Mike Tuccinardi interview

Mike (left) on a fish collecting expedition with two lifelong aquarium fishermen outside Iquitos, Peru. Photo by Mike Tuccinardi.

As a subscriber to several aquarium magazines, I’ve become familiar with some of the great folks who bring outstanding tropical fish content to hobbyists. One of these people is Mike Tuccinardi.

With a background spanning retail, wholesale, and aquarium fish imports and exports, Mike is well versed in the tropical fish industry. He began working at a local fish store in his early teens and has been following the fish ever since. Mike went on to work for a major importer and tropical fish farm in Florida. Since then, he has traveled through much of Asia and South America visiting aquarium fish exporters, collectors, and fishing communities. He has also worked with aquarium-fish specific conservation organizations like Project Piaba and the IUCN’s Home Aquarium Fish Sub-Group (HAFSG), and has written extensively on wild capture fisheries for both hobbyist and general public media outlets. 

Mike resides in Boulder, CO where he operates an aquarium fish import business and currently serves a Senior Editor and Associate Publisher for the English language AMAZONAS Magazine. I contacted AMAZONAS several months ago to reach Mike and he got in touch with me within a couple of days. I am quite grateful that Mike took some time out of his busy schedule to do the interview. Let’s get going!

Wearing your hat as Senior Editor and Associate Publisher of AMAZONAS Magazine (Eng. language), please share with the cichlid enthusiasts why a subscription is a must have.

Well, I was a reader before I ever got involved working with AMAZONAS and I remember getting the very first issue and being blown away. The feature article was about breeding cactus plecos, something I had never imagined possible at the time. And I think that’s what continues to be exciting about the magazine in that each issue usually includes something that really surprises me as a hobbyist. For the cichlid specialist, this might be an in-depth look at wild cichlid habitat in West Africa, interesting techniques from master breeders in Europe on rearing challenging species, or a deep dive into cichlids rarely seen in the US like the Soda Lake Cichlids found in parts of Africa. It’s often information and perspectives that you just won’t see in forums, on social media, and generally within the US hobby and has helped broaden my horizons as a hobbyist quite a bit.

Regarding AMAZONAS, I am a subscriber and I’m always wanting more cichlid coverage. I know it’s a general fish magazine, but what would it take to persuade the magazine to maybe dedicate one issue a year to only cichlids or increase its regular cichlid coverage?

That’s a bit tricky as we license the content from the German-language AMAZONAS, so generally the theme of each issue is already predetermined by the German team. But we do put together a substantial amount of original content, and cichlids are always a popular subject. For example, our most recent cover/theme was Characins, but one of the feature articles was about cichlid-proof characin tankmates, which would be of interest to most cichlid keepers. We also had an in-depth look at three spectacular Gymnogeophagus species from Uruguay, including information on care, breeding, and wild habitat.

We are often looking at subjects that aren’t necessarily common or well-known in the hobby. Some might not be of interest to all keepers, but I think spotlighting and sharing information on fish you typically won’t find in other publications or online is an important part of what we do. Of course, we are always looking for quality, original content, so if you or any readers out there have a great cichlid species you’d like to highlight or a breeding success story you’d like to see in print, please feel free to reach out to our editorial team (editors@amazonasmagazine.com).

Wild Rio Negro heckel discus in one of Mike’s photo tanks. Photo by Mike Tuccinardi.

As someone intimately familiar with both the import and export industries, especially rules in South America, can you summarize the recent changes in tropical fish export regulations in Brazil and how its native cichlids are affected?

Well, to start I will say that there was an enormous amount of incomplete or general misinformation floating around out there about this (especially on social media). Those of us in the industry with contacts on the ground in Brazil were pretty well aware that this change would take quite some time to actually be implemented to where we’d see anything new in the hobby and trade here. Although the new directive updating the country’s export laws was issued in April, I still have yet to see any new species offered, and my suppliers still remain unable to get approval for export of previously banned species.

