Lee Newman, from Canada is a professional aquarist working as the Curator of the Graham Amazon Gallery in the Vancouver aquarium, his skills and contributions to the aquarium hobby and cichlid knowledge are many and widely known. Lee has been the first person to spawn in captivity such difficult species as Retroculus xinguensis and Satanoperca acuticeps, which he documented with wonderful pictures as he has done for many other species. Lee is also a sought after lecturer at cichlid conventions in northamerica and elsewhere. I am proud Lee has accepted to participate in this interview.
Lee would you tell us about your background, how did you get involved with fish? How did you develop that strong passion for South American cichlids?
Actually, I think my story is very much like a lot of other people’s. As far as I remember I’ve always been drawn to water and fish - maybe something I’ve simply been hard-wired with. However, my start in the hobby came in the form of a single female guppy, which by definition was pregnant, given to me at the end of the school year by my Grade One teacher. I took the guppy home and she soon gave birth - I, of course, used that as an excuse to set up more jars. Ah, the promise of a fishroom, even at five years old! I’ve been keeping fish ever since.
I think my strong passion for South American cichlids was a kind of destiny: I was growing up in southern Ontario with my face in every lake, river and stream I could find watching sunfish (Lepomis spp.), bass (Micopterus spp.) and yellow perch (Perca flavescens). I was drawn to their morphology, colour and behaviour. It wasn’t a necessarily a conscience decision, but cichlids seemed to have the same appeal for me - a sort of comfortable familiarity. At the time (very early 70’s) most of the available cichlids were neotropical in origin. So, I started with angelfish and rams and found them to be both interesting to watch and pretty to look at so I never really needed or wanted to get into any of the other cichlids (African) that eventually became available.
Would you tell us about your family? How do you carry on with your hobby and life?
We moved from England and settled in Canada in 1966 - I was three. I have two brothers, but I’m the only one really into natural history. Luckily, my parents were very supportive of my interest in aquariums and fish and made it easy for me to continually expand my hobby as I got older.
Fast forward to my situation now - I’m married to Lisa, a wonderfully warm and supportive companion, who shares my passion for fishkeeping and photography. Now when I ask for another aquarium, the response is, "If you get another aquarium, then so do I!" That doubles the price of my hobby! The fish have turned out to be a great way for Lisa and me to just spend time together. Many nights, particularly during Vancouver’s monsoon season (November to March), we sit in the fishroom in a couple of comfortable chairs and enjoy the fish rather than turning on the TV. The other aspect to sharing the hobby with Lisa is that I don’t get nagged to paint the bathroom or finish the baseboard trim in the dining room! Instead, our chores are usually focused on doing things in the fishroom.
You have specialized in keeping and breeding very difficult species of South American cichlids, being the first in breeding them several times and with this bringing new knowledge about them. Do you have a favorite experience in this regard?
Don’t get me wrong, I very much enjoyed being successful with Satanoperca acuticeps and Retroculus xinguensis, but I don’t really have a favourite experience in breeding difficult cichlids. However, I do have one that was eventually the most satisfying. For years I had read about how difficult Satanoperca daemon was to keep and that breeding it was even more challenging. When I finally got the chance to keep some, I applied what I had learned through the experiences of others. Unfortunately, my first and second experiences with trying spawn S. daemon failed, but each time I learned something more about them. I was finally rewarded with the most recent group I worked with - it was a project in the works for 10 years - with Wayne’s unflagging support the whole way along!
How did you get involved working with public aquariums?
I knew early on that working in a public aquarium was really the only career I wanted. In Grade 10, I submitted an information request to the school Guidance Office on the job of "Aquarist". After explaining to the counselor that it wasn’t Astrology I was interested in, I received the print-out detailing the education and skills required to become an aquarist. I then set my sights on gaining the appropriate knowledge and skills - I was already keeping aquariums, I was already a certified SCUBA diver - I just needed a formal education in biology and some more experience with putting together PVC pipe!
While I was attending Sir Sandford Fleming College (School of Natural Resources) earning my diploma in aquaculture I did a work placement at the Vancouver Aquarium. That placement not only confirmed that being an aquarium biologist was what I still wanted to be, but it also introduced me to the curator that would eventually hire me - I’ve been at the Aquarium for 18 years.
