Posted: Dec. 18, 2009
These hardy fish look good in retail, professional or home set-ups.
By David Lass
African cichlids have become a staple “bread-and-butter” fish for the aquarium hobby/industry, and most large stores should always have a variety of these fishes for sale. They are so popular that some stores deal exclusively in African cichlids or are known for carrying very wide selections of them. While not in any way community tank inhabitants, African cichlids are usually kept in tanks devoted to their group of fish.
They always do well, are easy to keep in the retail store and will do just as well for customers.
From the Wild, to In the Store
The appellation “African” for these fishes is because they originally come from the three great African rift lakes of Victoria, Tanganyika and Malawi. Victorian fish are not very common in the hobby, as most of them are not very colorful. The cichlids from Lake Tanganyika are well represented; many of them are dwarfs, only getting to 3 inches or so at adulthood. The Tanganyikan dwarf cichlids all can be kept in small tanks. Most of them are cave- or shell-spawners, and they breed freely in tanks.
African Cichlids are among aquatic retailers’ highest-selling fish. Their hardiness makes them popular among hobbyists. David Lass
When we say “African cichlids,” most people think of the fishes from Lake Malawi. More specifically, we are usually thinking of the “mbuna,” which is the native name given to these “rock-dwellers.” Most of these fish are maternal mouth-brooders, and they will breed in aquarium conditions. For both the Malawian and Tanganyikan cichlids, if there are enough rocks and other hiding places in a tank, eventually babies will simply show up.
The Main Advantage of African Cichlids
African cichlids, in addition to being very hardy fish that spawn easily in the aquarium, have the distinct advantage of needing hard/alkaline water, many hobbyists will find in their taps. These fish require water that is in the high 7s or low 8s for pH, which is just about as hard as you will find. Often they are referred to as needing “liquid rock” because of this hard-water need. But hobbyists with soft/acid water (like me) shouldn’t be discouraged. It is easy to convert soft/acid water into hard/alkaline, although trying to go the other direction can be very difficult. I keep aragonite or crushed coral gravel in the filter and pieces of old live rock or other limestone in the tank to change my water’s pH level; initially I raise the pH with sodium bicarbonate.
Keeping and Selling African Cichlids
African cichlids are probably the easiest group of fishes to keep, display and sell in a retail store. In addition to providing them with hard/alkaline water, two other keys elements to successfully keeping them in the store involve feeding and crowding. They must be fed often but in small amounts. Their basic food should be vegetable based, such as spirulina flakes or wafers. Keeping some soft bunch plants, such as Egeria or Cabomba in a tank with them allows for natural grazing on plant matter.
If you have the capacity, some stores will rotate rocks from tanks that are purposefully given too much light, so that the rocks have dense algae growths on them. Mbuna will really appreciate this and will clean algae-covered rocks in a matter of days.
The other consideration in keeping these fish in the store is the fact that they are very territorial, especially as they approach adulthood reach spawning age. Hobbyists employ many strategies, such as keeping only one dominant male of a species in a tank. Since this is not very practical in a retail store setting, most stores have found overcrowding the fish works best. This method requires excellent filtration and careful attention to water quality. The basic idea is to keep the fish in such densities that no one fish can really establish a territory. Keeping them in tanks without any decorations, such as rock or driftwood, also is important as it inhibits any single fish from establishing a territory.
African Cichlids at a Glance
• African cichlids are beautiful and hardy fish that are easy to keep; they do well in store tanks and for customers.
• Overcrowding them in store tanks will cut down on territorial aggression, but keep an eye on the water conditions.
• Display tanks in the store—especially with breeding colonies of any African cichlids—will spur sales dramatically.
While the best and easiest way to keep African cichlids (at least Malawians) in a store is in large quantities in bare tanks, keeping at least one display tank of adults is almost a necessity. Giving your customers an idea of what the adults look like and their behavior in a natural setting is an excellent way to spur sales of these fish. Many stores also have breeding colonies established in display tanks, which also adds to the appeal of these fish for hobbyists.
In keeping African cichlids, the biggest health problem is “bloat.” There is much debate about the causes of this, which is when the fish simply become bloated, often to the point where the scales and eyes stick out abnormally. In my opinion, the best theory is that Malawi bloat comes from feeding fish a diet too high in fat and protein. These fish have long intestinal tracts, since they need this to digest the algae that are their main diet. Curing bloat can be very difficult, and it is much more easily prevented by feeding primarily vegetable-based foods and feeding small amounts often.
The second problem involving Malawi cichlids is that many fish show up in the hobby labeled as “Assorted African cichlids” when they really should be called “Random hybrids of different African cichlid species.” A number of fish farmers, as well as hobbyists, have allowed different species of Malawi cichlids to crossbreed, resulting in hybrids. In my opinion, this is a really bad practice. In a relatively small number of generations, this will essentially allow the different species of Malawi cichlids to revert to fish that are close to their common ancestor. The African rift lakes are very new in terms of geologic time, and the speciation that has given us all of the varieties we see has happened over a couple hundred-thousand years—a blink in evolutionary terms. It is my hope that stores will not encourage this practice and that retailers won’t buy these “assorted” hybrids from wholesale suppliers, despite their low costs. I also hope that you will not encourage your customers to allow cross-species breeding.
Popularity Can Breed Success
African cichlids are an excellent group of fishes. They are beautiful, hardy and easy to keep; even beginner hobbyists will have great success with them. Often they are used in public display tanks in offices, restaurants and anywhere they can rival marine tanks—at a fraction of the cost and maintenance headaches.
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