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Mike vs. Ted: A Breeder’s Challenge (Extended)

by TFH Staff on November 18, 2009 at 4:51 pm

Ted Judy, in a moment of utter foolishness, challenged Mike Hellweg to a one-on-one fish breeding contest. The rules are simple: spawn fish, raise the fry to an age when they can be safely given to another hobbyist, and repeat. The species that are spawned will be assigned point values based on the system used by the Missouri Aquarium Society, Inc.’s (MASI) Breeders Award Program (BAP), which ranks fish based upon their breeding difficulty.

The contest is to span one year, beginning with the January 2010 issue of TFH and ending with the December 2010 issue. Ted and Mike will submit a spawning report to TFH each month, as well as talk about the strategies, successes, and failures they experience during the competition. Our intrepid breeders will also update a blog at so readers can get more frequent updates on what is going on in Mike’s and Ted’s fishrooms. TFH recently sat down with these master breeders to get some information about the contest, and learn a little more about the contestants:

TFH: Why a breeding contest? Why between you two? And why now?

Ted: I am worried that the art of breeding fish is in danger of disappearing, and I hope that letting readers into our fishrooms for a year will spark some more interest in fish breeding. I challenged Mike because we are friends, we are both avid participants in our home clubs’ Breeders Award Programs, and Mike is one of the top fish breeders of our generation. This is a bit of a David-and-Goliath-type challenge (I’m the David, but not as good with a sling).

Mike: I agree with Ted that it seems the fine art of seeking a true challenge when breeding fish is taking a backseat to other pursuits. I don’t think that people are any less interested in breeding fish, but their interest in the challenge just isn’t what it used to be.

A recent quick scan of Breeders Award Programs from clubs across the country indicates that more than half of all fish submitted are from but a single family of fish—Cichlidae. A further quarter of all fish submitted are cyprinodonts: killies and livebearers from another five or six families. A few common tetras, barbs, danios, a couple of rainbowfish, and a half dozen or so species of anabantoids represent eight or nine more families of fish, making up about 20 percent of submissions. Finally, Corydoras, Ancistrus, and a few other commonly spawned catfish represent another four or five families, comprising only about 3 percent of the spawns submitted to club BAPs. That leaves less than 2 percent of all spawns submitted to include the 430 or so other families of aquarium fish!

Most hobby breeders rarely ever venture from the relative ease of breeding fish from only a few families and never challenge themselves to think beyond these limits, though fish from literally dozens of families are well represented in the trade. I hope that by accepting Ted’s friendly challenge, we can inspire people to think beyond the glass box and try something new. Every fish spawns in the wild. Just because their spawning behavior hasn’t yet been observed in our tanks doesn’t mean it can’t be done, just that it hasn’t yet been.

Ted’s fishroom boasts 65 tanks that are mostly less than 30 gallons, all of which are aquascaped with driftwood and gravel or sand.

TFH: What makes you think that fish breeding is declining?

Ted: Let me clarify. Fish breeding as a hobby is declining. I meet a lot of people who breed a lot of fish. Most of them are trying to support their fish rooms by selling the fish they produce. That is a great goal, and one that I have for my fish room too, but what I have noticed is that the number of aquarists who breed a lot of different fish is declining. Choices as to what to breed are being made based upon market value. Fish that were once common in the hobby are now hard to find. Fewer new species are staying around in the hobby long enough to get established.

Mike: As I mentioned above, the decline in breeding isn’t so much a decline in raw numbers as it is a decline in people seeking a challenge. Like Ted, in my travels I have the wonderful opportunity to visit hundreds of hobbyists every year. I have the chance to visit dozens of fishrooms, and I see a lot of very knowledgeable breeders doing a lot of incredible things. Like Ted, I also see a lot of hobbyists hoping to generate enough revenue to cover the costs of their hobby. This usually means they’re breeding angels, guppies, or a couple of cory species. I just don’t see as many people trying to breed other families of fish as I used to see, say, 20 years ago. I hope we can take a few steps toward changing that.

