Josh Cunningham interview

Josh Cunningham


After you’ve been in the hobby for a while, you will become familiar with some of the cichlid breeders who supply the hobby with fish. My interviewee this time is no stranger to the cichlid community. As an award-winning breeder of quality cichlids, a former president of Michigan Cichlid Association, and current board member of the American Cichlid Association (ACA), Josh Cunningham of Cunningham Cichlids also runs an online retail business.

Though I have never ordered fish from Josh, I’ve known about him for some time. I have seen some of his fish, and they are simply awesome. He is just beginning to give talks all over the country and will be speaking at his first convention, the Keystone Clash in Pennsylvania, September 14-16 on “The Evolution of my Fishroom and Breeding Setups for African Cichlids.” As part of my interview portfolio, I’m trying to increase the number of breeder interviews. I contacted Josh a few months ago and invited him to do an interview for the blog. Thankfully, he didn’t need any convincing. He graciously agreed and here we are.

Let’s get started.

There are quite a few online cichlid businesses. What sets Cunningham Cichlids apart?

I would have to say one thing that sets us apart is that we are hobbyists first and a business second. We strive to provide the best quality cichlids and customer service possible. We have experience in working with over 200 species of African cichlids over the past 20 years of breeding fish. We are honest with customers and do not make a sale just to make one. We will work to educate the customer and, if the species is not right for their setup, we will inform them of that and provide recommendations.

Just like any business, you need to continue to change and evolve. We started out breeding Lake Malawi and Lake Victoria species and then shifted to Lake Tanganyika for a few years. We are now making our way back to our roots with Lake Malawi and Lake Victoria species again. In addition, if we don’t have a species that someone is looking for, we will help to try and find it, or point them in the direction to try and find them even if it means sending them to another breeder/online business. We hope to be able to conduct business with you in the future!

You have received master breeder status in a couple of cichlid associations. What are the criteria for being a master breeder?

I did in fact receive Master Breeder in the Michigan Cichlid Association and the Ohio Cichlid Association. The criteria for each club is similar, which was to reach the 1,000-point level. However, there is a difference in some of the point values per species, so it took about a year longer to reach Master Breeder status with the Michigan Cichlid Association, then the Ohio Cichlid Association. Now I have my sights set on obtaining lifetime memberships with both organizations, which involves giving a presentation to the Ohio Cichlid Association and having five articles published in the monthly bulletins.

Breeder awards. Photo by Josh Cunningham.
Breeder awards. Photo by Josh Cunningham.

As someone who has successfully bred so many species, what are 5 things any aspiring cichlid breeder should understand?

First and foremost, the important thing aspiring cichlid breeders should understand is to conduct research on the species they want to keep and work with.  It is very important to understand their requirements, for example, diet and space requirements. Also, you need to understand their aggression levels, it is towards another species or just their own?  In addition, how do they breed?  Egg layer, mouthbrooder? Are they bi-parental? If egg layer, substrate spawner, cave spawner, etc? Once this is understood, then you need to know if they are pair spawners (pair bonding or non-pair bonding) or harem spawners.  Once all of this is known, then you can figure out how big of a tank you need and the target ratio you want to try and obtain.  Next thing I would say that is very important is to have patience. Some species take longer to mature than others and some are just harder to breed. I have learned this first hand.

What species has proven most difficult for you to breed and why?

The species that has been most difficult for me are Neolamprologus nigriventris.  I had a group of six in a 75 gallon tank which then went to three in a year.  My assumption was the male was killing off the others to form a pair with what was hopefully a female.  After this, another year and a half went by and I never saw any fry in the tank.

Neolamrologus nigriventris. Photo by Josh Cunningham

Now, from research and talking with other hobbyists who have spawned them, the fry are small and can be hard to spot, however I never found any. After the time had passed, I thought it would be best to let someone else try to breed them. So I ended up selling the three I had left to another hobbyist, who has yet to spawn them as well. I have a general rule that I will keep a fish for a few years to try and work with and, if not successful, it is time to move them and let someone else try.

From a behavioral standpoint, describe a couple of your favorite cichlid species and why they’re so interesting.

One of my favorite cichlids that I have kept before and was happy to obtain again comes from Lake Malawi, which is Fossorochromis rostratus. The reason is truly because of their nickname, the “Malawi sand diver,” and to see this in an aquarium first-hand for me was a sight to see. I used to enjoy putting a net in the tank when people would visit the fishroom. Sand would fly, and the rostratus would start to disappear. Imagine eight 13 inch fish diving in the sand.

Fossorochromis rostratus pair (male on top). Photo by Josh Cunningham.

Another one of my favorite cichlids comes from Lake Tanganyika, and this species drove me to keep Lake Tanganyika cichlids for a few years. This one is Enantiopus sp. kilesa, which I have kept for several years and I have a second group that I am working with now. This species is known for their awesome yellow throat and purplish bodies for the males. Their spawning behavior is very interesting, as they go up in the shallows and make nests and display for the females that are usually two feet in diameter. This species is not pair bonding, meaning one female will spawn with multiple males at one time. Home aquariums are generally not large enough for them to make the two-foot diameter nests, therefore they make little mounds around 6-8 inches in diameter, and those become their spawning sites. The maximum body size for this species is around 6 inches.


