Into The Industry: Aquariums

Rebecca Daniel

This week, we sat down with Lewis Cocks, who works at Issham Aquatics out in Jeddah (Saudi Arabia), to chat about the importance of aquariums, and his upcoming research paper on Tawny Nurse Shark reproduction.

Photo: Lewis Cocks

Photo: Lewis Cocks

Hey Lewis! Tell us a bit about yourself.

Hello! I have been studying and working within marine related positions since the age of 14. I started my career in Southampton but moved on to Plymouth to study my BSc and MSc in Marine Conservation and Aquaculture. I am specifically dedicated to the aquarium industry because of the hands on nature of the job and the mix of Biology, Chemistry and physics which is required.

You’ve built your life around the ocean. What drew you to it in the first place?

It happened by accident really. When I was 13 I had a summer planned of sports activities but a week before school finished I broke my wrist which shattered my plans! To relieve me of boredom my parents bought me an aquarium which really got me enthusiastic about underwater life. I quickly moved on to marine life and by the age of 14 I had a weekend job at my local aquarium shop.

A silver lining then! What is your current job role?

My current position is Marine Biologist at Issham Aquatics, in the Red Sea in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where I have been for 5 years. However, I will be moving on to a new job in Muscat, Oman, later this year and before that I have some work in Peniche, Portugal lined up!

Can you tell us a bit about why aquariums are so important?

Although there are certain controversies regarding animals in captivity, institutions such as aquariums are actually extremely important for the research and conservation of aquatic animals. Legally in the UK and most other countries it is required that aquariums (and zoos etc) must undertake research and conservation projects. This includes things like captive breeding programs, focus groups, and quite importantly, educating the general public. Aquariums also generate a lot of funding for other in situ research and conservation which would otherwise not be available.

Growing coral in a closed system. Photo: Lewis Cocks

Growing coral in a closed system. Photo: Lewis Cocks

What does a day in your life look like?

An average day for myself involves overseeing many exhibits of aquariums and observing their general health and wellbeing. I am lucky enough to live on the coast of the Red Sea and if needed, I will carry out dives to ensure everything is looking normal.

I also have personal projects which I commit time to. For example, asexual propagation of corals takes up a large proportion of my time, even if it’s just checking the water quality and adjusting the parameters.

Tell me a little bit more about your personal projects.

In order to keep the industry sustainable, a lot of work with captive propagated corals is undertaken all over the world. Carefully selecting and collecting certain coral species from the wild, and bringing them back to a closed system, means that individuals can grow in a controlled environment. As it grows, it is very simple to asexually reproduce the coral by making fragments of the main coral (known as the ‘mother colony’). These fragments will then carry on growing, and over time there will be more and more coral. This is a sustainable way to grow selected types of corals which can then be used to restock unhealthy reefs, or supply other aquariums to further continue the chain.

Another interesting segment whilst working in Saudi Arabia is witnessing and recording data on the captive reproduction of the Tawny Nurse Shark (Nebrius ferrugineus). This large species of benthic shark is labelled as vulnerable by the IUCN red list, so having this species successfully reproduce consistently over 8 years has provided a lot of data and knowledge previously unknown. I am the lead author in a research paper on this topic which will hopefully be published in the Journal of Fish Biology this year!

Adult tawny nurse sharks. Photo: Lewis Cocks

Adult tawny nurse sharks. Photo: Lewis Cocks

I can’t wait to read it, sharks are awesome! What would you say has been your most memorable encounter with a marine species?

Seeing a large shoal of Manta Rays (now technically Mobula sp) on Richelieu rock in 2010 will always be a favourite. This moment was made even more special as I should have been back in Plymouth taking my exams but unfortunately we were stuck in SE Asia due to the Icelandic volcano which grounded all flights!

And which ocean species is still on your bucket list to see?

Despite being widespread in a lot of oceans (including the UK) I have yet to see a Sunfish (Mola mola) in the wild. I am sure it will happen soon.

Whose work influenced and inspired you to a career in the aquarium industry?

There are many marine scientists which have pioneered the aquarium industry and the good work which they do. People like David Powell and Dr. Stephen Spotte have done some great work and I urge you all to seek out some of their books.

Also, a good personal friend of mine, Dr. João Correia has done lots of good work for both public aquariums and the fisheries community in the EU. He is the owner of a company called Flying Sharks which preach a sustainable approach to supplying livestock to aquariums around the world, and very importantly, regularly gives funding and help to budding marine scientists in all fields! He also has a good trilogy of books called ‘Sex, Sharks and Rock & Roll’.

And finally, what advice would you give to people who want to get into this career?

Although easier said than done, I think it is important for people to find an area of interest or a niche early on in their career.

In the current climate, being a qualified diver or having a degree is considered the norm and are basic requirements, opposed to being an advantage. It is also often advised that undertaking volunteer work and other unpaid (or even at a cost) marine programs will be beneficial, and of course they certainly are to a degree, but again they are becoming the standard.

In order to really get a good chance within the industry, discovering your true interest or passion early on is hugely important. You can then focus your academia on your area of interest and make those key contacts and collaborations early on.

Into the Industry explores the lives and vocations of professionals, academics and those working in the marine biology world

If you’ve enjoyed this interview with Lewis, follow him here @lewis_cocks and check out Issham Aquatics

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