Pam Chin interview

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Pam Chin behind the wheel exploring Lake Tanganyika. Photo courtesy of Pam Chin.

Anyone, at least in the United States, who’s been a cichlidophile for any length of time, should recognize the interviewee for this post. Pam Chin is an Honorary Life Member of the Pacific Coast Cichlid Association (PCCA) and past editor of the PCCA’s award winning publication; Cichlidae Communique. She has published many articles in Buntbarsche Bulletin, Cichlid News, and aquarium societies from Australia to Sweden. She has received numerous writing awards from the American Cichlid Association (ACA) and the Federation of American Aquarium Societies (FAAS), including “Best Continuing Column” and “Author of the Year.” A long time member of the ACA, she has served many roles including on the Board of Trustees and was named an ACA Fellow in 2011, which is ACA’s highest honor.

She is a founding member of “Babes in the Cichlid Hobby,” which as the name suggests, is an all female group whose members raise money for cichlid research and conservation. In addition, she occasionally gives talks at cichlid clubs around the country, where she shares her knowledge from years of breeding and raising cichlids. Pam is recognized in the hobby as an expert on African cichlids and, along with husband Gary, she currently maintains over 150 tanks of Old and New World cichlids in their customized fish house. In addition, she has traveled around the world to observe and collect cichlids in their natural habitat.

​Let’s get started!

The Cichlid Stage: You were a founding member of “Babes in the Cichlid Hobby.” Perhaps you could describe this fantastic group to the readers.

The Babes In The Cichlid Hobby…   What a story!! In a nutshell, it started in the mid 90’s at the American Cichlid Association’s annual convention. As women fish keepers in a male dominated hobby, we were desperate to experience all things cichlid, the only way we could get the fish boys’ attention was to appear as though we were plotting and planning something. In the early years, we just made them nervous with our antics, surveys, midnight speakers, etc. Then we started to pass the hat at the hospitality room and we were amazed at the results. Who would have thought that 22 years later we would still be extorting money from mostly male fish keepers to use for our passion: Cichlid Research and Cichlid Conservation?

Once we realized we could raise money and donate it to the ACA’s Guy D. Jordan Endowment Fund for cichlid research, we were beside ourselves and so proud. We would spend the whole year trying to come up with something to bring in more money than the year before. Caroline Estes and I witnessed a silent auction at the New Jersey Aquarium Society, and they made like a $1000.00 in less then and hour. Our heads were spinning and we decided to give it a try. Today the Babes In The Cichlid Hobby Silent Auction is a tradition at the ACA convention. It is like a fish rummage sale, where 99% of the items are fish related.  We have everything from jewelry, used t-shirts, art, fish decorations, fish food, fish equipment, etc. The selection of fish books is outstanding, from old old books to the latest off the press.  We typically have 400 – 500 items for sale on Friday and Saturday at the convention.

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Silent auction table at a recent ACA Convention. Photo courtesy of Pam Chin.
Our second fundraiser at the convention is the Oral Auction.  What else could we call it?  It is a live auction! An all girl auction to boot!  We auction off the fish that are donated to the ACA from the Florida Fish Farmers and hobbyists.  It is held later in the evening, as one never knows where the Oral Auction may go, but one thing for sure, everyone has a good time, and all the money goes for a good cause.

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Oral auction bidding at a recent ACA Convention with Rachel Lusby and Caroline Estes (l to r) of Babes in the Cichlid Hobby. Photo courtesy of Pam Chin.

I can’t go on with out mentioning our second favorite fund….  About 15 years ago the ACA started the Paul V. Loiselle Conservation Fund, and we are so proud that we have been able to be one of the largest contributors. This fund is now able to award money for conservation projects.We have donated money to many other cichlid causes over the years. Another one of our favorites is the Stuart M. Grant Conservation Fund.  Even though it has been around less then 10 years, it has already had great success. Of note are the Anti-Netting devices set around the Maleri Islands in the Malawi National Park, and our proudest moment was to be part of re-introducing Pseudotropheus saulosi back on Taiwanee Reef, where the species has been over-collected by ornamental collectors.

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Pam, Claudia Dickinson, and Larry Johnson heading to Taiwanee Reef to release Ps. saulosi. Photo courtesy of Pam Chin.

To date we have raised over $130,000.00!!!!!! It is amazing. Cichlid people are so generous, not only do they clean out their closets with all their donations, they also open their wallets and buy all this stuff!  We couldn’t do it without everyone’s support. What is exciting to us is this is not corporate money, this money is from hobbyists, and it proves that they also love cichlid research and cichlid conservation!  How special is that?? Our mantra…

We are women cichlid keepers who want to make a difference in the hobby.  Cichlid habitats are plagued by pollution, over fishing, deforestation, hydro-electrical power projects, mineral exploitation, global warming, floods, and troubled governments. With 22 years of fund raising, we have provided financial aid for cichlid research and cichlid conservation all over the world.  We strive to widen awareness and encourage responsible cichlid keeping.