Enantiopus sp. kilesa. Photo by Josh Cunningham.


Adult male Enantiopus sp. kilesa. Photo by Josh Cunningham.

Where do you stand on the issue of hybrids in the hobby?

When it comes to hybrids, I am not a fan at all. While I don’t often mind what I call hobby accepted ones, such as the dragon blood or OB peacocks, I don’t think people should be trying to create new strains of African cichlids.  Line breeding to enhance color and quality is one thing, but crossing two species to create a new one is a huge issue for me in this hobby. To me there are so many desirable pure strain African cichlids out there to keep, so trying to hybridize the species is not needed.

When newcomers come into this hobby, it is very important to make sure they are educated and know how to properly care and breed these fish if that is what they choose to do. I have seen a lot of newcomers getting burned by sellers trying to sell hybrid fry as pure strain, so education in this hobby is very important and I cannot stress that enough. We need to make sure we are always bringing new fish keepers into the hobby to ensure its longevity for many more years to come.

As a long time cichlid keeper myself, I’ve found that, while many cichlid breeders are willing to provide advice, they are also often reluctant to share information about how to acquire hard to find species. In other words, it seems that a large number of the serious breeders all know each other and getting inside that “circle” is difficult. Do you think that’s more perception or reality? Why?

I believe this is more perception. Yes, a lot of breeders do know each other and what I often find network together sometimes to find the harder to find species. However, I don’t know one of them that would withhold any information for themselves. I often get contacted about species that are unavailable for me to obtain and I have no problem trying to point the hobbyist/breeder to someone who might be able to assist them further in obtaining the desired species.

I can see a breeder reluctant at times to release fry in the hobby of some harder to find species because I know I am one of them. Most of the reason for this is to ensure these rarer/harder to find species end up in the right hands and will be around for many years to come. I can also see breeders being reluctant to release some CARES fish as well. We need to work together to keep these species around, as we may have the species in existence only in the hobby. Therefore, you want them spread around to different breeders, but you also want to make sure who gets them is responsible with them to ensure their existence and for other hobbyists to enjoy in the future.

What’s on the horizon for your business in the next year?

For the next year, I would have to say we are going to continue moving towards rarer Lake Malawi species while still maintaining and breeding a handful of CARES species. We still have a couple more tanks to add in the range of 110 gallons to 165 gallons to finish off the fishroom. We are also downsizing the number of species we breed to be able to open more tanks for grow-out space. This is one of the things that holds us back from being able to offer our stock in larger sizes and needs to change. We also have some big website re-design plans in the works and are trying to grow our YouTube presence as well for social media.  I must say we are excited about the changes that are in the works.

What are your top do’s and don’ts for setting up a successful fishroom?

The do’s and don’ts of setting up a successful fishroom starts with planning. Planning is the most important part, and I can’t stress that enough. From the smallest to the largest details, it is very important to make sure you have your water source planned, electrical, heating, central air pump or filtering options, and moisture control for example. I originally had plans for my room, but MTS (Multiple Tank Syndrome) kicked in and I let it get the best of me. So I have now re-configured my room three times, including taking all my tanks 75 gallons and smaller down a few years ago to paint, when I should have done this to begin with.

Various photos of the fishroom at Cunningham Cichlids. Photos by Josh Cunningham.

A couple things I wish I would have done from the start is having one dedicated electrical source for my lighting so I could have put it all on one timer. Nowadays, I have all my lights on Wi-Fi so that does help since I can turn them on and off through an app or adjust the timers from anywhere. Another detail I wish I had spent the time upfront is putting in an automated water change system. This is one detail I am going back to look at and have it in the plans, but it is a lot easier to configure and design when your tanks are empty versus full of fish. Final thing would be a heat source. As of now, I heat each tank individually, which has its own risks with heater failure and higher energy usage. If you belong to a local club and are interested in hearing more about “The Evolution of my Fishroom,” let me know as I have a talk I can deliver geared around this topic.

For future updates on the fishroom and the species we are working with, please subscribe to our YouTube channel –

Where do you see the aquarium hobby in the next five years?

Over the next five years I see the number of species available to hobbyists today continue to decrease. As hobbyists, we need to make sure we protect the species that are endangered of becoming extinct and stop placing a demand on that species to be exported. In addition, as hobbyists we need to stop supporting exporters who are bringing in endangered species. Please visit to see what you can do to help protect these species and get involved now.

Another place where I see this hobby changing (or continue to change) is an increase in the number of hybrids due to irresponsible breeding habits. As hobbyists, we need to stand up and discourage this practice. Breeders must ensure they do their research and are responsible when breeding and spreading their offspring around the hobby. It is possible that the strain being passed around the hobby at one time might be the only strain available, and we need to ensure its purity.

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