If you’re like me and you enjoy learning about all types of cichlids, in the process you’ll inevitably also learn about many people in the hobby. I’ve said before that, as time goes by, all cichlidophiles will encounter certain names over and over, some more than others. Along my journey I have come across many of the same names. One of those is Ron Soucy.
I don’t remember when I first heard his name, but no matter what I was reading – an article online, a book, or a magazine – it seemed his name popped up regularly. In fact, it did so again a couple of months ago. I said to myself then, “You need to track this guy down and get an interview with him.” Well, I did track him down and I did get an interview.
Ron’s tropical fish interests began in the 60’s with a single Betta splendens (Siamese fighting fish), or simply betta, as we call them. After high school, he had an entire bedroom full of fish tanks and fish. His fish breeding journey began there and he worked for the next 20 years in aquarium retail. As both his experience and the fish community grew, Ron ran larger and larger fish operations, culminating today in what is one of, if not the largest fish stores in southern California. Let’s get right to the interview!
Why don’t we start with you describing your shop, Aquarium Fish Depot (AFD) in San Diego, CA, which you just recently opened.
Aquarium Fish Depot is an absolute dream that was decades in the making. It is a 5,000 square foot store with over 600 aquariums holding fish for sale. We have already sold over 750 species in our first year of operation, including many rare and hard to get ones. The shop has a high warehouse ceiling but has been transformed into an aesthetic fish gallery. As you first enter, you see the artwork of my wife, Judy, and our team member, Sam Scālz. A 13-foot display with a large group of Zaire Moba Cyphotilapia takes your breath away.
We are planning some more beautiful displays, including planted aquascapes, in the near future. As you walk past our fully stocked freezer, you see merchandise nooks to the left and the many rows of tanks filled with all types of fish, ranging from nano species to our towering back wall consisting of (21) 105-gallon tanks, housing many larger species. We cater to all freshwater hobbyists and have our fish categorized to make it easier for customers. There are several pet fish around the shop to greet customers, including a gigantic green carpintis and a growing Congo Mbu Puffer.
We have a spectacular row of live plants available, containing many aquarium staples, like Anachris, Anubias, java fern and Echinodorus, as well as some rarer species, such as Bucephalandra and Homalomena. Our plant experts are top notch at making sure we bring in as many species as possible. We have 18 tanks full of Caridina and Neocaridina shrimps. We plan to build a new showcase for these, expanding our selection. These have become a very popular aspect of aquarium keeping for those with limited space.
The end caps of our aisles feature tall discus displays, with certified German Stendkers and some nice Malawi and Tanganyikan fish, including cichlids. Speaking of Tanganyikan cichlids, we have the best selection of species, always keeping lamprologines, shell dwellers, featherfins, sand sifters, and Tropheus in stock. Of course, we sell Cyphotilapia, having several large colonies in house.
We also breed dozens of species in the shop, dedicating a full aisle to the operation. Most importantly, our tanks are all individually filtered and heated, preventing the possible spread of disease from tank to tank and allowing us to adjust water parameters to suit the needs of different species. It is quite an amazing shop with a passionate staff of experienced employees. Together, we are a team of true aquarium fanatics, some with many years in the hobby, so our collective brain is constantly thinking of ways to improve and flourish.
I believe your store has been open now for just over a year. Let’s fast forward. Where do you want AFD to be in five years?
In our first year, despite the major economic setbacks with COVID-19, we are surprised at how far we have come. Our customer base is growing exponentially, and our name is really getting out there in social circles. In five years, we hope to be well established and known as a major player in the cichlid and rare fish market.
As of late, we have really expanded into aquascaping and planted aquariums, as well as the aforementioned shrimp and other niche markets. We recently brought in a very comprehensive betta section and some amazing flowerhorns from Thailand. We don’t judge the tastes of our customers. However, cichlids are what truly defines our roots.
We have discussed the possibility of expanding and doing even more improvements so we can really service the needs of our customers. In five years, we hope that we are still growing, expanding, and steadily shipping fish across the country, while serving the needs of our local customer base.
Your fish keeping journey began back in the late 1960s. Fifty years later, what do you think are three or four of the most significant changes in the cichlid hobby and why?
There are so many more species available today than there was back then. Many fish have also changed scientific names. With a better understanding of the needs of cichlids, so many more are being bred in captivity and many new, domestic forms are available. While I am still dedicated to preserving the true species from the African rift lakes, I am not opposed to people keeping the many domestic forms that are available. We even sell top quality flowerhorn cichlids from Thailand, as I mentioned, and blood parrots, both of which can stir some controversy in aquarist circles. Because so many people purchase fish online, having that presence is vital to our business model.
