Women in Reefing at MACNA 2018

“It’s just time!”

Paula Carlson, Director of Husbandry at the Dallas World Aquarium used those three little words to describe the increasing number of women in the marine aquarium hobby and industry.  As a 32 year veteran, Paula has watched the progression of women in the industry, and is quick to explain that there have been women at every level for a very long time.  The aim of the Women in Reefing get together at MACNA 2018 was to recognize women and share our stories of success.  The get together was much more successful than we even expected, and women from every level of the industry and hobby came together to share their experiences and encourage those new to saltwater.

Women in Reefing Macna 2018

Successful women in the industry might be nothing new, but providing a space for like-minded individuals to meet in a “get together” fashion was a first at this year’s MACNA convention.  I asked Kevin Erickson, president and CEO of MASNA the reason behind the get togethers and why more women were on the speaker line up this year.  He shared that they wanted groups of people with similar interests to have a place to meet and share ideas, and continue to approach a wide variety of speakers when developig the MACNA speaker line-up to ensure there is a representation from all sides of the industry.

 While women might represent the minority in the marine aquarium industry, we influence the next generation of hobbyists and even marine biologist by sharing our stories. To promote this idea further, the “Women in Reefing” has become a facebook group and will expand even further soon, celebrating our successes and accomplishments.

You can watch the get together below, or read on for the summary of each speaker!


MetroKat (#reeflikekat on instagram) started us off speaking about how she has turned her love of reef keeping into a career. Her first tank was featured on and convinced her to switch from her training as a fashion designer to begin a marketing company within the aquarium industry.  She works as a consultant for many companies who value her as a woman, and appreciate the different perspective and outlook that she brings to the table.  Kat’s amazing skills as a writer and marketer have encouraged many new hobbyists, as seen in our next speaker.

MetroKat’s tank featured on


Hobbyist Maria spoke about her conversion from freshwater to salt, and how reading MetroKat’s R734 gallon tank thread on a the forum convinced her to take the plunge.  After spending a few years moving from freshwater betta fish to a planted tank, she walked into her local fish shop and fell in love with the colorful clownfish. Wanting to do things correctly, Maria started researching how to keep a saltwater tank.  Finding Kat’s thread gave her the confidence and motivation to start reefing.  6 years later, she’s very good friends with Kat, and will do anything possible to help the next aspiring reef keeper find their way into the hobby.

Paula Carlson

I started this article with a quote from Paula and you will see another quote at the end.  Paula is a great role model, and I was so grateful to meet her at MACNA.  Paula’s career began at SeaWorld in 1986, followed by 4 years in aquarium retail and expanding to include a lifetime of troubleshooting everything from a 20g tank to a 400,000g shark tank.  She has had the privilege of working with “career fish” like sea dragons and Japanese angelfish for the past 23 years at the Dallas World Aquarium.  She spoke about the differences between the way men and women keep a reef, and how both have a place in the industry.

Her Saturday morning speech focused on the importance of public aquariums in aquatic science, and at the Women in Reefing event, she pointed out that hobbyists too play a role.  In addition to her words of wisdom, she shared a few of her favorite cliches, stating that some things are just correct, and do not change over time:

  • Patience is a virtue
  • Cleanliness is next to Godliness
  • An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure
  • Don’t believe everything you read!

Charles Delbeek

Yes, that’s right….we had men in attendance!  Charles honored Paula by stating that she was a “shining example of a woman who has gone very far in an industry dominated by men”.  And Paula shared the simple secrets that Charles shared with her many years ago to rid a tank of hair algae:

  • Increase salinity
  • Increase temperature
  • Increase alkalinity
  • Increase grazers

These steps have kept the Dallas Aquarium hair algae free for many years and are a perfect example of how people working together can overcome obstacles!  It was a privilege to have Charles visit the get together.

Charles Delbeek conducting an informal survey

Charles has been invited to speak at reef clubs since 1988 and noticed something very interesting.  He conducted an informal survey and posed the question to the group:  “why are there more women in this hobby on the west coast as opposed to the east?”  I am determined to find the answer, and would love to hear your thoughts in the comments!  


Kathy’s start with aquariums began with her 11 year old son wanting a saltwater tank.  They built a 55g tank, but her son lost interest.  Fortunately Kathy was enthralled.  She majored in Chemistry, but was told she’d never be employed, because she’d have to be better than all the men.  She found a position immediately in a biology lab, and never looked back. 

Joyce Wilkerson’s book on breeding clownfish inspired her to try her hand at breeding, and changed everything for Kathy!  First she mastered culturing phytoplankton, then rotifers, then eggs.  She never felt out of place with other breeders because she mainly dealt with her breeding people online, so they could not tell if she was male or female.  One day, a fellow breeder asked if she wanted to try raising angelfish eggs.  After a couple tries, she was able to raise 3 angelfish before anyone else!

