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What Is a Mini-Reef Aquarium?

Concepts of Miniature Reefs, Past, Present, and Tomorrow


Alivia's 12g Reef Tank

Alivia's 12g Reef Tank

What exactly is a "mini-reef" aquarium? Interestingly enough, the term mini-reef or miniature reef does not pertain to the size of the aquarium you use, but expresses the term of duplicating a small part of the ocean, in all its splendor, inside an aquarium, no matter how small or large it may be.

For many avid saltwater aquarists, a true reef aquarium should be set up and maintained in the most natural way possible to mimic how nature does it. Depending on how much of a purist you want to be about reef keeping, after reading this article on the history and concepts of mini-reef aquariums, you will see that the methods for setting one up are as vast and varied as their owners.

How It All Started

After returning to the USA from the Netherlands in the 1980's, George Smit wrote a series of articles in 1986 for FAMA (Freshwater and Marine Aquarium Magazine), and the term "mini-reef" was generated from the phrase "micro-reef" that he used to described what was called the Dutch Mini-Reef Aquarium he saw there. This is a system full of Caulerpa macroalgae and invertebrates that he referred to as a "miniature" reef. His suggested method for set up was to use 0³ (ozone), a protein skimmer, and a degassing tower filter. Smit's introduction of using a degassing tower filter bloomed into what we have come to know as a wet/dry trickle filter today.

A New Trend Begins

In December 1990, Julian Sprung and J. Charles Delbeek's "New Trends in Reef Keeping: Is it Time for Another Change?" article first appeared in FAMA Magazine. The authors state that, "Approximately four years ago George Smit began a series of articles in which he asked if it was time for a change in our philosophy of keeping marine aquariums (Smit, 1986). What followed is, of course, part of marine aquarium keeping history as the concept of miniature reef aquariums caught on quickly and spawned a healthy and vigorous industry."

The intent of this article by Sprung and Delbeek was to, "Bring to North America, some of the ideas and philosophies that are being practiced by advanced hobbyists and professionals in Europe today." They were simply asking if is was time for a "change" in the way marine aquariums were kept after Smit sparked the miniature reef keeping craze years earlier, because many reef systems in Europe were no longer running on trickle filters, or any type of external biological filtration, as was previously known. Instead the trend had primarily moved towards the use of protein skimmers, live rock, halogen quartz iodide lighting, and regularly using a saturated calcium hydroxide solution, or kalkwasser.

The Mini-Reef System Revisited

In the November 1992 issue of Aquarium Fish Magazine, J. Charles Delbeek followed up on mini-reef systems with "Dutch Mini-Reefs". In this article he states that, "After a recent trip to the Netherlands, it became quite clear to me that there is no such thing as a European reef aquarium. The simple fact is that there are as many different approaches to reef keeping as there are countries in Europe, or provinces in the Netherlands." He continues on to say that, "When George Smit's articles describing the Dutch Mini-Reef Aquarium began appearing in January 1986, the pages included pictures showing aquariums full of the macroalgae Caulerpa. The importance of Caulerpa was explained, and the various species were described." However, after viewing eight private aquariums, three retail outlets and one public aquarium, he explains that he did not see a single blade of Caulerpa in any of these aquariums. When he asked about this apparent discrepancy, he was told that, "The use of Caulerpa was merely a stage they had gone through several years ago, and very few aquariums now included it."

All of this makes you really stop and think that just because someone says it's how everyone else is doing it, doesn't necessarily make it true, and Delbeek supports this view in his article by outlining the various types of reef systems he saw while visiting the Netherlands.

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