Ted: Another factor is the decline of clubs. There are a lot of aquarium societies that are really struggling to keep participating members. I have noticed that clubs with a strong Breeders Award Program tend to have fewer problems attracting and keeping members. Most clubs require that fish submitted to BAPs be donated for auction. This raises a little money for the club and distributes fish to other members. People join aquarium societies because they like fish. They like to get new fish. When there are no fish at club meetings, there is little to keep most members coming back. When club members are actively breeding lots of different fish, there is greater participation in the club. When the breeding stops, as is happening in a lot of societies, interest in meetings dies and the club loses members. It is a vicious circle.

Mike: I would have to agree with Ted that clubs that seem to be successful in the long term do have successful BAPs. This is a way for anyone, even someone with only one or two tanks and not a lot of time, to be active in the club and help support it. Keep in mind that some of the best breeders I’ve ever known have done amazing things literally in a spare closet! Breeding fish and being active in a club’s BAP doesn’t take a lot of room, or a lot of fancy equipment either.

TFH: How will a contest between you two help alleviate the problem?

Mike: I think that if we show what two crazy guys can do in just a short period of time and with just a small amount of extra effort, maybe a few other hobbyists will step up and say, “Hey, I can do that too.” And when other hobbyists in their local clubs see these guys and gals, maybe they too will be inspired.

Ted: Hopefully Mike and I will be able to spark some interest in BAPs and provide some useful tips to help other aquarists be successful with spawning their fish.

TFH: Contests are games, and games have strategies. Tell us a little about how you plan to win.

Mike: For the past 20 or so years, I’ve averaged one new species successfully spawning in my fishroom about every three to four weeks, or a little over a dozen spawns a year. This gives me plenty of time to enjoy the fish, watch them, make notes, and write articles about my experiences with them. All I really plan to do is step up the pace a bit, and maybe hit one species a week, or maybe five a month. That of course means well over 50 spawns in the coming year—that’s a lot of work!

I don’t plan on doing all easy fish. Instead, I plan on concentrating on fish I’ve never worked with before. As many readers know, I usually look for and write about challenges among the less common fish that people rarely keep or even see. For the next year, I’ve got a different strategy. While I will continue working with oddballs, I also plan on working with a lot of fish from the local big box stores and local fish stores. That way, I hope our readers will see that you don’t have to have a huge fishroom or access to super-hard-to-get fish in order to challenge themselves.

Ted: I am going for the flood of easy spawns early and will concentrate on harder species down the road. I call it the poker bluff strategy—bet high, and maybe Mike will fold. Now that Mike knows what I am planning, however, I do not think it will work.

Mike’s fishroom holds 74 tanks, all of which receive at least a 50 percent weekly water change (with even more for the fry tanks).

TFH: What are you doing to prepare yourself for the challenge?

Ted: I started by changing some of the tank mix in my fishroom. I like to spawn fish in small tanks when I can. I have recently traded out 30- to 50-gallon aquariums for more 10- to 15-gallon tanks. At the same time, I started accumulating some species that can be triggered to spawn on short notice. Danios, small tetras, barbs, rasboras, and rainbowfish are conditioning as we speak. I separated the males from the females and have been feeding them lots of high-protein live foods. At the beginning of the contest I will pull pairs or trios of each type, put them together, do a big, cool water change, and hope for the best. If the fish cooperate, I hope to have eggs from at least a dozen species by the next day.

Mike: I’ve been working on some changes to my fishroom, standardizing filters, tanks, and other equipment so I don’t need to spend a lot of time trying to find parts, or cleaning many different types of systems. I’ve also been drilling tanks to add overflows to speed up water changes. I’ve added a group of sixteen 5-gallon tanks specifically for this contest, as well as twenty 30-gallon breeders to grow out fry. None of the fish will just be dumped at local auctions, either. I’ll be passing most of them on to other breeders to encourage them to try thinking outside of the glass box, and I’ve made arrangements with a couple of local stores to take some of the fish as well.

