AlgaGen's Live Feeds Program

Written by Erik Stenn

AlgaGen’s Life Feeds Program (LFP):

The use of live feeds in reef keeping is not a new concept.  Aquarists have been collecting, culturing live feed organisms for years as a means to keep their reef happy and healthy.  The issue is that live feeds are NOT readily accessible to all.  Live feeds take some level of work and space to culture or collect which can discourage many from using them.  In an attempt to make live cultures readily available AlgaGen has developed a Live Feeds Program (LFP).  The concept is to provide participating stores with clean, hi-quality cultures each week.  This way the store does not have to spend its time culturing but maintaining and selling the cultures.  The aquarist community on the other hand now has wide access to fresh, quality cultures to experiment with in their feeding and breeding efforts.  This can be a game changer for the way things are done. Having access to fresh cultures can provide the hobby with the tools to move feeding and breeding into new territory.

What do you mean by Live Feeds? What are Plankton?  Why are they important?

There are many types of Live Feeds; worms, shrimp, barnacle nauplii (babies), crab zoea, mysids, larval fish, amphipods, plankton, to name a few.  In aquaculture Live Feeds tend to refer to planktonic organisms such as phytoplankton, rotifers, copepods, brine; items that can be mass cultured to feed production organisms.  These planktonic, production organisms are what we referring to as Live Feeds.

By definition plankton are aquatic organisms that wander “aimlessly” in the waters.  They do not have the mechanisms to fight currents and so drift with them.  Plankton include both plants and animals, and are an essential part of the marine ecosystem.  Planktonic organisms are involved with the cycling of nutrients and are a cornerstone of the aquatic food chain.  In the oceans the phytoplankton (single celled plants) are responsible for the uptake of nitrates, phosphates, iron,  trace elements (heavy metals), carbon dioxide and together with sunlight create essential fatty acids (EFAs), which are very important for the aquatic food chain.  The zooplankton (animals) that inhabit the planktos are either there for a finite period of time such as a phase of larval development (e.g. crab larvae) or as a full-fledged member, such as copepods.


As mentioned previously phytoplankton utilize nitrates and phosphates, heavy metals, carbon dioxide and form essential fatty acids, again, critical to the marine food chain.  Without these fatty acids numerous marine organisms would not survive.  A number of organisms eat phytoplankton, copepods specifically, consume phytoplankton, store and convert the EFAs to other important fatty acids.  The copepods in turn are consumed by everything from corals to amphipods to fish and then some.  This is roughly how the EFAs produced by algae get into the food chain.  Then of course it is a free-for-all of one thing eating or being eaten by another.

Getting the proper nutrition to our animals is important.  It has been proven that when these essential fatty acids (EFAs) are presented in specific ratios, larval development and animal health are substantially increased.  In nature there is a diversity of prey and many of the prey items have these EFA ratios occurring naturally.  In captive environments we try to mimic the nutrition found in nature.  Aquaculture operations raise their own live feeds   They have rooms for microalgae production, rooms for rotifer production, rooms for brine production and in some cases rooms for copepod production.  In aquaculture however, the most common live feed is the rotifer.  In the past copepod starter cultures were not readily available and had been considered difficult to work with, so an “easier-to-culture” replacement organism was identified/utilized called a rotifer.  A rotifer is a convenient way to deliver nutrition to small organisms such as fish larvae and corals; larval and young animals with small mouths.  This organism swims through the water eating virtually anything that is in its path as long as it is the correct particle size.  It can also be raised in substantial numbers (up to 3000/mL).  Typically rotifers are fed an enrichment diet, harvested and fed directly to the target larvae.  This is standard aquaculture procedure.  It also holds great promise as a planktonic feed for the captive reef.

People talk about collecting wild plankton in years past, which led to having successes in maintaining captive reefs.  Since then the science of feed development has advanced substantially and over the years has provided many quality dry, frozen, and shelf stable feeds for reef organisms. If our goal as aquarists is to mimic the natural reef ecosystem then the presence, or lack of plankton, needs to be addressed.  If we use artificial seawater, where is our plankton coming from?  By introducing properly produced and assembled plankton, we create the basis for the natural ecosystem and inoculate our system with a sort of probiotic that can hopefully displace “bad” plankton. The use of plankton in maintaining a reef tank is a relatively new area that needs to be pioneered further. 



 Daily feedings of live, fresh phytoplankton have created positive changes in reef tank health and appearance.  For many aquarists, fresh phytoplankton has been attributed to the reduction of persistent nitrate and phosphate levels even with macroalgae stocked refugiums. So, phytoplankton uptake nitrates, phosphates, heavy metals, CO2,  in order to grow.  They get eaten by rotifers, copepods, and other filterfeeders.  The rotifers and copepods will then get eaten by fish and corals, which take the problem of hi-nutrients and transfers that into positive tissue growth of corals and fish.  

Rotifers are a great daily or weekly feed to the reef.  If used in conjunction with fresh phytoplankton, they will grow and be enriched as a food source, perfect for corals and smaller mouthed organisms.  The availability of healthy rotifer cultures are also an asset to breeders whose rotifer cultures tend to crash the night before they                                                                                                                are needed.  

Copepods are one of the natural foods for a reef.  Copepods exist in nature as benthic dwellers where they eat detritus, phytoplankton, left over fish food, etc. They also exist as free-swimming organisms, feeding primarily on phytoplankton.  There are other families that have combined lifestyles and some other families of copepods that can be parasitic to fish.  The parasitic copepods are NOT sold in our hobby.  The AlgaGen LFP provides a mixed culture of copepods, benthic as well as pelagic, that serve a critical eco-function in a reef tank as well as a broad source of food for numerous reef inhabitants.  The copepods should be used in conjunction with the phytoplankton because this serves as a food source.

 How do we use Live Feeds?

The use of Live Feeds as with anything can be equated to exercising; “do not try running a marathon on day one, but build up to it.”  In this case start off slowly adding small quantities of live feeds so that the tank can adjust to this new input.  If using the live feeds consistently one should be able to add larger volumes on a daily or every-other day basis.  Of course the amount recommended depends on the size of the tank and how heavily it is stocked. The real advantage to using live feeds is that they are used shortly after purchase, hyper-fresh.  The real advantage of using Live Feeds is the freshness, it was not designed to be a “stored-in-the-refrigerator” product.  To get the full benefit it should be consumed as soon after harvest as possible.  The use of Live Feeds is not THE way to maintain a captive reef, there are many ways.  It is another tool, another approach that can lead to great successes.  When asked how much to use, we recommend starting off slowly.  Honestly, plankton quantity varies in the natural environment from sparse to abundant.  So it is up to the aquarist to experiment and determine what works best for the ecosystem they are creating.

Thomas Brown and AlgaGen President Erik Stenn at the AlgaGen Orlando Campus/Facility

Thomas Brown and AlgaGen President Erik Stenn at the AlgaGen Orlando Campus/Facility

Check out the TVR Road Trip where I visit several locations including the AlgaGen facility.