Pam Chin driving the boat on Lake Tanganyika 2018
Because I keep African cichlids, especially Lake Tanganyikan species, I’ve always been intrigued by the lake itself, including the various habitats and all the lake’s cichlid species. Since I’ve never visited the lake, I have to rely on resources such as photos, videos, articles, and monographs to learn things about it. Now I can add interviews to that list of resources. Not surprisingly, there are dedicated cichlidophiles who make regular trips to the lake where they spend hours videoing, photographing, and discusing these wonderful fish.
A few months ago, one such group comprised of Ad Konings, Mattia Matarrese, Tautvydas Pagonis, Martin Geerts, Ankie Geerts, Brenton Pember, Dave Hale, and Pam Chin spent over two weeks on the lake. I did an interview with Pam back in 2016 but I wanted to catch up with her about this latest trip because she’s so passionate about cichlids. Anyway, during the trip, they followed the coastline south from Kipili, then along the bottom of the lake, and then headed up north, along the west coast, to the Nsumbu National Park. Once there they continued north as far as Katete. They were told several times, not to venture any further, as the Congo Police would certainly stop them.
Pam should be familiar to most cichlidophiles. She is an Honorary Life Member of the Pacific Coast Cichlid Association (PCCA) and past editor of the PCCA’s award winning publication; Cichlidae Communique. As an avid writer she has published 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.” As a longtime member of the ACA, she has served many roles and was named an ACA Fellow in 2011, which is ACA’s highest honor.
She is also 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. Oh, and did I mention that her and husband Gary maintain over 150 aquariums in their customized fish house, where they specialize in Tanganyikans and Malawis? Check out Pam’s YouTube channel for some awesome videos taken both in the wild and in her fish house.
All photos are courtesy of Pam Chin. Let’s get started!
The Cichlid Stage: What strikes you most about seeing cichlids in their natural habitat?
I have truly struggled with the fear of water and swimming. The only way I could talk myself into getting in the water, was the hope that I might see a fish I recognize. I will never forget the first time. I could barely float, but once I had my face in the water and I saw cichlids that I was keeping in my own aquariums, I was in awe. I couldn’t believe it! Now I am a much-improved swimmer and a fish stalker! You can discover so much by watching them. How they interact with each other, territorial behaviors, what they eat, how they spawn, fry rearing, etc. I have learned so much by observing, and it has made me a better fish keeper.
I think the biggest surprise is the variety of different fish that can be found together at any site, especially when you have kept most of these species at one time or another. They always look good all together in the lake, but you know in your mind and from experience that there is no way it would actually work in a fish tank.
It’s no secret that the Tropheus genus is one of your favorites. You have tanks dedicated to them in your fish house and you have taken some great photos and videos of these fish in their native habitat. For the readers unfamiliar with Tropheus, what should they know to keep them successfully in aquaria.
I do love my Tropheus! And I have strict set of rules that I follow faithfully. Here is the short list:
Buying Juveniles Over wild – Seriously, you can buy 3 to 4 times the amount of Tropheus for the same dollar amount. It is best to see the parents if you can. The fry should grow up to look just like them. Put on your judging hat and examine the quality of the group, their health, color, and the conditions they are in. Don’t just buy fish because you can’t wait. If you are going to put all that money into a fish and breed them, you are going to want quality from the get-go. Ask around, because if there is something up with the seller or the fish, it gets around. Never buy Tropheus fry from a tank that is mixed Tropheus. That is not good. They will all cross in a heartbeat regardless of what the seller says.
When it comes to wild Tropheus, it can be a throw of the dice. Sometimes it works out, and other times it is a total failure. Some wild fish never recover from the collection process. You don’t know how old they are, or where they have been, how long they were in a drum floating in the lake, how many days on a boat, how long on a truck or in facility that doesn’t even have the basics of running water. Need I say more?
Large Group – Large Tank – Ideally 30+ fish – Tropheus are more communal than one thinks and they are sedentary, which means they never leave their immediate area. They are born and they breed on the same rock. In the wild it is not unusual to see them in groups, sometimes there are just a few and other times I have seen more than 100. Often in the lake I have watched groups gather up together and graze across the rocks. It is a site to behold, and I want to see that in my tanks. I strive to have a cohesive group.