Brazil has a number of competing federal, state, and local agencies that still need to work together and agree on standards before new species can enter the trade. For undescribed species, exporters need to provide the reference code of a collection in a university or museum for approval, a time-consuming process. And in the state of Para, where most Brazilian exports come from, the state agency SEMAS is holding up the process of approving previously banned species. And of course Brazil’s severe outbreak of COVID-19 has impacted the timeline of all of this even further. But eventually, someday, maybe next year, we should start to see a wider availability of species from Brazil in the trade.

A young pleco collector holding L031 (P. nudiventris) just pulled from the rocky rapids of Brazil’s imperiled Rio Xingu. Photo by Mike Tuccinardi.

Talk a little about how fish imports work and what fish keepers should know about how fish end up in their local fish stores.

It’s a complicated process, and one that is in the middle of a lot of upheaval recently due to COVID-19. I currently deal with somewhere around two dozen suppliers in South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia, most of whom I’ve been fortunate enough to have personally spent time with during my travels. That personal connection and mutual trust has been very important in making sure I get good quality fish. It also has allowed me to learn more about how seasonal changes impact fisheries and availability so I can plan accordingly.

Right now in the industry, there is an elaborate network of wholesalers, farms, and transshippers who supply fish to most of the retailers in the US. Most retailers don’t just rely on one supplier. Just like local fish stores, each one has their own strengths and weaknesses.

Generally speaking, the fewer times a fish has to be packed up and shipped before reaching a hobbyist’s tanks, the better. A lot of the more specialist retailers out there are now taking advantage of importing fish directly or via a transshipper to broaden their selection and be more competitive on pricing. Of course, starting in about March of this year, global flight cancellations took a heavy toll on the global supply chain for fish, and stores as well as wholesalers were left scrambling to find ways to get even common species in stock.

Things have stabilized a bit now but are still far from normal. Some of us were able to make things work by being flexible and adapting but this will likely impact wholesalers and stores for years to come. It will also have an impact on what is available to hobbyists and the cost of fish themselves, as we continue to see much higher freight rates and other logistical hurdles that probably won’t go away for some time. Our most recent issue of AMAZONAS featured some in depth coverage on this if readers want to learn more.

Though I currently keep only African cichlids, I have kept New World species. However, a couple of genera that I’ve never kept are the eartheaters. They fascinate me. Can you talk a little about some of the more available species and what makes them such great options for a South American tank?

A Jurupari Eartheater (S. jurupari) holding eggs freshly collected by seine net in the Rio Nanay, Peru. Photo by Mike Tuccinardi.

Eartheaters have always been my favorite cichlid, ever since seeing some monster Satanoperca jurupari churning up the sand bed in a local fish store’s display tank. They’re big, colorful, and largely peaceful fish that get along with almost anything and do well in groups. When I was a kid growing up in the hobby, something like 20 different species were around but most people only knew them as ‘jurupari’ (any Satanoperca species, then still classified as Geophagus) or ‘surinamensis’ (a large group of closely related, similar looking species).

Now, we in the hobby have access to a large number of species that the better retailers and wholesalers do a generally good job of accurately identifying. And thanks to captive breeding, some of the most colorful and desirable species are as easily accessible as ever.

G. sveni and the undescribed “red head Tapajos” are probably the top two I would recommend to hobbyists looking to work with this amazing group of cichlids. They’re colorful, available as quality captive bred specimens, and among the easier species to breed in a home aquarium. I almost always have a good number of these two on hand in my facility, and they are consistent sellers.

The Daemon or 3 Spot Eartheater (Satanoperca daemon). Photo by Mike Tuccinardi.

Two very controversial subjects in the aquarium hobby are the breeding of and, more importantly, selling of hybrid cichlids. What are your thoughts on the subjects?

