Juan Miguel Artigas Azas
|Where do you go for information about cichlids – species profiles, articles, etc.? If you’re like many cichlidophiles, you use multiple resources to satisfy your craving for cichlid knowledge. However, if there is one resource that I would recommend to any and all cichlid keepers, it would be the Cichlid Room Companion (CRC). As one of the largest, oldest, and most comprehensive databases for cichlid information, CRC is perhaps the best online site for cichlid aquarists. Today’s interviewee is the man responsible for it.|
For those of you who’ve been in the hobby for a long time, Juan Miguel Artigas Azas really needs no introduction. Not only is he the creator of CRC, but he’s also an expert on Central American cichlids, especially those from his native Mexico. In addition, he is a regular speaker at various tropical fish events around the world. If you’ve ever attended the annual convention of the American Cichlid Association (ACA), you’ve probably also seen him and his extremely informative presentations. Without further ado, let’s gets started.
The Cichlid Stage: As a long time aquarist, how did you first become interested in cichlids?
I have been interested in fish since I was three years old. I saw my first cichlids being six at the lake of Tequesquitengo, south of Mexico City. The cichlids were Herichthys cyanoguttatus, the Texas cichlid, they had been introduced, likely by aquarists since the lake was a popular weekend resort for people of Mexico City, with the shore fully lined with weekend houses. I got fascinated by their curious look as I was watching them, and they were curiously looking back at me, without going away. That was awesome!
TCS: You’re a regular speaker/lecturer at cichlid events around the world. Talk a little about how the hobby in North America differs from South America and Europe.
I believe the aquarium hobby is very influenced by the climate of where you live, for example during very cold winters in cold areas, being a kid who can’t go out to play, is very easy to fall in love with fish in aquarium. Living in a tropical or subtropical country always gives you the possibility to go out and play, and therefore inside hobbies are not something you regularly pursue. Of course, there are always exceptions, like me!
In regards to the differences I see between the hobby in Europe and North America, I believe that in Europe people are regularly more interested in the aquarium as a window to the tropics, or the areas where the fish inhabit. Most people devote a lot of effort and research into making their aquariums look like the natural habitat of the fish they keep. I believe that people are also more interested in the natural history of their pets, and research all they can about them. In North America I see that people regularly is interested in the fish per se, not their environment, people are very practical and keep their aquariums in the easiest way to maintain, like for example bare bottoms and PVC piping or pots for hiding places, you would rarely see an aquarium like that in Europe. This I believe can be understood if you consider that people in Europe normally have less room available to maintain aquariums; people mostly keep just a few of them and make them look the best they can. In North America people tend to maintain many aquariums since they normally have more room available, and therefore have to make them easy to maintain or it would not be practical or even possible.
TCS: From your travels, can you describe some of the most interesting cichlid tanks that you’ve seen?
I will talk about aquariums in general, because all great aquarists I know are generalists and not specialized. I could talk about many great fish-rooms I have been honored to visit, but I will limit to three among those that have impressed me the most:
- The setup of my late friend Jean Claude Nourissat in southern France, with thousands of liters of water and several aquariums of up 18,000 liters in capacity!! Plus several ponds (one 30 x 30 meters) to place cichlids in the summer. Jean Claude was a restless explorer and an example of passion, who mainly in the company of Patrick de Rham discovered many cichlid species for science and hobby: Two of his cichlid discoveries (with other people) are named after him: Paretroplus nourissati and Wajpamheros nourissati. Jean Claude paid great care of his collection, with some species being kept for several decades. His 18,000 liters Madagascar tank and his three 10,000 – 15,000 liters Central American cichlid tanks had to be the most impressive in the world.
- The fish-room of the legendary aquarist Rosario LaCorte in the New York area; a collection formed by hundreds of sparkling clean tanks, with tetra and rainbowfish colonies that nowadays date back to over 40 years since he started them!! An example of dedication and mastery.
- The fish-house of my friend Rusty Wessel in Louisville, Kentucky. An amazing specialized setup with many thousands of liters of water in a fully automated setting; In those aquariums a great collection of many Central American fish (many of them dear to me) thrive. Rusty’s fish are kept with a great dedication and the breeding activity in each tank is a proof of that. Attendees of the 2014 American Cichlid Association convention in Louisville, who joined one of the field trips to visit Rusty’s setup, would most likely agree.
