On July 21, 1985, I conducted an interview with Stuart Grant while he visited me in North Carolina. I first met him while visiting in Malawi during 1983. During this visit I became aware of the fact that there were many beautiful cichlids that were not available in the U.S. since imports of wild caught Malawi cichlids had been irregular during the previous few years. Over the past few months, imports of Malawi cichlids have been regular and plentiful and there is a renewed interest in these colorful aquarium fishes.
How long have you been in the U.S. and why did you make this trip?
I have been here five weeks and have another two weeks to go. During the past year I have re-established contact with importers and persons connected with the aquarium trade in the United States, and I felt that now was a particularly good time to visit them in person.
You haven't been in the U.S. in a number of years. How have you found your reception and what have you seen during your stay?
Yes, it's true that I have not visited the U.S. for some years, this has been due to the need to concentrate attention on the European market as a result of the decline in wild caught fishes shipped into the United States. Since I have been here I have seen fish farming operations in Florida, particularly those specializing in Malawi fishes. I have been hosted by the Potomac Valley Aquarium Society and the Raleigh Aquarium Society where I was pleased to meet up with some of the hobbyists of these societies. Next week I plan to attend the American Cichlid Association Convention in New Jersey before returning to Malawi. On the lighter side, I have been able to visit Walt Disney World, Busch Gardens, Fairchild Tropical Garden and the Capitol City of Washington. I guess you could say I have visited some of the more popular attractions that must be seen while in America.
You mentioned the European market, to what countries around the world do you ship Malawi cichlids?
Regular shipments go to Sweden, Holland, Belgium, the United Kingdom and larger shipments go to regular customers in West Germany. Shipments to France tend to be somewhat irregular and sporadic. Small shipments go to Johannesburg, South Africa at times.
So, there are quite a few countries you ship fishes to either on a regular or occasional basis. Besides the technological difficulties of communicating around the world, how are you able to keep up with everyone and what languages do you speak?
For a few years Malawi has had a greatly improved telephone linkage established in Blantyre. International calls are fast and reliable. At the moment, facilities do not allow a telex to be placed in Salima near the holding and shipping facility; this will come later. As far as personal communication is concerned, most German customers speak fluent English but I have a rudimentary knowledge of German, and better French, which helps me with French customers. In Malawi the main language is Chichewa, which I, perhaps, speak better than most Europeans. I can also speak Chitumbuka, the language of the northern part of Malawi.
How did you come to be in Malawi?
In 1958, after having completed National Service in the Royal Air Force where I was stationed in Cyprus, I applied for a post in what was then Nyasaland and took up an appointment with the Nyasaland Government. Here I was working in various stations for fourteen years as an accountant, office manager and personnel officer. During this period I kept a low key interest in fishes (I used to be a member of Stafford Aquarists Society in the Midlands of the United Kingdom) and kept a few of the Malawi fishes in iron-framed tanks at the various stations where I was posted.
How long have you been in the fish trade?
Since 1973. I had done some work with killifishes of the genus Nothobranchius that are found in Malawi, and had sent these to the American Killifish Association. One day I was approached by the then Chief Fisheries Officer with a view to being a licensed collector. My post in the government (now of course the independent Republic of Malawi) was due to be taken over by a Malawian and this offered me the chance of remaining in a country where I had been very happy and pursuing an activity in which I was greatly interested.
Can you give a brief history of fish exporting in Malawi?
Ornamental fish exporting began in the middle to late sixties when Peter and Henny Davies commenced operations mainly in the south of the lake, and eventually established their collecting station at Cape Maclear. The government decided that there should be additional persons in the trade and this was how and why I was licensed in 1973 to operate from the main lake. A third exporter came into being about this time and this was Aquarist Tropical Fish Ltd. whose manager was Eric Fleet. He was allocated a slightly smaller area of the main lake than that apportioned to me, but he was also licensed to operate in Lake Malombe, the smaller shallow lake at the southern end of Lake Malawi. A few years afterwards, Peter and Henny Davies left Malawi, leaving Eric Fleet and myself as exporters of Malawi fishes.
