When most people think of farming, their thoughts turn to rows of neatly planted produce or herds of beefy cattle, but likely not to what Tim Birthisel, proprietor of Terra Sub Aqua, is up to. At least twice a year, this Asheville resident can be found 55 feet under — underwater, that is. And, he’s not alone.
Creating a sustainable ecosystem
Birthisel’s coral farm sits about 5 miles off the coast near Key Largo, Fla., and serves as a model alternative commercial wildlife refuge that increases biodiversity in a threatened biome while it delivers a product. What started as a hobby and a way to pay for his passion to scuba dive, has turned into a sustainable asset.
With a B.S. in zoology from Ohio State, Birthisel worked in the agribusiness industry for nearly 40 years and focused primarily on research and development. So, when he decided he had enough of “Big Ag,” he had the chops to strike out on his own.
“I’ve always loved the sea,” he says. “And, I’m constantly thinking of ways to give back to it.”
When he learned that coral farming was actually “a thing,” the wheels were set in motion. He was a part-time Asheville resident at the time, traveling between his native state of Ohio, Asheville and the Florida Keys. While in Florida Keys, he leased an acre of ocean floor from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for about $31 per year and started the process of creating a coral reef, which involves building one with new rocks, in the sand flats outside the fringing reef that runs parallel to the Keys.
“I was the first guy to go into federal waters after wild rock harvesting was banned,” he says. “The timing was coincidental. I had researched the site location years before the banning and was advised by Dr. Jay Hemdal, distinguished zoo curator, researcher and author, on what sort of site parameters I should seek out. He suggested deeper waters found offshore beyond the reef line. This is federal territory, called the EEZ [economic easement zone].
“Wild rock harvesting was determined to be damaging to the environment, because each rock is home to hundreds of species of small, colorful marine animals and plants, including young corals. What I’m doing is actually giving back instead of taking away.”
So, what does coral farming involve? The process starts with getting shipments of porous rock from quarries in central Florida, drilling holes in them, dropping them down to the farm via a bucket system and then stacking these stones on rebar that Birthisel and volunteers drill into the sandy ocean floor. Then, nature takes it course.
Asheville resident John Godts has volunteered twice on Birthisel’s underwater farm and plans to keep going back for as long he can.
“The ocean gives us so much that to be able to give back is such an amazing feeling,” Godts says. “Birthisel’s efforts are really paying off. You can see visible effects of how the farm is naturally cleaning the immediate area around it. It’s so rewarding to see more and more sea life each time I return.”
The fruits of Birthisel’s efforts and those of his volunteers, are not only beneficial to the environment, but Birthisel also supplies a local pet shop — Aquarium and Imports, Inc. — with about 1,000 pounds of coral per year harvested from his underwater farm, which the store sells to customers for their saltwater aquariums.
“The coral my competition produces is cheaper, but mine is sustainable,” Birthisel says. “That’s the big difference.”
Chris Aldrich, co-founder of Saltwater Smarts, an online resource for marine aquarium hobbyists, has known Birthisel since 2009 and lauds his efforts.
“By volunteering with Terra Sub Aqua, I’m able to help build an artificial reef structure that brings much life to an area that previously had very little. This coral farm boasts positive impact through habitat creation,” Aldrich says. “Birthisel’s efforts bring a product to the saltwater aquarium industry that does not require the destruction and removal of natural reef structure.”
And, Birthisel is not really cashing in financially. The business just pretty much sustains itself as it has grown. The real pay off for him and, ultimately, the environment, he says, is seeing how the ecosystem has evolved to the point of attracting large predators, which, he adds, can really make the diving interesting at times.
Birthisel is also working on other aqua-related products related to farming Caribbean corals and is manufacturing a coral food nutrient that he says makes maintaining a saltwater aquarium a cinch. He hopes to sell this solution on Amazon.com in the future. Terra Sub Aqua is currently a wholesale business only, but Birthisel is open to consulting with local folks on how to set up a low-cost, biologically based saltwater aquarium.
Experienced scuba divers who want to give back to the marine environment and learn about how Terra Sub Aqua’s coral-farming process works are welcome to contact Birthisel about volunteering at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-343-9842. For more information, visit www.terrasubaqua.com.
Freelance writer Liisa Andreassen, who scuba dives, has volunteered at Terra Sub Aqua. She plans to return to volunteer again sometime next year. She says it’s one of the cooler and more rewarding things she’s ever done.