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Whether dealing with small home tanks or multimillion-litre public aquariums, The Aquarium Vet team is dedicated to the health and welfare of aquatic animals. By Kerryn Ramsey
Zebra fish are an important research tool at most universities as a model for studying human disease and genetics, and The Aquarium Vet consults to the zebra fish industry. One of their biggest clients, Monash University, is doing important work with the Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute.
“They use zebra fish for studies in spinal cord regeneration and stem cell production,” says Dr Rob Jones, founder of The Aquarium Vet. “They’ve also found opioid receptors in zebra fish which has allowed for studies in pain relief.”
The Aquarium Vet, a business based in the Melbourne suburb of Moorabbin, consults to public aquariums in Australia, New Zealand and Asia. Dr Jones also assists fish importers, pet shop owners, hobbyists, breeders, collectors, and the home aquarium market.
“If someone is interested in any aspect of aquarium fish or coral, they tend to track us down,” he says.
Among his many roles, Dr Jones is the consultant vet to Aquarium Industries, the largest importer of ornamental fish into Australia. While some people fear that these type of fish will bring in disease or the fish will get into our waterways, Dr Jones states that both fears are unwarranted.
“All imported ornamental fish go through a one-to-three-week quarantine period under strict controls,” he says. “The risk of introducing an imported disease is minimal. While some aquarium fish have been released into waterways, they are not a huge threat. The real problem is with deliberately introduced species such as carp, rainbow trout and brown trout. The carp have bred and damaged the ecosystem of the Murray-Darling basin and trout are carnivorous fish that have caused a huge amount of damage.”
To further protect our waterways, the Australian Aquatic Veterinary Emergency Plan (AQUAVETPLAN) is a set of manuals that details an appropriate response to a national aquatic animal disease emergency. Dr Jones and Dr Paul Hardy-Smith, who is managing director of the aquaculture consulting company Panaquatic Health Solutions, wrote a disease preparedness manual for furunculosis. This manual was adopted by the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment.
“I couldn’t be happier if all the AQUAVETPLAN manuals, including ours, sit on a shelf and collect dust,” says Dr Jones. “They are disease preparedness manuals that hopefully never get used.”
Filling a niche
The Aquarium Vet fills a unique niche in the Australian veterinary market. After graduating in 1977, Dr Jones worked in a variety of practices but his interest was always in non-traditional animals.
“I was working in a practice in Dandenong and my philosophy was that I would treat everything except for venomous snakes,” he recalls. “The term ‘exotics vet’ didn’t exist back then but I was dealing with rabbits, guinea pigs, birds, ferrets and fish.”
Looking for a career change in 1999, Dr Jones commenced a master’s degree in aquaculture through Deakin University. In June that year, he read a small article about Melbourne Aquarium being built on the banks of the Yarra River.
“I tracked down the curator and asked if he could use a vet one day a week,” says Dr Jones. “The curator was amenable and after 12 months of wrangling sharks, I knew I wanted to do this work full-time. I kept on at the aquarium, other clients appeared and in 2008, I started The Aquarium Vet.”
Today, the business has three full-time and two part-time vets based in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney. In Brisbane, Dr Luke Ross has worked for The Aquarium Vet since 2018. He first met Dr Jones when they both worked at Melbourne Aquarium in the early 2000s.
“Being an aquarium vet is challenging and exciting work,” says Dr Ross. “With over 32,000 species of fish, there’s much about these animals that we don’t know. We‘re often working with rare or endangered species that very few people ever see in the wild. I love educating through training and inspiration to improve the welfare of aquatic animals in human care, whether it be in a public aquarium or a small home fish tank.”
Large, public aquariums have copped a bit of flak recently with some sectors of the community calling for a complete shutdown. Often this is related to the displaying of dolphins, belugas and killer whales in aquariums, an area in which The Aquarium Vet is not involved.
“Generally, we don’t do much work with marine mammals,” says Dr Jones. “We’ve done some consulting work at Sea World, and continue to do so, but they have their own vet who looks after the marine mammals. It’s a complex issue as most people don’t have a problem with seals kept in captivity but whales and dolphins are another matter altogether.”
Australia has six big aquariums located in Melbourne, Sydney, Mooloolaba, Cairns, Perth and Canberra. There are another two in New Zealand and eight in Asia. All are involved in conservation efforts to varying degrees.
“Many aquariums and zoos have ex-situ and in-situ conservation programs,” says Dr Jones. “They’ll be breeding in the aquarium or zoo for release back into the wild. Currently SEA LIFE Sydney Aquarium is breeding White’s seahorse and placing seahorse hotels on the seabeds. They’ve released hundreds of tagged offspring so they can be monitored. These released seahorses have now started breeding in the wild. SEA LIFE Melbourne Aquarium is also attempting to breed spotted handfish, a struggling species found in Tasmania’s estuaries.”
The Zoo and Aquarium Association in Australia includes welfare as part of its accreditation programs. All large-scale businesses that keep animals must be welfare oriented.
“Large public aquariums are the key to educating the public on conservation issues,” says Dr Ross. “Animals within these aquariums are ambassadors for their species and the message is vitally important to the long-term survival of those species in the wild. Public aquariums deliver clear messages by engaging with their guests regarding conservation issues and environmental protection. There are few other forums where this can take place.”
During the pandemic lockdowns, people began connecting with hobbies and pastimes. Dr Jones has seen the home aquarium market go through a boom period over the past few years. At the same time, he has drawn back from face-to-face consultations, instead using email, Zoom and online audits. He’s also spent a lot of time putting together online education courses for aquarists.
“We have various modules on subjects ranging from fish to water quality to corals,” says Dr Jones. “We have an aquatic animal welfare module that’s free because welfare is at the heart of what we do. Our vision is at the bottom of all our emails—‘To advance the health and welfare of aquatic animals in aquariums and zoos globally’. That’s our guiding principle.”
Dr Jones, the first person to successfully artificially inseminate a shark, is continuing to develop the technique started by him and Dr Jon Daly in 2004. It’s now being adopted around the world for egg-bearing sharks and rays. Dr Jones expects the technique to become standard practice within 10 years, in the same way artificial insemination is used with cows, sheep and horses.
“We haven’t cracked it with live bearing sharks and rays but I think we’ll get there within a couple of years,” he says. “We’ve been consulting to some big groups in the US that have funding and really want to see it succeed.”
With Dr Jones supplying 20 years’ experience behind the scenes, The Aquarium Vet is destined to go from strength to strength. “I’m very lucky,” he says “I thought I would be a dog and cat vet but my career turned out very different. And I love what I do.”