We do heavy online advertising and ship to the lower 48 states, weekly. For that reason, we always need to keep our tanks fully stocked. We have an excellent POS system that allows us to update stock or make vital changes to inventory, rather easily. Adapting to a modern business plan is essential to our success, going forward. We also understand the importance of networking and utilizing social media. Staying personally connected to our customers is one of the most important aspects to our success going forward.
Having been both a hobbyist and businessman (and presumably occupying both roles now), what are some ways the hobbyist Ron and the businessman Ron come in conflict with respect to cichlids?
I like to do things the way that I have had success for decades. I still use box filters and sponge filters with amazing success. We don’t personally do too much to alter the water for the cichlids, mainly because our local water is so well suited to keeping the rift lake species happy, but I am noticing that customers often like to play with water parameters and chemistry, adding buffers and additives to their water.
While I am generally content with feeding basic foods, some of our customers are really particular about the quality and diversity of food that they give their fish. There are also many hobbyists in our region that want top-of-the-line aquariums, stands, and equipment so I relegate some of the merchandise purchasing to key employees that have more background in design and aquascaping. I have to let them all play to their strengths and allow our team to bring their unique talents to the table in order to improve the shop.
Talk a little about your cichlid inventory. What are some of your most and least in demand species?
We have so many customers who purchase adult Aulonocara (peacocks) and Malawi haps. Many keep only males, which allows us to hold back females for breeding purposes. We also have one of the best selections of Tanganyikan species, like Tropheus, lamprologines and shell dwellers. Our American and West African cichlid selection is expanding but we have had some difficulty getting many species, mainly due to the international shipping issues that have resulted from the pandemic lockdowns. Also, we have now become a go to store for quality angelfish and discus, carrying many incredible Stendker, German-bred specimens. We would like to expand our dwarf cichlids section and carry a few more West African and New World species as soon as they become available.
What are a couple of Cichlid species that you haven’t worked with or bred but want to and why?
I’ve worked with a lot of species over the past four decades and bred quite a number of them. We have a team of employees that are eager to breed as many species as possible, including discus and apistogramma. I am also intent on resuming my pleco breeding projects, as soon as we can obtain good stock. We have a few employees that breed species offsite, like discus, plecos, angelfish and even bettas. Here in the shop, we are working with Cyprichromis, rare central African species, and many Tanganyikan rock dwellers. Our team would like to breed some Central and South American cichlids and maybe even Madagascar species.
I have asked this question in a prior interview but I want to ask you too. 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 some species or variations. 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?
It is important to preserve the integrity of the specialist fish market. Most serious breeders know that it is better to keep a smaller circle than to be available to just anyone, as we see so many fall out of the hobby quickly, before ever getting established. Rare fish are not merchandise to be distributed to chain stores or basic brick and mortars, they deserve respect and care. While we don’t believe that restricting access is good for the hobby or fish conservation, we also don’t believe that all fish should be sold in all stores.
I have probably visited more than 50 retailers who sell cichlids, most of them online. Some of them specialize in specific types (e.g., shell dwellers, peacocks) or locations (e.g., rift lakes, SA, CA). Yet, each carry many of the same species. For the hardcore cichlidophiles who want that species that not everyone else has, what suggestions do you have to find them?
We will go out of our way to try and obtain rare species, if possible, for our customers. Patience is the key. Not all species are readily available in the hobby, and some are extremely limited. Keep a lookout on social media groups for breeders who might have what you are looking for. Don’t be afraid to call stores like Aquarium Fish Depot and ask us to look for species that we don’t carry in stock.
To add a little levity, what are some of the funniest or most bizarre questions you’ve been asked as a cichlid seller?
Besides the usual beginner questions, we sometimes get customers who ask if you could mix rift lake cichlids with things like guppies and shrimp.
I am amazed every day at the amount of fish keeping misinformation that proliferates on the Internet. I have several favorites. What are a few favorite “myths” that you continue to hear in fish keeping circles?
Common myths in the hobby include “you need odd or even numbers” and “one inch of fish per gallon.” Also, some former truths that have evolved include “discus are very difficult to keep” and “certain fish won’t breed in captivity.”
If you could give cichlid keepers two pieces of advice to help make their fish keeping journey successful, whether they’re novices or beginners, what would they be?
First and foremost, always research a species before you buy it and, secondly, make sure that the store employees are knowledgeable, and finally, that the fish you buy look healthy and active.
Anything you would like to share about Ron Soucy, AFD, or cichlid keeping that we didn’t cover?
I just got married to my soulmate, Judy Valois, in the month of August. I keep and breed turtles and tortoises, I love dachshunds, and I love Palms and Cycads. I also know a thing or two about cars.