TCS: This year’s American Cichlid Association (ACA) convention is in Cincinnati, Ohio. Wearing your best PR hat, tell the readers how awesome the annual convention is and why they should attend.

I know it is going to be a good one!!! When ACA is in the Mid-West, it is not to be missed. This area is a Cichlid Hot Bed, and anytime these cichlidiots can drive to an ACA, you will see more cichlids available.  They will be selling them in their rooms, in the hallways, and out in the parking lot.  They have been cranking out fry all winter just for this occasion.

As usual there will be a stellar line up of speakers, talking about a variety of cichlids, and providing the latest and greatest information about them. The speakers are totally accessible, as they are just as crazy as the rest of us about cichlids.  Don’t forget to bring your cichlid books and get them signed.   What I relish most is just hanging out with fish enthusiasts and talking cichlids 24/7 for 4 straight days. It is the place to widen your cichlid circle.  You have the opportunity to meet breeders from all over the country and hear what they are working with and why. It is at the ACA convention where I was first invited to go on a trip and look at cichlids in the wild, without this exposure to cichlid explorers, cichlid breeders and cichlid keepers, I would have never had the opportunity.

This year will be my 29th consecutive convention!  I live for it!  I go early every year, stay late every year, and soak up all the fish camaraderie that I can.  I have made lifetime friends, and often the convention weekend may be the only time I get to see them.  So yes, don’t miss it, it is going to be a good one!

TCS: Unlike most cichlid hobbyists, you’ve actually traveled to both Lake Malawi and Lake Tanganyika in Africa. Tell the readers a bit about those travels and how they could also visit.

I am so lucky to be able to go and see cichlids in their natural habitat! I cherish every moment of it.  It almost never happened, because I had no desire to go to 3rd world countries to see fish.  I was saving my money to go to Europe and shop.  Then my two BFFs Caroline Estes and Pam Marsh came up with a plan for the “Babes In The Cichlid Hobby” to crash a Rusty Wessel collection trip in Mexico.  I was very hesitant. Part of me wanted to go for sure, but the other half was like worried to death about safety, food, driving, flying, water, accommodations, language, camping, hiking, etc.  I am a bit of a control freak at times.  Try as I might, as it got closer I could not come up with a legit excuse to get out of it.   How bad could it be?  If we get into trouble at least we will all be together.

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Caroline Estes, Pam Marsh, Pam Chin (l to r) on their trip to the Pánuco drainage system in Mexico, 2001. Photo courtesy of Pam Chin.

The fun started the minute Caroline, Pam and I were together in Texas, driving south for the border.  What an amazing trip! I can’t believe I almost didn’t go. We met up with the fish boys and we had a caravan of like 4 vehicles traveling throughout the Pánuco drainage system seeing all the sites that are now famous, like the Rio Salto, Tomasopo and Media Luna, to name a few.

Each night we helped the guys with the fish they had collected – changing water, sorting species, bagging up ones that were ready, etc. It was a finely tuned production line. Afterward, we would have dinner and talk fish like there is no tomorrow, only to start all over again the next day. It was an unbelievable adventure that I will never forget.

About six months later, Ad Konings asked us if we wanted to go to Lake Tanganyika. I immediately screamed “yes,” while Caroline had to seriously think about it. It only took a few days before we were all committed to travel to Africa to see cichlids in their natural habitat.  The trip would be a year away, so plenty of time to worry about what could happen.

After 38 hours on the plane, it was a mere 16 hours on the back of flat bed truck from Lusaka, Zambia to Mpulungu. When we arrived at the lake, it was pitch dark and I couldn’t even see the lake. The guides threw our luggage in one boat and all of us in another boat, and we took off 100 mph out towards the middle of the lake, with no lights and no life preserver. About and hour and half later we pulled into the collection station where we would stay for the next 14 days. We were exhausted, but when we woke up the next morning and looked out at Lake Tanganyika, it was all worth it! I can’t begin to explain how big and how beautiful this lake is.

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View from the Veranda of the party’s accommodations on Lake Tanganyika. Photo courtesy of Pam Chin.
​I have never been a good swimmer, and I am not fond of water, but I do love fish!  In the year before we went, I took swimming lessons and tried to take diving lessons. Once at the lake it showed. I was a poor swimmer and had trouble getting in and out of the boat. But once I got my face in the water and I saw the fish, I even amazed myself. When you see a fish in the wild that you have kept in your tank, it is so rewarding. I love to just float over them trying to be still, and they all come out from the rocks and continue on what they were doing before I scared them.