I never dwell on the sex ratio. Only the Tropheus need to know who is who. In a big group, it really doesn’t matter. Sub dominate males help take the heat off the females, and you will often see these lower tier males spawning. In smaller groups it can be harder, but ultimately you want that group bond, and if your numbers are low, then it is critical that you build up the group.
No Tank Mates – Species Only Tanks – Why would you spend all that money on a group of Tropheus then put them at risk by adding other fish? Or vice a versa? How could you add the fish you just paid a pretty penny for and let the Tropheus slaughter them? It is one of the biggest lessons I have learned and, once I quit adding tank mates, my Tropheus have lasted a lot longer!
Don’t Over Feed – Food is the only thing you can totally control with Tropheus. Choose wisely! When you see what Tropheus eat in the wild, it will make you scratch your head! 90% of the food they consume you can’t even see, it is a light green slime on the rocks. The other 10% is all luck – insects, shrimps, plankton, eggs. However, they don’t see these high protein types of foods every day. In the wild, Tropheus are lean and mean!
It is so easy to over feed them. They appear to be starving at all times. They can beg like there is no tomorrow. They will eat anything offered and will eat it until it’s all gone. They will literally eat themselves to death. I prefer a green flake food as their basic diet. Then once a week or so they get a treat of something with high protein – krill, mysis shrimp, people shrimp, etc. How much protein and how often you feed it is a fine line. But they need a little rich food to get into spawning condition.
I love to watch them eat, and when you feed flake food it is all over in 2 minutes. It’s one reason I like to feed algae wafers to my Tropheus. It is really more for me than for them. They enjoy the low calorie treat, and I enjoy the 30 minutes of entertainment. There are many high-end fish foods available, and they have an amazing list of ingredients, but in my opinion, it is just too rich to feed to Tropheus on a daily basis.
I rarely feed pellets because I worry about them swelling up in their tummies. You don’t want a Tropheus with an upset stomach. It is much better to underfeed them. Fat Tropheus can have reproduction issues, as well as fatty liver disease. Motivate grazing by feeding less and by letting the algae grow on the back and sides of your aquarium. It is awesome to see them grazing in your tank. It is a natural behavior.
No one has killed more Tropheus than me over the years, and it is a heart breaker every time it happens. Every now and then I think I can cheat on my own rules, but it usually turns into a disaster. Tropheus don’t look at your resume, and it doesn’t matter how long you have been keeping fish. These darn Tropheus – they will get you!
Lake Tanganyikan shell dwellers are favorites of many cichlidophiles, and many lake photos show locations with high densities of Neothauma tanganyicense shells. Did you encounter some of these dense shell beds? If so, describe for the readers the cichlid species you encountered among them and any behaviors you observed that differ from captive specimens.
I am a snorkeler, and the shell beds are much deeper than I would ever attempt to go. The divers have reported seeing huge piles of shells that are over a mile long, and I have heard estimates of 12 feet + deep. Though over time, these shells actually weld together due to the alkaline water, so the fish can’t even go very deep into these piles. However, this type of shell bed supports a lot of fauna in the lake. Not only do you have the different shell dwellers, but there are many types of predators who feed on these smaller cichlids for a living, including the Water Cobra, Naja annulata.
Describe some behavioral differences you’ve noticed between the wild fish species you encountered and those same species you keep (or have kept).
I think the most obvious difference is how large their territories are in the wild. How long the flee length is, you know, how far will the fish chase another fish until it gives up. It is amazing to see an Ophthalmotilapia ventralis guarding his territory and chasing off threats for 10+ feet. That is a huge territory. Typically, the females are gathered up in a school 20 feet or more away from the male’s territories. In our tanks, it is often less than 20 inches. You just don’t see the results of aggression in the wild like we see in our tanks. We are cramming these fish into a glass box and hoping for the best.
Many hobbyists attempt to emulate the lake’s bottom for the species they keep. Describe the variety of substrates you encounter, from the lake’s edges to deeper zones.
