enters a series of large fluidized sand filters (out of view in the photo). On leaving the sand filters the water is extremely low in oxygen and so four enormous re-oxygenation tanks are utilised. These are the large circular vats shown in the picture. Basically this consists of a large container filled with bio-balls that the water trickles through - lots of surface area and gentle agitation of the water combine to aerate the water as it passes through. Apparently the bio-balls were chemically etched to fracture the surface and make them hugely more efficient.

Finally the water returns back to a reservoir ("sump" simply does not do it justice!) below ground level, from which the feeds to the pump room are taken. The fish system reservoir holds 60,000 litres, whilst the invert system reservoir holds 26,000 litres. Given that a leak in the plumbing within the reservoir would be catastrophic, the staff actually includes several divers to deal with issues within these reservoirs.

The plumbing in the whole operation, but particularly in the filter room has to be seen to be believed. In the picture above, behind the bag of salt, you can see a section of pipe going down into the reservoir - there's pipework like this all over. It looks just like the grey solvent-weld pipe we use on our own tanks.... but it's over a foot in diameter. You'd need a whole tub of solvent-weld glue for every single joint!

TMC chose the location for this site, for a number of reasons - not least of which is that they have two bore-holes on their land. The water from these bore-holes is fortunately quite hard due to the chalk in the rock below, and sufficiently pure that it can be used straight from the source. It enters a large mixing vat in the filtration room which is the large rectangular container you can see at the back of the picture above. In this, the water is simply heated, oxygenated and salted before being added to the two systems. The entire fish system is in the region of 100,000 litres whilst the invert system is around 50,000 litres. Both systems have a turnover rate in excess of 7 times per hour.
Equipment Room by ~Tony~
A steady hum issued from the next room. As we entered we were confronted by a staggered row of huge pumps; about a dozen pumps, each some 12" in diameter. An impressive sight. These were the main circulation pumps for the main fish system and the invert system. By my calculation, each pump must have been moving about 100,000 litres per hour. The pumps at the far end of the room also had 4 foot high filter units on them.

Pumps, UVs and vast amounts of other electrical goodiesOn the walls above the pumps were half a dozen pairs of tubes each 3 foot long. These were the TMC Professional UV units to control the pathogens. That's mega-UV, I thought. But no, Mark explained that these were mainly new designs on long term trial. They trial everything, sometimes for several years, before making them available for sale. We were to see the main UV units later on our tour. A corridor goes all around the outside of the large fish room, and there were similar UV units on the wall all along this corridor. Now that's mega-UV!

Behind us was the Ozone generator - a unit the size of a fridge. Forget measuring mg/hr, this monster was supplying kg/day to keep their water clear. For safety, there was an air extraction unit, so that the whole room is kept at a slightly lower air pressure than the outside.

Safety and organisation are paramount in this room. Every pump is numbered, and each pump has a pressure sensor on its output monitoring its flow. If the pressure drops on any pump, indicating a problem, an alarm sounds and an indicator shows the faulty pump number. At night, this triggers a monitored alarm resulting in an engineer rude awakening and call out. At the central pump power supply panel, the pump can be temporarily isolated by its timed isolation switch, again each neatly labelled with pump number. This gives the operator half an hour to investigate the pump problem. While any pump is disabled, a strobe light flashes, and the building security can not be activated, so the problem always has to be sorted before staff can go home.

and yet more electrical equipmentThere is a spare pump always available close by, so after isolating the pump at the main supply cabinet (again neatly labelled with the pump number), the faulty unit could be quickly swapped out, and the system brought back to full running status. The faulty pump can then be serviced and fixed later.

The main power supply cabinets, lining one wall, were equally well organised, with everything carefully labelled and independently switched, so there could be no confusion in the event of sudden problems arising. When you are dealing with the current supplied by the 3 incoming power cables, each the size of your wrist, you don't take any risks. I'm just glad it’s not my 'leccy bill.

While our setups at home are minuscule compared to this room, there are lessons to be learned in the care, and attention to safety, that has gone into the planning of this room.

As we push hard on the door to leave, there is an inrush of air through the opening gap. Ah yes, the room is kept at a lower pressure than the outside. TMC safety again.
Acclimation room by ~Tony~

Being in here was like being a kid in a sweet shop!Briefly back outside and then into the next room. We shuffled into the darkened space, lit only by red fluorescents. As our eyes slowly adjusted we could see several rows of acclimation benches. Mark explained that the fish don't see well in the red end of the light spectrum, so to them it was night time in the room, which keeps them quiet, and relaxed as possible. TMC go to great lengths to minimise the stress to the fish. Not for TMC the moving of fish from storage to storage before finally shipping as consolidated collections.

They have their own collection stations and divers on the reefs in 26 countries, collecting only from local reefs so that the fish spend the minimum time possible in transportation. The fish are housed in properly filtered holding facilities using TMC’s commercial filtration equipment and then transferred to special shipping containers and flown straight to the UK, where they are brought to the acclimation room. Several shipments a day are handled. Even during the flight great care is taken that they don't share cargo space with anything that could affect the fish, e.g. frozen carcases as they emit CO2 which in the confines of the hold would adversely affect the water. TMC have a zero tolerance of fatalities and a near perfect success rate for shipment of fish.

The special shipment containers holding the fish are brought onto the benches in the red-lit acclimation room. Each side of the bench is equipped with rows of thin tubes for delivering the TMC fish system water, and two drain troughs - one returning back to the fish water system and one to the drain. Initially the outlet tube of the container is directed to the drain trough and two water supply tubes with their valve adjusted to a drip, feed the containers. This provides a slow water change, and they are left for several hours as the shipping water is slowly diluted and replaced with TMC fish system water. After several hours the shipping water will have been fully replaced and the container outlet can then be directed back into the TMC water system trough, and the flow increased while they are fully acclimated.

