About a year ago, I was looking for some cichlids that were proving to be difficult to find. I began thinking to myself “Who might have these fish?” I remembered hearing about a guy in Texas who often has some of the more difficult to find species, so I went to his site – Dave’s Rare Aquarium Fish. The owner, Dave Schumacher, didn’t have what I was looking for, but I thought “Why not ask him to do an interview?” I did, and he agreed.
As a kid, Dave was always into reptiles and amphibians. He got his first job in high school at a fish store in Houston that focused on cichlids but the store owner was wanting to carry reptiles. The owner didn’t know how to care for them and didn’t want to handle them. It was at that store that he became fascinated with cichlids.
After high school, he moved to San Marcos for college at Texas State University, and while there, got a job at Armke’s Rare Aquarium Fish. He worked there for a couple years, then bought the business in 2006. Not long after, he moved everything a short drive south to San Antonio. Currently, his shop houses more than 200 cichlid species.
Dave’s been an active member of the Hill Country Cichlid Club, alongside Greg Steeves (who I interviewed back in 2017), where he’s been on the board and even served as secretary of the American Cichlid Association. He travels a few times each year speaking to clubs about Mbuna, Lamprologines, building his shop, and basic cichlid genetics/nomenclature.
Let’s get this started!
The Cichlid Stage: I mentioned in the introduction that your livestock inventory consists of over 200 species of cichlids. This is very impressive considering you deal almost exclusively with Africans. Please tell the readers about your business.
I bring most of my stock in from other breeders. Over the years I’ve been doing this, I’ve built up a large network of contacts, and am always working on growing that. My fish come from large scale breeders with acres and acres of greenhouses and ponds, to guys with 20 tanks in the basement, and everything in between. They’ve all got something I need! The fish I breed in house are mostly species I have a personal interest in, or fish that I could sell well, but don’t have another source for. Many of the fry I raise are simply from adult fish that spawned before they sold – not necessarily fish that I’m actively trying to breed.
I have roughly 600-700 aquariums. The shop is in a constant state of disarray as I’m always changing things as I go. I’ve said that one day I’ll shoot video when I’m finished, but I don’t think I’ll ever be finished. There’s always something I want to tear down and redo. One of the biggest upgrades I’ve made over the years is installing an automatic water change system. It was a challenge to design and build but a real time saver!
What are some of your biggest headaches as an online fish retailer?
Probably the same as any other retail business, fish or otherwise. Most of the people I deal with are great, but I get the occasional scammers, and they’re generally not good at it. For example, when sending a photo of a DOA fish, I get a lot where the fish is soaking wet in someone’s hand, and the eye of the fish is clearly looking at something. When you lay a fish on its side, the eye turns. A dead fish will have fixed eyes.
Although I have great luck shipping with FedEx, there are mistakes occasionally, and the tracking system when things do go wrong is not great. Calling the 800 number generally gets you as much info as tracking it on the computer. FedEx also raises their rates by 4% every January 1st, which makes it tough to stay competitive at times. Southwest Airlines is the best option for larger orders, and in the 13 years I’ve been doing this on my own, they’ve raised their rates by $5. Unfortunately, they don’t always fly to a convenient city for everyone.
Without giving away any business secrets, how do you determine which species to stock? Is it simply supply and demand?
If there is a secret, I’m not sure I’ve figured it out yet! It’s tough to predict which species will be popular, and whether or not that popularity will last. I’ve bought huge groups of fish before thinking that they’d be immensely popular, since they were so radically different from everything else. Fast forward a bit, and I’m swimming in fry that aren’t selling. On the flip side, there are species like Cynotilapia sp. “Hara” that became extremely in demand when they were first introduced, and although very attractive, I missed the boat on the early years with them thinking that at the end of the day, it’s just another blue and black barred mbuna like 50% of the others in the hobby.
One trick I try to employ is to look for fish on lists that I just can’t possibly imagine anyone would want. Any other sellers getting that same list are likely thinking the same thing, and pass on them. I’ll buy a small group, and now I’m the only person selling them. Inevitably, someone is excited to see them on my list, and snatches them up right away.
You indicate on your website that you do special orders. For customers who want something that isn’t on your regular stock list, can you talk about what all is involved in tracking down what they’re looking for?