Our accommodations were wonderful. Though Ad told us we would be dining mostly on tuna and rice, they had hired a chef, and the food was great. Our rooms all had in-suite bathrooms and a veranda with a view of the lake. There was no power.  They would run a generator in the morning for a few hours and that was it. The grounds were well maintained, and when we had any spare time we were over exploring the fish in the vats at the collection station. No one was looking forward to the long drive back to Lusaka. Ad stayed at the lake as another group was coming in.  We had our driver, but we were basically on our own. About half way thru the trip, we burned out the clutch on the truck. Our plans were to fly out of Lusaka that night, so we had to keep moving, even if it involved hitchhiking! We are a smart group, and well traveled, but even still we were a bit shaken when we realized we were going to have to split up to make this happen. Long story short, we made it, and that ordeal just added more stories to the tales about our trip. Even today we all agree this was one of the best trips ever, and I have so many great memories hanging with my very best fish friends on my first trip to Lake Tanganyika.

Many would be satisfied with that one wild adventure, but not me. Before I was even back home, I knew I would go back to Africa again. I wanted to go to Lake Malawi next. After a couple years, I had saved up the money, but my loser friends were not as prepared! I was still determined to go.  I was not quite ready to fly by myself to Africa, so I had to find someone to go with me.  I begged Doogie (Steve Lundblad) because I knew he wanted to go back to Malawi and he could swing it financially.  Two months later, we were off to Malawi!

This adventure was totally different. For starters it is only a 2 hour drive on paved roads to Red Zebra – Stuart Grant’s compound on the Lake.  The next day we were driven (6-8 hrs) to Chilumba on the north end of the Lake where we would meet up with Ad.  On this trip, we were living on the boat and camping each night. We stayed in small tents, which was great. You zip it up and nothing else can get in!  We lived on tuna and rice, and we tried to do 2 or 3 sites each day. There were so many highlights!! There was Chitande Island, Katale Island, Usisya, and so many fish to see, as we worked our way south. My swimming was still poor, but each day I was getting better.  By the time we got to Lions Cove, I felt like I could jump off the top of the boat.  The steep mountains around this bay mirror the steep landscape below the water, and it was just amazing.

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Lions Cove, Lake Malawi. Photo courtesy of Pam Chin.
Ten days later they picked us up in Nkahta Bay and drove us back to Stuart’s where they sent us off with the traditional Malawi Kapango (catfish) BBQ and live Malawi music.  It was bitter sweet. The Lake was lit up by the stars. It was so beautiful and it was the last night with our new found friends. Malawi was fantastic, the water was warm and clear, the fish were plentiful, and the company was good!  It was just too short of a time, and on the way to the airport I was trying to figure how long it would take me to save up for a longer trip to Africa next time.

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Pam snorkeling at Ruware, Malawi. Photo courtesy of Pam Chin.

There is a pattern forming….   I was ready to go back to Tanganyika, but no trips were available, and so I went to Malawi a couple more times. And when I look back on that it was good thing. I needed to practice my swimming and I got an underwater camera so I could learn to take some pictures. During that time, Claudia Dickinson started coming on the trips to Malawi, and we have become such good friend. She is a great travel partner.

Then finally Ad said “We are going to Tanganyika. Are you in?”  I screamed “Yes!!!!!”

Never in my wildest dreams did I think I could ever top the story about traveling for 16 hours on a flat bed truck just to see fish. I call them ADventures now, because whenever you travel with Ad Konings, it is an ADventure.  We started at the Maleri Islands in the Malawi National Park, and then headed north to Chitimba Bay in a boat, it took about two weeks. At the north end of Lake Malawi, we met up with Juan Miguel Artigas Azas, one of our closest friends and big time cichlid enthusiast.

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Juan Miguel Artigas Azas and Ad Konings (l to r). Photo courtesy of Pam Chin.
He had picked up a rented mini-van, and we were on our way to Lake Tanganyika. Ad told us we would leave at 3:00 AM and we should be there before dark. We had 8 people, plus a driver, and started from the North tip of Lake Malawi to Kipili Tanzania. It took us 35+ hours straight. It took us 5 or 6 hours to cross the border in to Tanzania, and then we hit the dirt roads where it was dark and we had no clearance in this mini-van. Whenever we stopped, Claudia and I had to unfold all the passengers and encourage them, “Walk, walk, walk.”

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The Cichlid guys in the van on the way to Lake Tanganyika. Troy Turner and Ad Konings (l to r, front row), John Dawson and Ed Plesko (l to r, middle row), Manual “mello” Salazar and Juan Miguel Artigas Azas (l to r, back row). Photo courtesy of Pam Chin.

