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The MASNA Award and Aquarist of the Year Award

Starting in 2017, MASNA recognizes two individuals for their work in the marine aquarium hobby that positively contributes to the ongoing sustainability of the hobby and future marine environments through the MASNA Award and the Aquarist of the Year Award.

Together with MASNA, previous winners of the MASNA Award and Aquarist of the Year award evaluate a pool of MASNA membership nominated individuals to decide who has given the most to the hobby and industry over their lifetime and past year, respectively.

Nominees for the MASNA Aquarist of the Year Award are individuals who demonstrate exceptional dedication to the intricacies of the hobby, commitment to sharing their expertise, supporting fellow hobbyists, and advocating for the highest standards in all aspects of marine aquarium care and management.

Nominees for the MASNA Award have demonstrated an unwavering dedication and significant impact on the marine aquarium industry and community. Through a lifetime of professional service, this honoree has tirelessly championed excellence in reef keeping, helping to set the standard for best practices in our industry.

The 2022 MASNA Aquarist of the Year

MASNA is also excited to announce Alyssa Gabriel of Maryland, USA, as the 2022 MASNA Aquarist of the Year in recognition of her success in seahorse aquaculture. Alyssa has successfully reared over 10 varieties of seahorses since 2014 after noticing a lack in quality stock availability.

Alyssa is the founder and owner of Seahorse Savvy LLC, a Maryland based seahorse farm and hatchery established in 2014. Alyssa and her team are working on the propagation of captive bred seahorses and other Syngnathid species. Her interest sparked in high school where she began her first aquarium, she then went on to complete her B.S majoring in Biology at Sailsbury University.

Initially, Alyssa worked in coral propagation for the aquarium market at Pacific East Aquaculture before she went on to being a laboratory technician at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s Water Chemistry Laboratory.  Through knowledge accumulated via both her hobby and professional setting, Alyssa found the gap in seahorse and pipefish aquaculture – the availability of quality stock. Despite being one of the first marine fish to be bred in captivity, many are sold prematurely (small sized), wild collected or net-raised – factors not favorable to the average keeper.

Since 2014 the company has grown fourfold, having maxed out the current space and prompting the construction of a new state of the art facility. Her current facility will be utilized for production and broodstock, whilst the new facility will be used for both the juvenile and fry grow-out. With both facilities totalling 7000 gallons of production space, Alyssa is able to produce a fivefold yield, with this capacity she aims to propagate another 10 varieties of seahorses and pipefish and continue being one of the largest producers of captive bred seahorses in the US.

Alyssa has refined the aquaculture of seahorses by developing new aquaculture techniques. Many of the rearing methods used are applicable for other fish species as well. These include developing in-house protocol for Artemia enrichment, innovative fry rearing systems which maximize survival rates, designs for optimizing biosecurity and system design to optimize breeding success.

Alyssa aims to continue expanding her propagated varieties, while producing high quality animals. She places a high importance on sharing her knowledge, stemming not only from her passion as a hobbyist, but her success with Seahorse Savvy LLC for generations to come.

The 2021 MASNA Aquarist of the Year

MASNA is proud to announce Kathy Leahy as the 2021 MASNA Aquarist of the Year in recognition of her friendship, her mentoring, the sharing of her knowledge, and for inspiring countless marine aquarists in the art of breeding marine fish.

Kathy Leahy has been a marine aquarist for nearly two decades, first entering the hobby along with her 11-year-old son. The pair devoted themselves to the practice of researching, reading heavily before ever adding a drop of water to that first aquarium.

What followed has been years of expansion and progression into the marine aquarium hobby, with an emphasis on the pursuit of breeding marine fish as a home hobbyist. For 10 years, Leahy honed her craft producing several clownfish species which were sold in the Midwest through her business, Kathy’s Clowns. Eventually, her desires to experiment and grow as a breeder led her to more challenging marine ornamental species, including a groundbreaking home-breeding achievement in 2016 where she successfully reared the Coral Beauty Angelfish (Centropyge bispinosa) from eggs provided by fellow aquarists Tom Priscu. Prior to that point, the species had not been reared in captivity, and no hobbyists had reared a Centropyge sp. angelfish at home, much less in a landlocked Midwestern U.S. state. Leahy’s accomplishments were published on Reefs.org, Reef Hobbyist Magazine, and the French-language ZebrasO’mag. Leahy continues to pursue the experimental home breeding of other dwarf angelfish species at this time.

Kathy with 2017 MASNA Award recipient Dr. Andrew Rhyne

Leahy’s impact on the hobby spans far beyond simply being a talented hobbyist marine fish breeder. She has actively participated in numerous forums, including Saltwater Fish: Fish Breeding, Reef Central: Fish Breeding, Marine Depot: Fish Breeding, MOFIB and the Marine Breeding Initiative (MBI). She has also volunteered as a moderator at Marine Depot and MOFIB, and presently as a moderator at MBI. It is truly her community involvement, and the way in which she treats those she interacts with, that stand out. Says Leahy; “I endeavor to be encouraging, engaging, and helpful. I’ve met many wonderful friends and colleagues through these forums and in person at MACNA.  Occasionally, there have been some personality issues that popped up on these forums, and my contributions have come to be valued, not just with regards to fish breeding, but for the maturity and levelheadedness I have brought to these issues.”