She also gave a few tips about using parvocalanus cassterostris copepod nauplii to feed the angels, and mentioned Reef Nutrition as a great company to buy clean, cultured live foods from. Kathy is now a leader on the MBI (Marine Breeding Initiative) website and will go out of her way to help anyone who needs breeding information.


Tamara Marshall, director of live food cultures at Dallas Aquarium, became interested in marine life in 2002 when her friend was working on breeding project.  The moment she learned about culturing rotifers and phytoplankton, she knew it was what she wanted to do with her life. 

She started with soda bottles and air stones in her house, with the ambition of culturing the entire food chain.  Building on this, she began getting into larval work, and now shares her knowledge of live feeds.  She is already on the lineup for MACNA 2019 speakers, and will cover the importance of live feeds, including how to provide the right nutrition to larval fish and the necessity for extremely clean cultures. 

Currently, she cultures 4 different types of algae and 1 diatom for the Dallas World Aquarium “career fish”, and is moving into rotifers and copepods for the very soon.


Lynn has been in the hobby for over 40 years.  ReefDiva on forums, she has owned multiple saltwater companies.  Aquatic Realm is her current store, and she absolutely loves it.  Lynn is a great example of a woman who has continued restarting and following her passion in spite of many obstacles. 

1994 was the year Lynn set up her first display and was devastated by the earthquake that destroyed it.  But, she refused to give up and restablished her systems in 1995.  She raised both a purple and a yellow tang to reach 18 years old in captivity.


Melissa was keeping freshwater tanks until a snorkeling trip 10 years ago enticed her to start her own 30g reef tank.  A few years later, when she decided that 30g was not enough, she searched for ways to expand and found all of the reefing facebook groups.  More importantly, she met Jessica Stam.  Jessica introduced her to frag swaps, shows, and …Rod. 

Melissa attends all events as a rep for Rod’s Food

Rod invited Melissa, Jessica and Ann to join his booth at MACNA 2015 in DC, and Melissa fell in love with all of it.  The shows, the people, the coral and the entire industry.  Rod and his wife have become family to Melissa, and support her in all of her endeavors.   Rod’s Foods is one of the few companies that offer women sized shirts, and sponsored the WIR get together by giving a shirt to anyone who showed the WIR band at his booth.  THANK YOU ROD!


Christina is both hobbyist and marine biologist.  She has done a lot of volunteer work also.

Christina was a huge help in planning the Women in Reefing get together, yet unbelievably, she was asked outside the meeting whether she was dragged to MACNA by her boyfriend.  This is a perfect example of why the successes and accomplishments of women must be featured. 

Christina has been in the hobby 11 years, and is also a scientist.  Her first aquarium in high school convinced her to go into marine biology, and her love of nano tanks led her to  She spent some time at this year’s MACNA conference explaining MASNA research, and gave an algae presentation.  She points out how great the get together was, as a way to see how women are impacting different areas of the industry.


Hillary from New Life Spectrum told us how her love of marine animals led her to pursue a degree in marine science.  When she fell in love with tiny freshwater pufferfish, she became a hobbyist also.  She began working as a Fisheries Biologist at Lake Mead in Vegas, and now works with New Life Spectrum.  She owns a cowfish and is very close to switching to a reef.  this is one classy lady, and a great representation of how high on the ladder women can climb in this industry.

Seahorse Whisperer

Yes, that’s me!

The name that started as a joke, I now embrace with passion.  I love being the “Seahorse Whisperer”, and don’t mind sharing the name with others.  Educating about captive breeding efforts and sharing ways that new keepers can avoid many of the struggles in keeping seahorses brings me a lot of joy.  My biggest ambition is to convince the world that seahorses are NOT difficult to keep, as long as you start with the right seahorses and the right set up.  My articles, videos and almost-finished website focus on this goal, in addition to promoting sustainable practices.  If you need seahorse information, I am a message away!


Nicole, the general manager of Reef Builders, has been a reefkeeper for 3 years, but a scuba diver for 15.  She talked about the understanding reef keepers have of coral that divers lack.  “Hobbyists develop a relationship with coral in their homes that divers don’t understand”.  Her current projects include bringing scuba divers into the coral farms to show them that aquariums are not bad and teaching divers how coral farming an help a coastal community

Aquarium of the Pacific

Kylie and colleagues from the Aquarium of the Pacific shared how much they love coming to MACNA, because it allows them to reach more people outside the aquarium industry.  She also shared that their team is primarily made up of women.  If you’re looking for a way to support the industry, look these ladies up! 

The Women of Reefing wrap up

 With the next group of like-minded individuals waiting for the space for their get together, Paula still found time to make one more extremely important point.


“We all have a story.  It’s critically important that our stories about what we do and how our aquariums affect our classrooms, our children, and our day to day lives are told.  Especially as women and mothers, it’s critical in this anti-aquarium climate that we tell our success stories and share the importance of the next generation of scientists that came from keeping an aquarium in their home. We are the biggest advocates for the ocean environment.”
Paula Carlson, Dallas World Aquarium

Thank you to all sponsors of the event