In your experience, are people now more interested in aquariums than before, what is the trend?
Globally, I’m not really aware of attendance trends with respect to public aquariums. However, I do know that in the United States in particular, public aquariums are playing a role in the re-vitalization of water-front areas in many cites, so there are lots of new aquariums being built. Perhaps it’s the old adage - "build it and they will come." As far as Vancouver is concerned, 2007 was a record year for paid general admissions.
Are public aquariums self sustainable nowadays, can we hope for that?
I think the consensus for the Zoo and Aquarium community is to be self sustainable - as much as possible and particularly as wildlife collecting regulations and import laws grow ever more restrictive. Being able to trade animals and associated expertise between Zoos and Aquariums seems to be the only logical way forward. However, we are probably more than a few years away from that at the moment.
What is the trend in public aquarium exhibits, what kind of education are they providing nowadays?
The trends, at this point in time, tend to be those that are able to fuel front-gate admissions so the aquarium can continue to operate because you can’t do anything good for a species or habitat if you can’t afford to operate. After that, getting involved with conservation projects and programs is the mission or mandate of most zoos and aquariums.
Most zoos and aquariums (including Vancouver) have a large number of educational programs - most associated or built around the live collection. At the Vancouver Aquarium we have school programs (supported with classrooms and wetlabs), animal encounters (get up close and personal with a beluga whale, for example), member’s lectures in a multi-media theatre, public education/direct action programs such as the Great Canadian Shoreline Clean-up and Ocean Wise - a sustainable seafood initiative, all in addition to the individual exhibit graphics, labels and interactives.
Are public aquariums interacting with aquarium societies? How is this done if so? Do you see benefits for this type of association?
Some do, some don’t. Some aquariums allow their local clubs to hold their monthly meetings at their facility usually with one or more of the members being staff at the aquarium. In the case of the Vancouver Aquarium, in 1993 I founded the Vancouver Aquatic Hobbyist Club (although it has changed its name since the inception) in an effort to bring together professional aquarium biologists and hobbyists in the greater Vancouver area. I think it has been a successful endeavor in that both sides have benefited from educating each other. Besides, it is well-known in the public aquarium industry that many of the most significant advances in aquatic husbandry come from knowledgeable and experienced hobbyists as they often are not encumbered by a restrictive annual operating budget contested by public relations people, marketers and education staff!
What is your opinion about the AZA (Association Zoological parks and Aquariums) policy to keep all public aquarium bred stock to themselves, preferring to destroy them rather than to sell or give to aquarists?
That has been a very controversial and highly contested policy within the public aquarium industry. On one hand, many aquariums use the pet trade or hobby to acquire specimens for exhibit while on the other there is a perceived need to disassociate themselves with the irresponsibility often displayed in the hobby. No public aquarium wants to be associated with a hobby or industry that condones the use of aesthetic dye injections, man-made hybrids and unethical practices such as the sale of fish that grow too large to anyone but a public aquarium to house appropriately. It is a double-edged sword!
Having said that, there are provisions for co-operating with the trade or hobby, its just there are stipulations, such as signing a transfer agreement that specifies how the animals are to be treated and to what use they can be put. We also have restrictions as to what species can be sold or traded back to the hobby. However, in the case of fishes (including cichlids) the more common they are in the trade the more secure their future - it’s the drab brown, ill-tempered fishes that no one wants that have to worry! The conservative policy was founded because the AZA did not want zoos transferring animals to hunting farms where they would be killed for sport.
Do you believe public aquariums are doing a good job in helping the conservation of habitats and species? Do you have any ideas in this regard?
I think most aquariums are doing what they can, given their typically modest budgets, to effect conservation. Operating an aquarium is expensive, but with interested and resourceful staff, a lot can get done. In particular, the Freshwater Fish Taxon Advisory Group of the AZA is actively involved with the Lake Victorian cichlids and the fishes (including cichlids) of Madagascar. As for ideas, I really think the pet trade can help a lot more. Other than a few widely-known programs run by the larger clubs or associations (the ACA being the most widely-known with regards to cichlids) there’s precious little being done by an industry that generates enormous sums of money. If every club, retail store and wholesaler were to pitch in even a little, we could fund every conservation project that needs it.