What happened then, and what is the status today?
Before Peter Davies left, the government had Dr. A.J. Ribbink from South Africa engaged in investigative and scientific work on fishes that were exported, and his project lasted for several years. Peter Davies had a former Post Office telephone engineer, Norman Edwards, working for him as a pilot, ferrying fishes from the north down to Cape Maclear and from there to the international airport near Blantyre. Following the Davies' departure, Dr. Ribbink recommended that Norman Edwards be licensed for the immediate Cape Maclear area and this was approved by the government after a few years (1980). As matters stand at present I am licensed for the whole of the lake, excluding the Cape Maclear area which is being operated by Norman Edwards. Eric Fleet no longer exports fishes.
When Malawi cichlids were first imported into the U.S., there was an intense interest in these very colorful fishes. At times the imports were arriving so fast we could hardly keep up with the new fishes in each shipment. Do you feel there is any threat of over exploitation of Malawi cichlids since nearly all species in the lake are endemic, and often found only in a single locale within the lake?
Before I answer this question I would like to make a few points. Fishing in Malawi for ornamental fishes is not done using drugs, electricity, or explosives. In addition, there is no coral to be broken, shells to be collected, or delicate organisms to be damaged, all meaning that there is no environmental damage or destruction to the biotope. In fact, the ruggedness of the rocky habitats requires the divers to collect all fishes by hand using fine mesh curtain-like nets. At most sites, there are areas where no collections are undertaken because of the inaccessibility of the fishes in-between the rocks. Therefore, only a portion of the total rocky habitats are fished. When divers arrive at a particular site and make their initial dives, it is easily determined whether the site will yield enough fishes to make the time spent at this site worthwhile. If not, then they then move on to other sites and species. It is a self-regulating process. On the basis of the ruggedness of the terrain and our inefficient methods of collection in relation to the total population of the varieties fished, I am satisfied that no given population has been, or will be, over-exploited.
Since the collection of fishes is labor intensive, it must require many divers to catch the required number of fishes. How large is your staff?
At the moment I have twenty-four employees (all Malawian) of whom nineteen are divers. The normal number of divers per boat, or per team is four - two diving and two up top in the boat. When the two divers get cold, they come up and the two in the boat go down below. One of my divers, Saulos Mwale has been with me for twelve years and is the head diver. Every twelve weeks he travels to all of the dive sites checking out the equipment for safety. This is important as our dive gear gets tremendous wear - much more so than equipment of weekend divers. In the fish holding center I have four employees and in the office there is one clerk. The divers are stationed at collecting centers around the lake from Salima to Chilumba which is in the extreme north.
So, with your teams all around the lake collecting a variety of localities each with its own special fauna, we are able to see a good number and variety of Malawi cichlids. But, are there still areas you have not explored and can we expect more new cichlids to be imported?
Yes, there are areas to be explored, primarily in the northern region of the lake. However, collection from these remote sites involves complicated, expensive and time consuming logistics. Additional staff, boats, outboard motors, dive gear and rental of base facilities all have to be considered and brought into play. As far as new fish are concerned, naturally we live in hope that completely new varieties will be located. However, past experience indicates that variations on already existing themes (fishes) will be the likely outcome. I hope that these likely variations on already established fishes will not be ignored or passed over but will result in their being accepted into the hobby as yet further examples of the rich diversity of Malawi cichlids.
Thank you, Stuart for spending this time with me. I hope your stay in the U.S. has helped you to get a better understanding of the interest in Malawi cichlids. We look forward to being able to receive wild caught Malawi fishes, particularly any new fish you encounter.
After several years of not visiting the U.S., it is good to be able to talk with dealers and hobbyists, alike. This has allowed me to develop an up-to-date perspective of the American cichlid hobby, especially with regards to the Malawi cichlids. I hope, David, that we can meet again soon.