There was no way I was going to sleep, I wanted to make sure I kept the driver awake, for starters, and I didn’t want to miss the wreck if there was one. The roads were so bad we couldn’t go very fast. Finally, when we made it to the top of the rift and start driving down to the Lake, I kept telling everyone “Wait until you see this lake!”  I kept thinking we were going to go around a corner and it would be there. But no, it was a couple more hours, we were nearly at lake level before we saw it, but no one was disappointed. One look at that lake, and we were all grinning from ear to ear. Now after multiple trips to both lakes, I could tell you a 1000 stories! You would be rolling on the floor. I have had so much fun trekking across Africa and exploring these amazing lakes with my fish friends.  People often ask me what is my favorite; Tanganyika or Malawi – It is such a tough question, they are so different from each other.  Please don’t make me pick!!

Tanganyika – There are very scary things in the water, it is more remote, less people, and no one speaks English.  It is a logistic nightmare to get there.  There is no easy way. All destinations will require driving for at least one day. There is no road that goes completely around the lake. To get anywhere, you need a boat.  Even in a boat you can go hours without seeing a village on the shoreline. But, these are all minor details when it comes to observing the fish in the lake itself. It is so amazing, you feel like you are the only person in the world watching these true treasures!

TCS: What are the scary things in the water?

It is bad enough knowing that these waters harbor crocodiles, water cobras and Hippos, and I try not to think about it., but when the guys you are with can’t quit talking about the possibilities of running into them, it moves it right back to the forefront. I always buy that Travel Insurance that says they will medivac you out, even though I have never seen a plane near Lake Tanganyika! I just file it deep in my mind.

Malawi – There is nothing scary in the water!  It is easy to get there, around 2 hours from the Airport to the Lake.  You get to experience the local life by staying in roadhouses and passing by villages on the lake, etc.  The people are very friendly and most do speak English.  There are so many great places to go. I could easily spend two weeks just in the Malawi National Park. When I first started going, we camped, but the last few trips we have been staying in roadhouses, which is nice, better food, and they usually have bars!  My last swim in Malawi was the best ever.  It was early morning, north of Chiofu near the border between Malawi and Mozambique.  The sun was shining thru the water down on the rocks, and all the fish were out. What a great day that was and I can’t wait to go back. I am planning to go again in June.

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Lake Malawi cichlids in the rocks north of Chiofu. Photo courtesy of Pam Chin.

Regarding travel to Africa, consider the following….  It takes at least 3 days to get there and 2 days to get home, that is 5+ days of travel only, just to get there and back. Once you are there, you should stay as long as you possibly can. It is easy to add a side trip to see an Animal Safari while you are there. Claudia and I have been able to squeeze in a few, everything from the budget safari to a five star safari, and both were equally fun. It is important that you go with someone who has gone before, who can schedule the essentials like lodging and a boat. They can help get you through the airports and across the borders. When you get to the lake, you want someone knowledgeable to tell you what the exceptional cichlids are at a particular site, so you know what to look for, where the fish are going to be, how deep, etc. Most trips take about a year to plan.

I love all cichlids and I love to travel to see them.  Instead of going to Africa a couple of years ago, I got invited to go to the Rio Negro in Brazil. I had not even considered going to South America until my friend Juan Miguel Artigas Azas asked me. What a wonderful trip this was with Juan, Ad, and me on a boat exploring the Rio Negro for over three weeks. When you are with your best friends, it doesn’t matter where you go. You are bound to have a good time.  It was incredible! Not only did we get to explore for cichlids, we also got to go fishing! This river is so different from being on a lake, especially Malawi and Tanganyika that are so clear.  It was a bit mucky in these waterways, but they were teeming with so many fish, many of which we had all kept in aquariums at one time or another. I never thought I would see angelfish in the wild, but I did!

On every trip that I have taken, I have been with Ad or Juan Miguel, and many trips with both of them.  I have been so fortunate to have good friends who just happen to be cichlid experts. But, these two together are worth the price of admission. They are hilarious, and I have the pictures to prove it!

I have to end this question, and leave you with this advice…  If you ever have the opportunity to go exploring for cichlids, do it!!! Scream “yes!!!”

TCS: How did you get started keeping cichlids?

I didn’t know anything about fish keeping before I met my finmate, Gary! He had all these huge fish aquariums all over his house.  I was mesmerized; he had all these big tank buster type fish – knife fish, arowana, pacu, oscar, anything that got big!  I fell in love with Gary and his fish, now they are both mine!

It can be dangerous when both spouses are into the hobby. There is no control factor. When Gary says, “I think I can fit a rack over here.” I say “awesome,” and offer to drive him to Home Depot to keep this idea rolling. I would be nowhere without him. He is amazing with fish, and they flourish under his care.  He has been my biggest influence and teacher of all things fish.  He is living his dream, with his own fish house!

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Gary Chin in the Chin fish house. Photo courtesy of Pam Chin.

I would say we have worked with about every cichlid out there at one time or another. As long time hobbyists, we have gone through many different phases with many different freshwater fish, but  always seem to concentrate more on cichlids. We love the fact that you can easily breed most of them, and we enjoy watching the fry grow up.  It was not too long before we joined our local aquarium society, followed by a regional cichlid club, and the next step was the American Cichlid Association. In those days, it was the only way to find new or rare fish. I can’t say enough about the organized hobby. It has been good to us for many years. Finding people with the same passion for fish that we have confirms that we are not crazy!