There are other amazing fish-rooms of friends that I have visited over the years and I would like to mention some of them: The fish-house of Pam and Gary Chin in San José California (hundreds of aquariums kept as clean as a surgery room); Rainer Stawikowski in Gelsenkirchen (example of beauty and natural set-up); Patrick de Rham in Lausanne (with the most amazing selection of fish species), Rick Perez and the late Milo Manden in Chicago (impressive collection of cichlids), for example.
TCS: After 22 years, the Cichlid Room Companion has become an invaluable resource for all cichlidophiles. Tell the readers a little about it and perhaps share your vision for it the next 10 years.
I have always been an avid learner and I like to research all I can about my favorite topics. However, to find the information I wanted was not always easy and often required a lot of time and effort. I was trained as an engineer and during my college years I exploited another interest of mine, that of computing systems, to develop engineering applications. With the availability of the Internet and later of the World Wide Web http protocol, I immediately saw the opportunity to make information available world-wide and I wanted to be part of it; the topic of my choosing was cichlids since I had already been distributing information about them in a chatroom. This is how the Cichlid Room Companion was born in 1996, thanks to the generous offer of server space by John Benn, a fellow of the American Cichlid Association and animal lover who ran the Petsforum network. He was instrumental in the creation of the CRC. The development of the site has been continuous since day one and at this point almost 22 years later I know it can never be finished; there is just too much information and new ways to make it available.
My mission for the site is to continue fulfilling its goals in the same way it has been doing until now, presenting interested people with daily updates as it has been doing since 1996. My vision and hope are that this information can be turned into love for cichlids and nature and eventually will play an important part in their conservation and that of natural habitats for future generations, something that every day becomes more urgent.
TCS: I imagine as a naturalist, you might be a little sensitive to the artificial nature of home aquaria. What advice would you give fellow aquarists who want to try and emulate the endemic environment of the species they keep?
I believe aquariums are a wonderful thing; they are an effective way to introduce people to the wonders of nature, particularly in our everyday, more nature-detached way of living. We live in cities every day in a bigger proportion and higher concentrations and we just don’t see nature and don’t learn to love it and respect it. That is I believe a dangerous attitude, because you are not going to be concerned with or protect what you do not love in most cases.
You can give a good life to the fish you keep and learn and feel motivated from them, as well as appreciate nature beauty and complexity in them. My concern is the detachment from nature in our fish keeping habits. People are now maintaining everyday with more regularity hybrids and engineered strains of fish. While I respect everybody’s way to do aquariums, I also believe that by getting away from nature we are also less concerned about it, and less interested and willing to learn about it, an eventually protect it. My hope is that by keeping hybrids and engineered strains people eventually turn to what matter most, our natural environment.
TCS: In your opinion, how can aquarists continue the hobby in a conservative friendly way?
By educating ourselves about the fish we keep. Some fish populations are helped by the demand of wild fish, since that supports the local persons that make that collecting and hence helps conserve the environment, for example many Amazonian fish, which have a large resilience index and by collecting a given number of specimens the populations are not damaged.
For many other species it is much better to obtain just captive bred individuals. Some fish populations are so small that they are quickly decimated by collectors. Think for example in African species like Metriaclima estherae from Taiwanee Reef in Lake Malawi, at the border of extinction because of over collecting. Like that species there are some others in the African lakes alone that are close to disappearing because of over collecting. So it is very important make educated purchases.
I also think that fish species should be kept for as long as possible, for as many generations as possible. This helps the aquarist to learn from them and also in the case of endangered species to make a contribution to their conservation. In this regard I don’t believe in Breeding Award Contests that promote breeding as many species as possible, as fast as possible, since that practice I believe detaches the aquarist from the fish species themselves and involves her or him in a contest. We are all competitive to certain points and want recognition, and so it is easy to get focused on the prizes and forget about our fish and why we are aquarists in the first place.
TCS: Lastly, any other thoughts you would like to share?
Yes, we have a wonderful hobby in aquarium keeping, for me it has changed my life in so many ways and made it so much more enjoyable. Thanks to my early aquarium keeping I got to learn other languages, meet many wonderful people and cultures and make many new life friends. Because of my interest in fish I have learned many new things and travelled to many new places, which otherwise I would have never thought of visiting. All this have brought many wonderful experiences that have amply enriched my life. I have also developed other interests I have like photography, coding, publishing. Of course, one of many other hobbies carried out with passion would give you all that, but aquarium keeping have additionally brought me closer to nature, inspired me into developing an interest into many other ways of life and made me develop an intense love for the natural world and its beings.