Coral propagation: Preparing for the big day

Once your reef aquarium has been running for a while, a question that pops up very often is, how do I cut/trim my corals that are to getting too big? This is often out of necessity due to a coral growing too big for the space available and they need to remove a part of the coral, but sometimes the reefer wants to sell some of the cuttings/frags to help pay the aquarium’s maintenance.

Well, the answer to this is not “one size fits all”. We need to look at the different types of corals and then discuss them in small groups. For the purposes of these articles I am going to start with the easiest that a beginner should be able to do and work up to those that need a more advanced approach or that need special tools. But before we get to the exciting part, actually cutting/fragging the corals, we need to discuss your preparations first.

The devil is in the preparations; a well- planned and prepared for fragging/cutting session normally ends with a roaring success. Before you can even think of cutting/fragging any coral you need to get the tools and environment ready. Remember, this is your prized coral we are talking about and we need to ensure that we do it correctly. By following these steps I will help you to prevent most of the possible problems that you might experience. Should you not take some of the recommended steps, you are exposing your coral to unnecessary stress that could lead to losses. There are 4 main things to consider when preparing to frag/cut a coral successfully. Number one is the current and future environment of the corals and frags/cuttings, the second is the condition of the coral before cutting/fragging, the third is the tools you are going to need, and lastly the actual technique use to frag/ cut your priced possession.

In this article we are going to concentrate on the preparations and then next month we go into the actual fragging/cutting of your prized coral.

Before you even consider cutting/fragging your prized coral you need to ensure that the aquarium is stable and ALL parameters must be well within acceptable levels. If your aquarium is not stable or one or more of the important parameters are not within acceptable levels you should postpone the fragging/cutting until you have sorted it out. The reason for this is that after fragging/cutting, the coral is definitely going to experience stress and if the environment is not optimum for recuperation you might end up losing the mother coral, frags/cutting and/or even worse, the other corals in the same system!

The MINIMUM parameters I suggest you check and ensure that they are correct, are:









The one parameter that hobbyists tend to forget is Iodine. Iodine is very important to the corals, not only as additive for their growth but Iodine also acts as a disinfectant that help the corals fight off infection afterwards. If you need to adjust any of these parameters it is in the interest of the coral that you postpone your operation for at least a month. This would give the coral sufficient time to use the good environment to be in top condition and ready for the fragging/cutting process.

The mother coral must also be in great condition for at least the last few months. If there is any doubt, do not frag/cut. This is an article on fragging/cutting for propagation and not emergency surgery used to save a coral (that is another article all together). So please do not start the process unless you are 100% sure your coral is vibrant and healthy.

Then, after cutting/fragging it is my experience that the newly cut/fragged mother coral must go back to exactly the same location in the display aquarium after being cut. This limits the stress on the mother coral and helps them to recuperate much faster. After cutting/fragging the cuttings/frags should be placed in the same water as the mother coral, meaning that you need to either remove water out of the original aquarium and add the frags/ cuttings to this water in another aquarium, OR you need to place the frags/cuttings back into the original aquarium. So water quality must be the same but the same lighting and flow are not recommended. Rather give the frags/cuttings a little less intense lighting for the first few days at least and normally 50% less flow for the first few days are recommended. So if you add the cuttings/frags back into your display aquarium, they must be placed lower than the mother coral and in an area with reduced flow.

Out of this you can deduct that you need to plan ahead and not only for the additional space for the coral frags but also regarding sufficient aquarium water. If you are going to move the frags/cuttings to a separate aquarium (this is the best option, if at all possible) you are going to need the water for the new aquarium to come from your main aquarium. So do a big water change the day before the fragging day and use this to fill your separate frag aquarium. Then you only need to replace the display aquarium water that you are going to add to the trays/buckets for the dip and rinse of the corals and frags/cuttings. Remember to premix all this salt water at least 48 hours in advance to age before you do the first water change. Longer is even better, just remember to add a flow pump to this bin so the new salt water can mix thoroughly.

Now that our main aquarium’s water and corals have been ticked off our list as good and healthy and we ensured we have sufficient premixed AGED salt water ready, we can start to move on to the more exciting stage of getting our tools ready for the actual fragging/cutting of our prized corals.

This is my preparation list for the tools and other products I normally use when fragging/cutting a coral:

1. Sturdy table — a table that move around will only hamper you when you start to cut. Remember this table is going to get wet.

2. Reef dip — this is essential as you need to dip all the corals and frags before you add them back to the water. This greatly reduces the possibility of the corals getting infection on the exposed areas.

3. Latex gloves — Corals do not appreciate being touched and out of defense they will react (normally with mucus) and if you touch them with your bare skin, they sense your skin and they will react with even more mucus. Furthermore, you might give them infection by touching them by transferring particles from the skin of your bare hands. This can all be prevented by using latex gloves. You can use other gloves as long as they are thin enough for you to feel through them: you do not want to drop a coral because you could not feel it!

4. Wet towel — this is for the surface you are going to work on.

5. 2 x Dry towels — the first is for you to wipe your hands on and the second is for your face. It is not recommended to use the same towel for your face as the one you use for your hands. Coral excretion during cutting/fragging can contain toxins, especially polyps. Anthony Calfo has a horrifying story he tells about polyp slime getting into his mouth and temporarily losing his sense of taste.

6. Safety goggles — believe me you will need them, especially when you use the Dremel

7. 2 x deep flat trays/buckets — They must be deep enough for the mother coral to be totally submerged. You fill both with enough water out of your display aquarium to submerge the biggest coral you are going to frag/ cut. Then you add coral dip to only one, the other one are going to be used to rinse the corals afterwards.

8. Dremel or similar power rotary cutting tool — This is an invaluable tool to use on hard corals to cut through the stone and calcium skeleton.

9. Tweezers — I like the ones that are 20cm +

10. Scissors — They must be sharp, pointed and have at least 12cm long blades.

11. Scalpel with extra blades — I use the normal straight blade, as the blade type is not as important as its sharpness.

12. Side cutter

13. Pliers

14. Small brush — I use an old tooth brush, this is to clean any surface as needed

15. Hammer & chisels

16. Coral glue or putty

17. Superglue & superglue remover — the glue is for the corals and the remover is for you, as you know mistakes can happen

18. Needle and thread — no, this is not to use on yourself as stitches, this is especially handy when soft corals are attached to a media

19. Tooth picks — essential for soft coral frag/cutting attachment

20. Elastic bands — also ideal for soft corals frag/cutting attachment

21. Coral plugs

22. Paper towels — this is to dry surfaces in preparation for glue, putty or superglue, as they just work better on a dry surface.

23. Live rock pieces — or other media you are going to use to stick the frags/cuttings onto

24. Electric wet tile cutter — This is only needed for the more advanced hard corals

25. Medical kit — Yes, accidents do happen and you need to be prepared

26. Gallon of drinking water for yourself. No alcohol as you need a steady hand and open mind!

Now the preparations are done and we are ready to start with the actual fragging/ cutting of the corals.

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