TFH: Any other strategies you want to share?

Ted: I have no secrets. Mike and I share breeding tips a lot. That first salvo of egg scatterers will hopefully be followed a month to two months later by several livebearers giving birth to broods. The trick is that the spawning has to take place after September 1st, so I separated males and females in July. Several of the females have dropped litters since then, but I did not put the females back into the tanks with the males. That happens on September 1st, and assuming they spawn right away, I should be able to report livebearers in good numbers a month later.

Mike: As Ted says, we both share tips and tricks frequently, so we don’t really have any secrets. Ted will be coming here to speak to my club in November, and he’ll see first hand everything that I do. I’ll be sticking to my routines of feeding live foods, doing large, frequent water changes, and using live plants in all of my tanks. Other than that, I have no secret strategies. Several friends in my local club (MASI) have offered to loan me pairs or breeding groups, and over the course of the year I’ll probably take advantage of those generous offers too. Even with this, I’ll have to keep in mind that just because a pair spawns for a friend in his or her tanks doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll spawn for me. So for the most part, I’ll be sticking with the strategy of getting six to twelve young fish, growing them out, and then selecting breeding stock from these groups. I’ve got a lot of fish on hand already that I can work with, and I expect to work with many of these over the next year.

TFH: Ted, you are known as a dwarf cichlid guy. All you’ve talked about are egg scatterers and livebearers. Will dwarf cichlids have a place in the contest?

Ted: Of course! The nice thing about tetras, danios, barbs, and rainbows is that they are good dithers for dwarf cichlids. I can condition the dithers for spawning while they are doing their job making the cichlids feel comfortable. Right now there are probably a dozen or so cichlid species in the tanks with the schooling fish and livebearers.

TFH: Mike, you have bred some pretty impressive oddball species in your career. Anything of particular interest you are working on?

Mike: I have several species of catfish I’ve been working with for a few years now. As they’ve reached sexual maturity, I’ve begun to set many of them up for spawning, giving each species their own tanks. These include a couple pairs of Synodontis nigriventris, a pair of Chaca bankanensis, a pair of Agamyxis pectinifrons, a group of Pelteobagrus (Hyalobagrus) ornatus, a pair of Bunocephalus verrucosus, a group of Bunocephalus knerii, and groups of Centromochlus perugiae, Microglanis iheringi, and Hara (Erethistes) jerdoni, which have each spawned several times for me. I’ve also got several species of uncommon barbs and tetras that I’ll be working with over the next year as well. We’ll see if any of the above cooperate! I’ll also be working with a couple of other oddballs and a few marine fish, but those will be surprises for later articles. For the most part, what I’ll be working with will be fish that anyone can find in almost any pet store.

TFH: How about you, Ted? Any really difficult species you are trying to crack?

Ted: I have some project fish that I have been working on for a while now, and hopefully they will spawn for me during this contest. I have two West African cichlid species that I have been working with that shouldn’t be too hard, but they have not spawned for me yet. Chromidotilapia linkei is a somewhat robust cichlid I was able to collect in Cameroon last February, and C. melaniae is a pretty cichlid from Gabon that was gifted to me when I was in Austria after that trip to Cameroon. C. guntheri guntheri is not hard at all to spawn, but these two other species from the genus are proving to be a challenge. As far as oddballs go, I hope to spawn African butterflyfish Pantodon buchholzi, and at least one spiny eel Macrognathus sp. I am also taking this opportunity to learn how to spawn Corydoras sp. catfish, which have been a huge challenge for me in the past. I recently picked up a group of the giant kuhli loach Pangio myersi, and a couple pairs of the empire gudgeon Hypseleotris compressa. I will also concentrate on a long-term project I have been working on, which is to spawn many of the larger West African tetras.

TFH: This should be an interesting contest, and we thank you for the opportunity to let our readers experience it with you. Good luck to you both!

Posted in Uncategorized by TFH Staff on November 18th, 2009 at 4:51 pm.

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