I didn’t really have a hobby before I met Gary, and I had no idea that we would become so involved with fish and fish keeping. We have both really enjoyed it!

We have been working with the rift lake cichlids for a long time now.  We love the bright colors from Malawi and the interesting behaviors that the Tanganyikans have.  Currently, we are on a Tropheus binge. We had a couple of groups before I went to Lake Tanganyika, but after my first trip I said we need more Tropheus.  We have been working on our Tropheus collection ever since.

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Tropheus duboisi Maswa. Photo courtesy of Pam Chin.

TCS: You’re  a big fan of the Julidochromis genus (aka Julies). What are some of your favorite species and why?

Even though I am on a Tropheus binge, one thing for sure is that I will always have a few Julies around.  The genus Julidochromis has (5) species, transcriptus, ornatus, dickfeldi, regani and marlieri. I love them all! Please don’t make me pick one!

I like them because they don’t get too large. Regani and marlieri are called the giant Julies, but even at that they only range about 5” or so.  Transcriptus and ornatus are true dwarfs not exceeding 3”. All Julies are excellent parents, there is nothing more wonderful then to watch Julies parenting their fry. Often pairs will spawn again with older fry in the tank, and I love this look of fry all different sizes and different ages. They are so cute and exact miniature of their parents.

TCS: What are some “secrets for success” you would share with readers who want to breed Julies or shell dwellers (shellies)?

Julies are cave spawners and they can be quite secretive, I have only seen their eggs laid outside a cave a few times over the last 25 years that I have kept them. It is hard to tell if they are spawning or not and they are famous for testing your patience!  But, it is best to just leave them alone and let them figure it out. They typically pair off, but once in a while you will have a trio form. The best way to get a pair to form is in a community tank, with other Tanganyika cichlids  about the same size.  You offer them lots of caves to pick from; flower pots, spawning caves, etc. Part of the ritual is being able to define a territory and protect it.  This increases the bond and, the stronger the bond the more likely they will spawn.

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Julidochromis ornatus Kasakalawe with fry. Photo courtesy of Pam Chin.

Once you have a pair, you can maintain them in a 10 or 20-gallon tank. In a smaller aquarium you can observe the pair better, harvest the fry easier, and of course maintenance is much easier. They prefer to spawn on the roof of the cave, and I like to offer them more then one choice, because if they can’t find a cave to their liking it may take more time.

Food is important to get them into spawning condition, live foods are the best. Black worms, freshly hatched baby brine, and daphnia are all good options. I also feed the fry freshly hatched baby brine while they are in with the parents.  I like to let the algae grow so they can graze in the tank.  Gary also feeds them a finely ground cichlid staple flake, and I will throw in an algae wafer once in a while.

In my opinion, the darker Julies just look better. Many years ago, I was in the fish lab of my dear friend Dr. Barlow in Berkeley, CA  and he was doing an experiment on Julidochromis coloration.  He had three tanks, one was light beige nearly off white, the next was more of a darker medium tan, and the third tank was dark brown.  He had placed ½ dozen of the same species in each tank.

It was very telling to say the least. I am sure 90% of fish keepers would pick the Julies in the dark brown tank. Their colors show more contrast, and the black was blacker. I went home and painted all my tanks dark blue! This explains why sometimes your Julies look washed out when you have bright lights and/or light colored sand.  It is only natural that they want to blend in with their surroundings.

Although Julidochromis haven been in the hobby for years, you would think that we would know everything about them. These Julies have each been described based on their ray counts, teeth, coloration, distinct pattern, etc.  But now with the ability to do DNA testing, we are finding out that many fish may not be what we once thought they were. Julidochromis is a prime example of this! Whether we choose to believe it or not, it is likely that transcriptus and ornatus are the same species, and it is also likely that marlieri and regani are the same species.  I was shocked the first time I heard this, but after you start looking closely at these Julies and compare them to the various sites where they are located, you can see it. One more surprise, Julidochromis dickfeldi is probably not a Julie at all, more then likely it is related to Chalinochromis popelini.

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Julidichromis marlieri sp. Gombe. Photo courtesy of Pam Chin.

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Julidochromis regani Zambian yellow. Photo courtesy of Pam Chin.

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Julidochromis ornatus with fry. Photo courtesy of Pam Chin.

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Julidochromis transcriptus Pemba with juveniles. Photo courtesy of Pam Chin.

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Julidochromis regani Kipili. Photo courtesy of Pam Chin.

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The Julidochromis tank wall in the Chin fish house. Photo courtesy of Pam Chin.