Kathy at the MACNA 2018 Marine Breeding Meet-Up

A professional scientist, Leahy embodies the spirit of freely sharing knowledge. Talented professional marine fish breeder Erin Pereira noted that Leahy has an incredible ability to communicate science. In an era of “soundbite” communication, fellow scientist and aquaculturist Bill Capman noted that when Leahy answers a question, what follows will be the knowledge and insights needed to create transformative results for the inquirer.

Humble beyond description, Leahy noted that this recognition was not something she pursued or ever had as a goal. To paraphrase, all she did was pursue her passions and interests with deep interest, and shared what she learned with others. For those who know her closest, Leahy’s generosities of time, of mentorship, of friendship, and of support for her fellow aquarists are qualities to be admired and emulated; some feel she sets the standard to which we should aspire when we collaborate as one aquarium community.


The 2020 Aquarist of the Year

MASNA is proud to announce Tal Sweet as the 2020 MASNA Aquarist of the Year for his years promoting marine ornamental aquaculture and fostering diversity and inclusion within the aquarium community.

Tal first became involved in the marine aquarium hobby in the late 1980’s. Back then hobbyists in the metro-Detroit area were just beginning to experiment with keeping corals alive, with little success. In those days, undergravel filters and incandescent lighting were still common. Tal had two aquariums set up. One housed an octopus for over a year and another with a wrasse that he brought back from Hawaii in a carry-on cooler.

After an extended break he got back into the hobby in 2006 and became a director for the Marinelife Aquarium Society of Michigan (MASM). In 2008 he was bitten by the Captive Breeding bug after hearing Dr. Frank Marini speak at a MASM event. It was interest in Captive Breeding that led him to push for the founding of the Marine Breeding Initiative (MBI). Since then, the MBI has become one of the largest databases for captive breeding information in the world.

Tal also created the MBI Workshop which was the first event of its kind; bringing together hobbyist breeders, commercial breeders, and professional aquarists from around North America and the UK in an intimate setting to discuss the latest developments in Captive Breeding. 2019 was the tenth year of this annual event. 2020 would have been the eleventh but as with most other things this year it has been postponed until 2021.

Tal has spoken about captive breeding at clubs around the US, Canada, UK, and Australia. He has also written for various publications including CORAL Magazine and Reef Hobbyist Magazine. The annual list of captive bred fishes, and now inverts, published by CORAL Magazine is another project that Tal works on each year with Matthew Pedersen. This list endeavors to keep an up-to-date list of all species that have been bred in captivity and their availability to the trade.

As a member of the LGBT+ community, Tal created Rainbow Reefers for MACNA 2018 to bring members of the community and their allies together to share their stories and love of the marine aquarium hobby. The group meeting was well attended and appreciated by those who were there. Tal feels it is important for every member of the hobby to feel welcomed and free to be themselves without fear if discrimination.

In 2019 the MBI Council awarded him with its “X Prize” for “Dedication to advancing the ideals of science, research, knowledge, friendly competition, fellowship, and transparency among those who culture marine organisms by helping to create the MBI”. Tal was also awarded the MBI Award by the MBI Council.

At home, Tal’s 90 gallon reef tank houses fish and corals, some of which he’s had since 2006. Besides aquatic things, Tal loves to travel, scuba dive, cook, host dinner parties, and is a huge sci-fi geek. Oh, and cheese! Tal has loved Halloween since he was a kid and creates new life-size props for the neighborhood to enjoy every year. He is also the proud parent of three felines, Oliver, Felicity, and Sasha.


The 2019 Aquarist of the Year

MASNA is proud to announce Tom Bowling as the 2019 Aquarist of the Year for his recent achievements & progress in marine ornamental spawning and aquaculture development.

Tatiana, Tom, and Maya Bowling at Biota.

Tom Bowling is a marine biologist and founder of Biota Marine Life Nursery in Palau. With an understanding of localized fish population behaviors, Tom perfected the use of wild gamete collection techniques to produce and raise many new species, not only marine ornamentals, but also food fish and threatened species for re-introduction to the wild. This includes the ever-popular Clown Triggerfish, Blueline Sea Bream found in public aquaria and the Bumphead Parrotfish.

Tom conducted the first Bumphead Parrotfosh release back in 2014. This species is protected in Palau which is the reason Tom can still access gametes from the wild.