Would you share with us one of your more remarkable experiences collecting cichlids in the Amazon River?
I’ve been lucky to have had lots of remarkable experiences collecting fishes in the Amazon, but the one that stands out the most for me was during a trip to Peru in 1998. The trip was particularly special to me in that Wayne Leibel, my mentor and friend, was part of the group. One day during the trip we were taken to a small cocha (oxbow lake separated from the main river by the falling water level) where the falling water level had revealed a muddy bank. We quickly ended up in mud up to our thighs trying to get near the water, but we managed to sample with a beach seine and some cast nets. Lifting the catch out of the muddy water revealed we had caught a brooding pair of Satanoperca jurupari. We let the pair go as they were too big to take home with us, but Wayne relieved the pair of their parental responsibilities and took the fry to rear at home. So, here I was in Peruvian Amazon with Wayne Leibel catching demonfish - all the while with Lisa sharing in the moment by capturing the entire experience on film. All the people and things that mattered to me most were in the same place at the same time.
It is always a joy to have the opportunity to see your wonderful cichlid pictures, it is clear you have an artistic eye, but also a precise technical skill. Would you tell us something about your photographic techniques?
Thanks, but I really need to first credit two people that really got me started in photography with the right attitude; my photographic mentor and close friend Guy Pelland, an accomplished underwater photographer I’ve known and learned from since 1978 and Ernie Cooper, also a very capable photographer who was the research lab technician when I started at the Aquarium, as both encouraged and mentored my entry into photography in general and fish photography in particular.
The equipment I use isn’t all that technical - I shoot with an 8MP Canon 30D, usually a 100 mm macro lens, a 580EX set on master and a 420EX slave, but I find that I’m continually looking for new techniques to improve my photographs. The basic concept is a two light source approach - the master (580EX) is either on the hotshoe of the camera or it is placed atop a tripod and positioned towards a spot in which I want the fish to be for the shot. The camera and the master are connected with an off-shoe cord that supports Canon’s E-TTL metering. The slave (420EX) is set on top of the aquarium (that doesn’t work so well with open-top tanks!) and aimed down to the same spot as the master, but slightly towards the back of the aquarium so the background gets some light during the exposure. I usually have to play around with flash ratios (between the master and slave) to find the right balance for foreground and background exposures - I don’t want the background to be brighter than the foreground!
I do not "chase" the fish around the aquarium with the camera and I do not move the fish to a photo-tank - two ways of getting really good photos of terrified fishes! Rather, I let the fishes get comfortable with me (dressed in black to reduce reflections) sitting in front of the aquarium and wait until they move into the targeted spot where the flashes are set up. I always shoot at the lowest ISO I can (usually 100), use medium to small apertures (f11 to f22) for depth of field and shutter speeds of at least 125th of a second. After that, it is the position or orientation of the fish to the light that makes or breaks the photograph.
Please tell us about your favorite cichlid, why?
Unlike most, that’s an easy question for me! Satanoperca leucosticta - the speckle-backed form from Guyana and Colombia as it has all the attributes that appeal to me - form (it’s a very fishy-looking fish), it’s modest but striking colour pattern of green and blue spangles, peaceful social demeanor and interesting reproductive behavior.
Do you have any other hobbies?
I do have other hobbies, but I have to keep it to no more than three in total simply because I want to have the time and energy to explore them to the fullest (of my ability). So, when I’m not watching the fish, changing water or making gelatin diet with Lisa in the kitchen, I’m out doing landscape photography or playing drums.
Any comments to add?
While this hobby (and profession) was born out of an interest in fishes, it is continually infused with energy and enthusiasm from the people willing to share their experiences, knowledge and friendship with me. I’m also grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to share my work with others. Lastly, I’d like to thank you, Juan Miguel, for asking me to do this interview - it is quite an honour considering the list of people that already have. Thank-you.