Regardless of how many times they split them up or lump them back together, they are still the same fish, only the names have been changed!  They are still going to breed the same, and raise their fry the same, and they will continue to bring hobbyists hours of enjoyment. However, because we don’t know what they will find in the future about this genus, I think it is important not to mix or cross up different collection points.

Shell dwellers are also fun to keep; I prefer exLamprologus multifasciatus and similis because they too are colony spawners. In fact, they are even easier to work with than Julies, as you don’t have to worry about a pair forming. You can just put six in a tank with some shells and they will take care of the rest.

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Shell dweller tank containing shells and sand directly from Lake Tanganyika. Photo courtesy of Pam Chin.

As far as the rest of the shell dwellers, I find them a bit more work. The pair bonds do not last as long as Julies and, like other Neolamprologus, males abuse the females and the males eat and kill their own fry.  It is very frustrating to think you have a pair and one gets killed off, but it is even more frustrating when you see those fry swimming and then you come home and they are gone or laying dead all over the tank!

In a community setting, if you want any viable fry, that means fry that are large enough to sell! You can’t really count it unless you can sell it! You will have to steal it before they eat it. You have to be prepared to take over the rearing process and provide good foods like freshly hatched baby brine, in order to grow them up and trade/sell them. It can be a lot of work, and most of these fry take forever to grow.

However, you can work that to your advantage.  Julies and the shell dwellers are not being bred in masses as some fish are, and these are cichlids that you can breed to help support your hobby. They are fun to work with, they are nice to look at, and not too difficult to spawn. You can get away with smaller aquariums and you can save your larger tanks for other cichlid projects like Tropheus!  Or at least that is my theory!

TCS: Based on your many years of fish keeping, describe the ideal set-up for an aquarist who’s new to cichlids (e.g., tank size, filtration, species) and why you would make those recommendations?

I think you need to start with at least a 100 gal tank. Sure it could be smaller, but I am thinking long term, and you have so many options with that size of tank.

We could talk filtration until we are blue in the face; there are so many different methods. Everyone has a favorite, and I always say to pick what you are most comfortable with. You are the one who is going to be cleaning it. If you don’t like taking it apart, then you are not going to keep it clean.  If you like the idea of a canister, then go for it.  If you want to use sponge filters with powerheads, that is fine too.  So pick what you like, but just make sure you have enough filtration. Also you may want to have two different types of filtration, like mechanical and biological. If you have one that fails, the other should be able to keep it going long enough for you to fix it.  Ideally, you want to turn your water over 6 – 8 times per hour, so you will need a filter or combo of filters that will do 600 – 800 gallons per hour for a 100g tank.

Fish keeping is a personal thing, and I think you should keep the fish you like. After all, you are the one who is going to be looking at them. The most successful and peaceful community tanks just take a bit of research to pick the best tank-mates. Keep a few things in mind. You want your fish to all come from the same body of water, i.e., don’t mix Lake Malawi with Lake Tanganyika, etc. Especially if you are just starting out, try to pick fish that will occupy different areas of the tank; you want fish on the top, in middle, on the rocks, and on the bottom, to give your tank a complete look. This will lessen aggression. If each species has their own area then there is no competition.

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Species only tank of Petrochromis trewavasae. Photo courtesy of Pam Chin.

Write your choices down and don’t be afraid to bounce them off some of your fish friends and see what they think.  A lot of fish keeping is trial and error, and finding someone who has had the same mix and no problems confirms you are on the right track. Diet and maintenance can be species specific. When you are researching your picks, learn what kinds of food they will do best with and what type of water you need to provide.

I know it sounds like a lot of research, but it is so important to know what your fish need before you buy them. I like to encourage everyone to keep a fish diary. You can add as much detail as you want, but I think the most important thing is to write down the date and species name of the fish you are buying.  Then you have it, and you can always refer back to it. You can also record water changes, what foods you are feeding, and when they spawn. Then if something goes wrong, you can refer back to your diary to help you figure out what happened.

I think the hardest thing to do is picking which cichlids to work with. There are just so many to choose from.  It doesn’t matter what body of water you choose to start with. You won’t be disappointed.  Just do your research and keep up on your water changes!  And you will enjoy your cichlids!

TCS: What would be your top 5 do’s and don’ts when setting up a multi-tank fishroom?

Whether it’s a fish room or fish house or a fish basement, it is all a work in progress and will never be complete, because you will always find a better way, a faster way, and an easier way! And today with the internet, it is just amazing how you can see everyone’s cluster of tanks and their inventions to keep and breed fish. I think you have to look at these ideas and see if they are applicable to your setup. If they aren’t, then you move on until you find something that is. You may see something that doesn’t work for you now, but maybe in a couple years you will need it.

It is extremely hard to compare these setups, as everyone’s conditions are different. You might change your entire setup based on what fish you are working with. I have seen a lot fish rooms in person and on the internet, and you can always pick up a tip or two and apply it to your own tanks. It is amazing to see what people will do for their fish! You have the engineer types who have everything automated, to people who are still using 5-gallon buckets.