I am most familiar with the shallow rocky habitat, where most of the fish live in and on the rocks. Typically, you don’t see any sand on these rocks, sometimes a slight dusting if there is a beach nearby. So, it is truly a bare substrate. Occasionally I swim on the sand, but there are barely any fish and most are silver. Also, the sand and swampy areas are where the crocs hang out, so of course I like to avoid those areas.
I would say that I am amazed at the amount of sand hobbyists use in their tanks, most of these Tangs avoid sandy areas in the wild for the fear of getting picked off. When people tell me their fish love the sand and the fish dig all the time, I can’t help but think the poor fish are trying to actually remove the sand. They would carry it to the top of the tank and spit it out over the edge if they could! At best, you only need a dusting of sand to finish your tank off, there are very few cichlids that must have sand in the aquarium to reproduce. Meanwhile sand is labor intensive and harbors so many bad things. Lighten up on the sand people!
Over the years, you have visited numerous areas of the lake. With this last visit, talk a little about some of the species you saw a lot of and some species you hardly saw, if at all. Did anything surprise you?
There is really so much to see, and as I am swimming along it’s a hard decision whether I should go left or right, around the rock, or swim back and look at that fish I just saw. I try to swim slow, so I don’t scare the fish into the rocks, and take time to look down in the crooks and crannies. When I get home and I go through all the pictures and videos, there is always fish I didn’t see while I was swimming, but I caught it on the camera. By far the biggest surprise this trip was getting the Water Cobra on film. Had I known beforehand, I would have been running on top of the water back to the boat!
I hate to say it, but Variabilichromis moorii is the junk fish of the lake, it is everywhere in the rocky habitat. They can hold a territory, spawn and raise fry in the middle of many fish that are larger. It’s not unusual to see them with 1 inch fry, so you have to give them some credit.
Petrochromis fasciolatus is a fascinating cichlid that we don’t see in the hobby. They form large schools, 100’s of fish, and feed on rocks where they wouldn’t have a chance if they were an individual fish, but as a large school, they can feed anywhere. I was totally amazed the first time I saw them at Nkondwe, and I have seen the same group every time I have been back. On this last trip, I saw them at Isanga and Kachase. they were probably at different sites as well, but I just did see them.
For some odd reason, I didn’t see many Cyprichromis on this trip! I love to tease my Cyp loving friends by telling sardine stories! Usually I start with how many 100’s of Cyps I had to batt away to see the Tropheus at a particular site. For some reason, they were just deeper than I could see this time, because the divers did get some Cyprichromis pictures. You just never know what you are going to see when you jump in the water!
Many of the videos that I have seen of the lake don’t show a great deal of vegetation in the lake itself, though it’s not void of plant life. If you can, discuss some of the aquatic vegetation in the lake.
I have only seen a few areas that have some vegetation in the shallow water, it is really not an exaggeration to say that Lake Tanganyika is nearly void of plant life. A good example is out of more than two dozen swims on this latest trip I probably saw plant beds twice. In order for these plant beds to thrive there can be no beach seining, which is still common on the lake, even though it is illegal. When they pull up the huge nets on to the shore line everything ends up in the net, plant beds, juvenile fish, the sand dwelling fish, open water fish, etc. Many of these sandy areas are now void of any life, the over fishing is so bad. A few of the at-risk sand dwellers are making a comeback in some areas like the Mahale National Park, but only because of the enforcement of no seine nets.
Also, I don’t think people realize how steep the shoreline is, and below the water line it falls off quite quickly, especially if the shore itself is steep. Often it is at least 30 feet deep, 10-20 feet from the shoreline. The average depth of the lake is over 1,800 feet! There is no standing up in Lake Tanganyika! Therefore, my theory is there are not very many places that can support this plant bed habitat. I was swimming on the sand bed at Kambwimba that was void of fish and plants and I was following it out from the shoreline maybe 30 feet. I thought I was going to fall off a cliff it got so deep so fast.
Let’s switch gears a bit. Talk a little about the activities, policies, and enforcement surrounding the exportation of cichlids from the lake.