Personally, I have always scratched my head a bit at this whole debate. We have selectively bred and hybridized species since humans began to keep fish as pets. Also, few strains of livebearers, bettas, angels, or even discus in the hobby today resemble anything like their wild forbearers. In my own tanks, I keep almost exclusively wild fish like wild discus and angels from known collection points, but if other hobbyists prefer flowerhorns or selectively bred strains like blue pinoy angels, that’s their preference. As long as you’re not passing off hybrids or bred fish of unknown provenance as pure or wild (which I have rarely if ever seen happen), I fail to see any negatives.

You have participated in the IUCN’s Home Aquarium Fish Sub-Group (HAFSG). I’ve always been sensitive to the IUCN’s Red List, specifically to the cichlid species listed. Can you talk a little about the purpose and role of HAFSG and what participation in the group looks like?

My participation in the group was largely centered around its formation. This came at a time when I was traveling and documenting wild capture aquarium fisheries in Southeast Asia and South America while pursuing my master’s degree. We spent some time coming up with consensus statements basically along the lines that the group recognizes that wild aquarium fisheries can in some cases have a net positive impact for humans, wildlife, and ecosystems in high-biodiversity areas. We spent some time looking at case studies like the Rio Negro fishery that has been the focus of Project Piaba’s research for many years. Unfortunately, as my free time to devote to such projects became extremely limited, I have not participated in discussions for a while now but I would be happy to contribute to the group if called upon.

You’ve been associated with the aquarium hobby for a long time. What are some significant changes that you have seen in the past 5 years?

Growing up in the 2000s while working at my LFS, I certainly saw my fair share of cool species pass through the store or in my ever-growing collection of home aquariums. And there were some fish I took for granted having access to, like that group of 10 or so juvenile Xingu I pike cichlids I crammed into a 29-gallon tank and I think I had paid about $5 each for.

But overall, I think the hobby now has access to a broader variety of species than ever before, and it has never been easier to get your hands on many species once considered rare or almost unobtainable. The Internet has certainly helped that to an enormous degree. On the flip side of that, though, I am consistently disheartened by the proliferation of bad or outright false information about fishkeeping, health, and care I see on social media. I’m in a number of very active Facebook groups where well-meaning but misinformed hobbyists are almost always the ones commenting on posts like “what’s wrong with my pleco” or “ID this cichlid.” It gets frustrating, and why I think having fact-checked, vetted information from actual experts in print like AMAZONAS or well-researched websites like the Cichlid Room Companion are more important than ever for serious hobbyists.

One of Mike’s home aquariums featuring a number of wild collected cichlids from the Rio Nanay in Peru. Photo by Mike Tuccinardi.

Where do you see the freshwater aquarium hobby in the next decade?

It’s hard to say, but I do think it will follow some trends that we’ve already seen on the marine side of the hobby – smaller tanks, more focus on technology, and more emphasis on the overall aesthetic of the aquarium as opposed to just the fish inside it. I think Generation Z is already embodying these trends in the way they keep fish, and it will only become more prevalent and popular in the next few years. On the other side of things, I am seeing a growing appreciation for wild type fish as well as a more natural approach to keeping fish – research into their habitat, biotope-style displays, etc. I’m excited by this and hope it will drive more interest into the wild places these fish inhabit naturally and the conservation issues they are facing.

Is there anything we didn’t cover above that you would like to comment on or share with the readers?

Well, as we settle down into what will likely be a very isolated fall and winter with limited options for entertainment and leisure time, it’s a good time to revisit what about this hobby excites you. I’m keeping wild discus and working on a new Vietnamese stream biotope tank that will keep me busy for a bit. I’d also urge readers to support your local fish store as best you can in the coming months. Lots of stores have been hit hard by this pandemic and how it has disrupted their supply of everything from fish food to cory cats and they need support more than ever. I’m lucky enough to live in Colorado where we have a ton of world class stores within the Denver metro area, but I’d hate to think how it would impact the local hobby and community if a bunch of them had to close their doors in the coming months.

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