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The Chin Fish house. Photo courtesy of Pam Chin.

We have had our current fish house running for 25 years now; I can’t believe it has been that long. We were living in downtown Sacramento, CA and we wanted to move out where it was more rural and get some land.  We were running about 100 tanks, so we were trying to find a house that had a barn or a detached garage that we could convert it into a fish house. We found the perfect situation where the property had a people house and a separate house for in-law quarters. It had a cement slab, only two interior walls, and an upstairs with lots of storage. It was complete with a kitchen and a bathroom, so it had running water and electricity.

We moved the fish in and then started to remodel. Gary ripped up the carpet, so we were down to the slab. Then he built all new wooden stands, and we filled them to the brim with tanks. But, there was no place to sit and enjoy the fish. We also realized that we really had a mish-mash of tanks! It looked like we had been to every garage sale/Craiglist ad for a 250 miles radius. And we have been remodeling ever since!

I think the biggest and the best change over the years was going from wooden stands to metal stands.  This was a major change, and I am so glad that we did it. My real job is working as a purchasing agent for a mechanical contractor.  I buy Unistrut and fittings all day long, for equipment stands, pipe hangers, etc. Unistrut is like tube steel but it has an open back, it comes galvanized, and you bolt it together. I got the idea that this would be the perfect product to build our stands.

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Unistrut metal stands for 125g tanks. Photo courtesy of Pam Chin.

Going to metal was going to cost more then wood, but it would be the last time we would have to build stands. Gary had already built all new wooden racks 3 or 4 times, since I had known him. It is a lot of work, and after a while wooden stands…  well they look like worn out wooden stands. I work with welders, so I know how expensive and slow they are, and black angle iron is going to rust. I wanted something Gary could modify if he needed to, so this was another reason for us to go with a bolted system.Since we live in earthquake country and I have access to seismic engineers, I drew up my heaviest rack – (9) 60-gallon tanks, each tank measuring 48 X 24 X 12. Then take (2) stands like this, put them back-to-back, bolt them together and anchor to the cement floor.  It passed the shake test! We used this basic design for the rest of our tanks and just modified it to the size we needed. Over the next two years we replaced all our wooden stands with metal stands.

I am so pleased with how these stands look and how well they are wearing. Some have been up close to 10 years now. Gary loves how easy they are to modify and if we ever moved, we could break them down for future use.

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Metal stands holding 125g tanks. Photo courtesy of Pam Chin.

Another major improvement is how we handle our water. We are on a well, with water that is extremely hard, with a ph of 9.2. When water on the floor dries, it turns white and we sweep it up. It is like liquid cement. And since we are stuck in a rift (Lake), this water is ideal. Every now and then I think I can do a South American tank, and it is never a good ending. It is much easier to work with fish that are ideal for your water. You could manipulate your water, but I prefer not to.One drawback to our water is dissolved gasses. We have to pump the water to a holding tank and let it set for 24 – 48 hours, and then it is fine.  When we first set up things, the only quick fix was to use 55-gallon drums. We had them all over the fish house. We also had hoses all over the fish house, because as we would drain the drums to the tanks, we would also be filling the drums for future water changes. It was crazy. We would lose track of time and be overflowing a drum or overflowing a tank.

First major remodel, Gary decided he would build a holding tank out of plywood and fiberglass. I think it was 8’ X 4’ X 4’, basically made out of (4) pieces of plywood! We ran water lines from the holding tank along the south wall of the fish house and installed quick connect hook ups so we don’t have any hoses longer then 25’. It is easy to roll up a short hose to get it out of the way, and it is much easier to walk around now so I am not tripping over all the hoses.

We put a pump in the holding tank to deliver water to the fish tanks. It was great. No more running over the drums!  But, it seems like we had a lot of issues with the tank. It was really too tall, and we had to reinforce it on the outside because it was bowing. Then we noticed it had a leak, and the only thing we could think of was to put a pond liner in it. That allowed us to use it a few more years.

We wanted to replace the tank, but we just didn’t know what with.  We had a couple issues. Gary built this holding tank inside the fish house, so we would have to cut it up to get it out. How could we get a tank with that kind of volume inside the fish house? We had plenty of room for tanks outside the fish house, but it would be cold water. Then I found these closet tanks that are designed to go thru a door of a house and then into a closet.  We found one that held 500 gallons, and it would fit where the old holding tank was. The change-out was quite easy, and a couple modifications to the pipe off the pump and we were all set.  So far so good and I like this tank!

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The old blue holding tank. Photo courtesy of Pam Chin.