This is very hit or miss. I’d love to say that I can get anything, but I can’t. Some fish are simply not around right now. A good example is Iranocichla hormuzensis. I had a group about 10 years ago, given to me by a friend who was moving. He got them from a friend in Europe and was one of only a couple people in the US that had them. They required a high salinity, and high temps, which made them difficult to keep. To the best of my knowledge, no one in the US or Europe has them anymore. If we want more, we’d have to go collect them in Iran, and that’s probably not the best place for an American to visit right now.
With respect to your wild caught stock, how do you manage or reconcile your customer needs/requests with IUCN Red Listed species?
There is a moral dilemma here with some species for sure. It’s perfectly legal to import most fish on the IUCN red list, so I like to get more info on each species. For example, Eretmodus cyanostictus is considered a threatened species, despite being extremely common throughout their range. Collecting them for the hobby isn’t a concern – they’re threatened due to habitat loss with the decreasing lake level.
On the other hand, Chindongo saulosi is listed as critically endangered. The reef they’re from is very small and in a pristine area. They’re not collected for food, and there are no natural threats to them. They’re disappearing simply because we want them in our aquariums. Although perfectly legal to import, I will not buy wild saulosi. They’re readily available, both pond and tank raised, throughout the US, since they’re extremely easy to breed anyway. There is a strange stigma in our hobby that wild caught is better. To me, the only reason to buy wild fish is that they’re not already available through bred sources. Inbreeding with fish doesn’t cause the issues that it does with mammals and birds, because most of the genetic variation gets passed on to the offspring. Most of these species will have hundreds, if not thousands of offspring, whereas birds and mammals only have a few.
What are some of the most difficult genera of African cichlids for you to acquire and why?
Most African cichlids are relatively simple to breed in captivity, so the biggest hurdle is getting them into captivity. Many of the remote parts of Africa aren’t safe to travel, and/or don’t have decent roads. We know of some really interesting species out there, but it may be a hike through the jungle for several days to get to them, and then you have to manage to catch them and hike back with them safely in tow!
Another issue is the shifting popularity trends. Many fish farms had phased out a lot of the large, predatory Malawi haps like Exochochromis anagenys and Lichnochromis acuticeps because they just weren’t selling. Now that they’re popular again, they’re being bred again, but are slow growers. As a result, it’s easy enough to get juveniles, but next to impossible to get a 12” male.
For hobbyists who have never ordered fish online before, what are some things they should know?
First and foremost, shipping isn’t cheap! If it is, there’s a reason. It may be that the “free” shipping is just that you paid $15 each for $8 fish, or it may be that they’re being shipped through a slower, riskier shipping method. FedEx Priority Overnight is not cheap, but it gets the fish to your door overnight, and to most areas by 10:30am. I feel safe using this method even when shipping to southern Arizona in the middle of summer, because the fish arrive early before the sun is baking them in the trucks.
Ask questions on anything you’re uncertain of. There is a lot of mixed information online, but whoever you’re buying from will at the very least know what was working for the fish they’re about to ship to you. Look up reviews for sellers before purchasing and look at the reasons behind low reviews.
If you’re willing to share, what are some “best practices” for someone wanting to ship fish?
As I mentioned before, don’t cheap out on the shipping method! Spend the extra cash to make sure they arrive alive and well. These are live animals, and they deserve the best we can give them.
Always fast the fish for a day or two before shipping to keep waste in the bags to a minimum. Use more air in the bags than water.
What are a few of your favorite cichlid species and why?
If I had to pick a favorite species of fish, it would be ‘Lamprologus’ callipterus. They’re not by any means a super colorful fish, but I think they’re the most interesting fish I’ve ever kept. Females are full grown around 2 inches, but dominant males will get to around 6-7 inches, and could literally eat the females whole if they wanted to! Females are shell dwellers, and the dominant males will collect shells in a pile to collect more females. I once had a tank where the two males would swim past each other carrying a shell that was stolen from the other’s pile all day long. Younger males will school together and will raid other species’ nests to feed on their fry like a pack of wolves. To further add to their interest, there are also males that will strategically remain small to hide in the shells with the females. When the dominant male is spawning with the female, he’s in the dark that there was already another male in the shell with her that already fertilized the eggs.
The first cichlid that really drew me into the hobby was Altolamprologus calvus. I saw a pair of adults at a pet shop I worked at in high school and had to have some.
Like everyone else, I go through phases. I’m really into mbuna the past 6-7 years, and it definitely shows on my stocklist. It’s far and away the longest category of my inventory!