Sick fish do not survive on the reef, they get eaten. TMC’s philosophy is to collect these healthy fish and get them into the aquarium in the same condition. TMC do not use any magic potions or antibiotics and believe in keeping healthy fish healthy, not allowing fish to become sick and then trying to treat them. Mark commented that it’s all down to excellent filtration, good UV and quality food. As the fish are transported quickly and reasonably stress free, they arrive healthy and stay healthy. The fish system water contains 0.03 ppm copper to handle any parasites on the fish, lots of UV light filters, and ozone. Looking around we could see the fish looking relaxed and quiet in their holding tanks, presumably sleeping during their extended 'night'.

A breeding pair of fish will produce thousands of eggs. On the reef most will be eaten by predators, and maybe that brood will only produce one or two eventual adults. The breeding pair has done its job to replace itself. As TMC collects juveniles they have little effect on the overall fish population - they are just depriving the next predator of one more mouthful.

In fact it is likely that about a productive 5 miles strip of coral reef could supply all the fish and corals needed for the hobby world wide. Compare that to the 2 miles of reef destroyed forever for the building materials of Maldives airport, just so that you can go on holiday.
Fish Room by Cam

Corals and fish in the fish houseThe Fish room is the only side of TMC that most of its customers get to spend much time in. For us it was like being a kid in a sweet shop! Banks of tanks of all sizes containing literally hundreds of different species fill the majority of the room whilst the rest of the area is taken up with low invert tanks full of a myriad of different corals as well as anemones, shrimps and other assorted crustaceans.

The tanks of fish range from fairly small containing the tiniest of gobies, to very large tanks that most of us would love to have in our own homes housing beautiful angel and butterfly fish, as well as many unusual or rarer specimens. I was struck by the cleanliness of the tanks and the health of the livestock. I did not see a single fish that I would not have been more than happy to have in any tank of mine. There were no dead fish in any of the hundreds of tanks and no signs of any disease or white spot on any fish particularly on species such as regal tangs that are more susceptible to that sort of thing. They do run a base level of copper in their fish system to help combat any disease or parasite that may have not shown itself in the acclimation/quarantine procedure, but this is a wise precaution considering the number of fish entering and leaving the facility during any particular day.

This is one small corner of the fish roomThe inverts and corals too share the same pristine conditions as the fish, although obviously not the same water! Everything is well thought out and placed, right down to the anemone tanks that are lined with a special reef safe ‘carpet’ giving the animals a substrate to attach to whilst making them easy to remove without damage when they are sold. For a reef keeper it was nice to see the corals in such a good condition. All stock looked happy and fully expanded and the many SPS/LPS corals were bright and colourful and the choice for the dealers who make the trip to pick their own stock was large. There were quite a few unusual pieces including a beautiful sponge type colony that nobody had been able to identify and some lovely aquacultured colonies containing dozens of different coloured mushrooms and small polyps on the same rock, almost like a complete nano tank setup on a single large rock. Shrimps and lobsters were also held in their own tanks but to prevent the different species preying on each other each was held in its own container that in turn was part of a ‘raft’ of similar containers floating in a large tank.

In one corner of the fish room were some large vats, these are used to house some of the larger species imported to order or for stock destined for public aquaria. At the time of our visit there was not a lot in this section except for a few lovely silver ‘lookdowns’.

Inspecting the wide variety of fish available in the fish houseIt was explained that in recent years the design of the fish house had changed some what. Previously tanks had been mounted on concrete pillars, but due to the need to adapt and change, the decision was made to have all banks of tanks on their own free standing metal stands. The old pillars have been removed leaving only a small mark on the floor where they had once been. Looking to the future in the original build the fish room was tiled from floor to ceiling and everything has been built on top of this, thus allowing for change without damage to the floor. Overflow from the tank banks ultimately runs into gullies along the side of the building and then back to the filter room for processing. The whole room has a light and airy feel to it and the cleanliness is akin to an operating theatre.

Like everything else at TMC, the bagging station is well organised. As they supply strictly to the trade only, their 'customers' are free to select and collect their own fish and corals. They bring them to one of two collection trays at the bagging station where TMC staff then take over.

Each side of the bagging station has a fish system water supply and sink, and an invert system water supply and sink. Here the selections are bagged in double or even triple layer bags, with double seams, so the stock travels safely. They have bags of all sizes to suit the stock. The water levels are topped up, and oxygen added to the air space. Finally the bags are sealed with metal clamps using a machine at the end of the station.

Preparing your purchases for transportationAn air-filled padded box is fetched from the adjacent storeroom, and the bags of fish or corals carefully packed into it. The full boxes are taped up and the stock is ready for its journey to the LFS. Many LFS keepers like to come early, before their shops open, so TMC opens early for them, from 7:00 am.

TMC's care for their stock doesn't end there. They have a team of experts who regularly visit their LFS clients to assist with their setups, and advise on all aspects of keeping their stock healthy.
All in all we had an extremely enjoyable and informative day and big thanks has to go once again to TMC for taking the time to offer the visit and show us around. As you may have noticed from their post in the sponsors section, TMC haven’t got the resources to answer everyones question individually. However if there is anything you would like to ask then please let myself or one of the other mods know and we’ll do our best to answer it on their behalf or if we can’t then we’ll refer it to them.

One of a series of articles written for UltimateReef by the team.
Published on May 7th, 2007 at

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