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New 500g holding tank installed. Photo courtesy of Pam Chin.
Our system is really quite simple. We are using a 1.5 HP vane axial blower to deliver air that runs sponge filters and box filters. Most of our tanks are bare bottom; we do use a dusting of sand in the larger show tanks, but only to give it that finished look. Gravel or sand is labor intensive and always need cleaning. Bare bottom tanks are so much easier to keep clean.

We put the sump pump directly into the fish tanks, which pumps the water to a tank outside the fish house and then we use that water for our trees, bushes, and duck pond. Water is then pumped into the aquariums from the holding tank. Gary loves to change their water. It gives him a chance to wipe down the tanks and have an up close look. It takes him about three weeks to get from one end of the fish house to the other end.

We think the fish house building is at least 60 or 70 years old but it is amazing when it comes to heat/cool retention. We do not heat or cool it. We do have our tanks all covered. The building is well sealed with the doors closed and it holds its temperature. When you think about the water as a mass, it takes a lot to heat it up or cool it down. So in away it maintains its own temperature. Part of that is accomplished because the tanks are tightly covered. We run two dehumidifiers and have fans running, This has kept it dry, and we have no signs of moisture or mold. We also have an industrial whole-house fan that can do a complete air change in minutes.

We do not have lighting on most of the tanks because electricity is our biggest expense. We elected to put our lighting on the ceiling and, because we have bare bottom tanks, the light goes right through to the bottom tank. Of course it isn’t as nice as having a light directly on your tank, but it more then sufficient for observing the fish. I always tell Gary I will get him anything he wants for the fish house as long as it doesn’t have to be plugged in.

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The West room of the fish house. Photo courtesy of Pam Chin.

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The East room of fish house (looking east). Photo courtesy of Pam Chin.

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The East room of fish house (looking west). Photo courtesy of Pam Chin.

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Buddha-themed tank in the fish house. Photo courtesy of Pam Chin.

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The middle room and fish lounge in the fish house (used for relaxing and discussing fish with friends). Photo courtesy of Pam Chin.

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South wall of the middle room (Pam’s favorite wall of tanks). Photo courtesy of Pam Chin.

​One thing every fish hobbyist finds handy is a sink, so it is great having a kitchen in the East room of the fish house. We have lots of cupboard space for foods & supplies. We removed the stove and put in a bagging station. Gary set up his brine shrimp hatchery right over the sink, so it is super easy to collect them and start a new culture. Freshly hatched baby brine shrimp is the best food ever for fry, and if you have extra, any fish will eat it with gusto!

A fish house is truly a work in progress and we are already planning the next remodel!!

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Kitchen in the fish house, complete with sink, brine shrimp hatcher, bagging station, and satellite radio. Photo courtesy of Pam Chin.
I meant to bring it up earlier, but I am sure you noticed via the photos that I have a castle fetish. My castle collecting started about 15 years ago, and my dear friend Chuck Rambo is responsible for this addiction!  I bought a box of junk at a fish auction, and it came with an old clay castle. I had no idea what I had, but when Chuck came over and told me it was from the 1930’s, I started looking at castles on eBay and you can see what happened after that!

I take a lot a grief from my long time fish friends, and it takes a while for them to understand my motives. I was known as the “PVC Queen” for years. PVC is an ideal form of cover. You can use the larger fittings or just make “cichlid condo’s” from pipe and bundle them together to give fish a place to go when you have them packed in the tank. The best thing about PVC is it doesn’t displace much water and it is so easy to move around when doing maintenance.Castles are just a fun way to provide cover for the fish. They are ideal because they are full of caves and they are lightweight. Rocks are so heavy and so hard to move around. I have had a blast collecting fish castles from all over the world and love showing them off in a fish tank! My friends, who collect castles, keep them in a box in the closet! Not me, I want to see them in an aquarium. Gary loves the castles too, and I often come home from work and he can’t wait to show me his new deco job!

So lighten up on the castles people! The fish can’t tell the difference between a rock and a castle! They know it is cover and they love it! And I think “Castle Queen” is a move up from the “PVC Queen!” I admit, I may have deviated from the castle theme in a few tanks, but its all fun, fish related items.

To close, I want to say “Thank You” to Scott for all the great questions. I had a lot of fun working on this and going through all the pictures. I hope that I have been able to convey my joy of fish keeping and how it has been a big part of my life. It has been an amazing hobby for Gary and I to share together, and we have made such wonderful, lifetime friends in the process.  It’s all about the Cichlids!

2 thoughts on “Pam Chin interview

  1. Just found your blog today while I was surfing ideas for multi tanks. Read every word of this interview. Absolutely sensational. Great job by both of you.

    • Thank you, Craig! I really appreciate the feedback and love to receive it – good or bad. Pam gets the kudos for such a thorough job answering the questions. She went above and beyond. Pam’s is one of several interviews already posted, and many more are planned.
      I hope you find some other interesting content on the site. If you like the blog, please tell your cichlid friends. Thanks again!

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