Captive-raised Mandarin Dragonets, various gobies, Aiptasia-eating Filefish, deep-water Borbonius and Yellow Tangs are among the 20 currently marketed ornamental fish species. Over a dozen asexually propagated soft corals and half a dozen species of clams are being produced under Tom’s leadership. Tom has also worked to educate both the public and interested parties in both Palau and greater Micronesia on the current state of aquaculture, including an understanding of sustainable practices that can be incorporated into their local reefs. Working with research facilities and other partners, Tom is helping further the knowledge and success of ornamental marine aquaculture.

Tom states: “It is rare for me to speak with new aquarists as I live in Palau. This is one of the main reasons for attending MACNA, in order to meet with the hobbyists and pet store owners and hear their side of the story first hand. I often gage my next species of interest from these conversations such as the Filefish which once we started high production the demand was easily there for them. I think that the passion behind the hobby is what keeps me engaged with the end users who really appreciate the time and effort we put in to growing our reef critters.”

The Past Recipients

The 2018 Aquarist of the Year

MASNA is proud to announce Dr. Jamie Craggs as the 2018 Aquarist of the Year.

Jamie Craggs is currently the aquarium curator at the Horniman Museum & Gardens, London, UK. In addition, he is a science associate at the Natural History Museum, London and in 2016 was elected a fellow of the Linnean Society of London, the world’s oldest active biological society.

His main research interest is the reproductive biology of reef-building corals and in 2012 he founded PROJECT CORAL, a multi-year research project focused on developing techniques to predictably induce broadcast coral spawning events in closed system aquariums. The initial goal was to understand what triggers corals to spawn in the wild and emulate that in captivity. Now moving on, techniques are being used to support climate change research and reef restoration efforts. To date, gamete (egg and sperm) development has been induced in 18 Acropora species, with planned spawns leading to in-vitro fertilization capacity and the production of genetically diverse coral in captivity.

Last year a partnership between the Horniman and the Center for Conservation (CFC) at Florida Aquarium commenced to develop land-based coral spawning to support reef restoration of the critically endangered species Acropora cervicornis. Jamie is very proud to see the techniques he has developed in London being applied to species conservation work and feels the planned developments at CFC will be game changing in how we approach coral reef restoration in the future. Linked to this partnership over the past year he has been working on the concept of co-culturing, rearing sea urchin juveniles alongside newly settled coral spat and investigating micro herbivory to increase coral survival to support upscaling efforts for restoration. Spawning corals in aquariums have enormous potential for the aquarium industry.

Sharing this knowledge with the wider community remains central to Jamie’s ethos. He regularly speaks at conferences and shares his findings of captive coral spawning through magazine articles and on social media. His recent scientific publications on system design and methods to induce Acropora to spawn in aquariums and techniques of transporting gravid colonies to start captive breeding programs have been published in open source journals, ensuring free access to all. Alongside his other roles, Jamie is reading for a Ph.D. at the University of Derby focusing on the topic of Project Coral.

The 2017 Aquarist of the Year

MASNA is proud to announce Karen Brittain as the 2017 Aquarist of the Year.

Karen Brittain is a marine ornamental fish breeder and having been born and raised in Hawaii, the ocean and its inhabitants have always been a part of her life. Her childhood was spent at the beach exploring tide pools, snorkeling and catching critters to keep in her marine aquarium. Her saltwater interests continued to grow through high school and she graduated from the University of Hawaii in 1983 with a degree in Marine Studies. Soon after, she found her passion in the captive breeding of reef fish.

Over the last thirty years she has been employed at the Waikiki Aquarium and the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology working towards the captive breeding and rearing of marine fish and invertebrates, both for food and as ornamental species. During these years she spent her free time pursuing the captive breeding of her favorite reef fishes and in 1997 she started Reef Friendly Fishes, a small scale marine ornamental fish hatchery operating out of her garage. Initially she focused on clownfish and ornamental shrimp, which provided the income needed to expand to other species.

In 2014 Karen found herself unemployed as funding ended for her full time job. Thankfully she still had her small garage hatchery and a lot more time to spend unraveling the mysteries of larval fish rearing. As a result she is currently self employed and working 24/7 at her ultimate dream job of rearing marine ornamentals.

Karen continues to encourage marine aquarium hobbyists to pursue the captive breeding of our aquarium pets. She is focusing on more challenging species and over the last few years has successfully raised Genicanthus watanabei, Genicanthus personatus, Paracentropyge venusta, Centropyge acanthops, Apolemichthys arcuatus, Odontanthias fuscipinnis and Liopropoma carmabi. She continues to share her experiences and knowledge in the hopes that the breeding of aquarium inhabitants will continue to progress, resulting in a constant flow of captive bred species to our hobby/industry.

How to Nominate

MASNA members can post their nominations below for the 2021 MASNA Award & MASNA Aquarist of the Year.  Nominations will be compiled and the winner will be selected by a panel of previous MASNA Award & Aquarist of the Year recipients. MASNA members may nominate up to three individuals for both awards.

Please complete the entire form for each submission. Incomplete forms will not be accepted.