I think it is frightening. In Tanzania alone there are at least 11 licensed companies that can export fish from the Lake. I don’t think anyone knows how many people work for them. No one is tracking what, where or when the fish are extracted. You have companies going in and collecting 200-300 fish at a site, and the next day another outfitter is at the same place catching 200-300 more. They admit the losses are huge during the collection process. They say the majority of the fish right now are going to China and Turkey; they are willing to pay the big bucks. The sloppy seconds go to Europe and the US. Consequently, fish that are only found at one site are at the most risk.
Tanzania is trying harder than Zambia to enforce the fisheries regulations, but just look at this lake on the map, it is huge and that is a big job. In Zambia, there was not any enforcement of fisheries regulations, at the south end of the lake, as we saw them pulling seine nets right in the harbor of Mpulungu. Up north in Zambia at the Nsumbu National Park they are trying harder, but I don’t think they have the man power to accomplish all that needs to be done. We are still seeing fish come in from the national parks.
This is really unfortunate. Reducing the hobby demand for wild caught species is one sure way to curtail the exportation of these beautiful fish, but that’s not likely to happen anytime soon. What are some other things hobbyists can do to promote the conservation of cichlids?
I think awareness is the most valuable tool we have to offer for conservation, and CARES has been the leader in this respect. Most hobbyists are unaware, and once you explain it to them, most want to help in some way. And there are so many ways!! You can maintain a species, you can donate to the many funds for fish conservation, and you can spread awareness and help educate other hobbyists.
Part of the issue is due to the hobby itself. There is a huge turnover of people coming in and out of fishkeeping. It has been this way for years. The new people are so enthusiastic and dive in deep before they are aware of how and where fish are collected, and know what fish are at risk and why.
It all boils down to research, research and research. Research the fish before you buy them, so you know how to keep them. Research where they are from. Is it a national park, are they at risk, etc? And last but not least, research the seller. Maybe your fish are not at risk, but the supplier is bringing in fish that are. Please don’t support unscrupulous importers and suppliers who continually and consistently bring in fish that are at risk. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Other hobbyists experiences are invaluable, and if there are sellers who are abusing fish at risk, it usually gets around.
What is frustrating is when we throw up a red flag that a certain fish is being over collected, then everyone wants it more. Some of it is ego and some of it is for money, not only at the collection point, but in the hobby. Some people think they can get rich quick if they get a fish at risk and are able to breed it. This is not a problem that is exclusively in the US. It’s worldwide. To learn more about CARES, visit their website: https://caresforfish.org.
Describe some of the changes that you notice in the lake and areas around it with each subsequent visit.
It had been 16 years since I had been to Mpulungu, Zambia, and I could definitely see the change. They are not good changes; population of the area is easily 10 times higher, the harbor is polluted and full of plastic. That is another big change – plastic water bottles everywhere, in the water and along the shore line.
16 years ago, we drank the water from the lake, with no ill effects! There was no bottled water, no refrigeration, and that means no ice! We learned to love our beer and drinks warm! Now everyone is drinking water from plastic bottles. And Africa has a bad habit of littering. They drop these plastic bottles and plastic bags where ever and whenever they are done with them. You think you are pulling up to a remote beach and there is plastic everywhere. There are no recycling facilities, so they usually end up burning the plastic. It is like a double whammy – leave it on the ground or burn it. Thankfully most beer and soda pop are in glass bottles that are re-used. Lately, I have seen village events where they are trying to clean up their towns and roads, but there is plenty to still be done.
By far the biggest change I have seen in Africa is the cell phone. The first trip I took we didn’t have any cell phones! Now we do, and most everyone in Africa has a cell phone too or someone close in their family does and they are all on social media. I was swimming in Kambwimba and an ornamental fish collector was pulling out of the bay. He stopped to talk with me and asked if I knew Tautvydas. I didn’t understand him at first but then he went on to say; “You know Tautvydas from Cambridge, England.” I couldn’t believe he was talking about T-bone (Tautvydas Pangonis). It was a small world moment for me. But it is all because they have phones now. There were only a few areas where we didn’t have cell service, not any worse than hitting a bad area here in the states.
Thanks so much for agreeing to be interviewed again. Is there anything we didn’t cover that you would like to add?
It is my pleasure, Scott! No one likes to talk more about cichlids and Lake Tanganyika than me, and I am so glad you gave me the chance to share my experiences. It really is an amazing place to visit, and I can’t wait to return!