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How does a Malawi cichlid end up in a fish tank?
by Peter Hofman (trigger)
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Last April/May we were guests of Stuart M. Grant Ltd. in Malawi. SMG Ltd. is a big exporter of Malawi cichlids. The company is based in Salima District, South Senga Bay at Kambiri point at the lakeside. During our stay I studied the process of how the fish are transported from the lake to our fish tanks at home. What I found is described in following article.

There are roughly three phases in the process at the Malawi end. Catching, storage and shipping. I also studied the import process in the Netherlands and will write something about that too in another aritcle.

Catching
The fish are caught by divers. The divers submerge with nets into the water using a locally made apparatus which supplies air for breathing, called a hookah-rig. For catching, the company has a couple of boats with crews and a team of divers to catch the fish in their natural habitat. When a specific species is requested, a boat is prepared with the needed equipment to catch that fish. A compressor is brought on board to feed the hookah-rigs. The divers do not use scuba equipment sine it will make them too slow in the water. This is a system similar to what is used in commercial diving and is called “surface supplied air diving”. The system consists of a compressor attached to an expansion tank which is kept at a constant pressure of about 10 bar.

Connected to this tank are long low pressure hoses that connect to a second stages of scuba regulators. Basically the divers have a mouthpiece with long hoses to the surface. The only significant difference between this and commercial diving is that commercial divers use extra bail-out cylinders just in case something goes wrong with the surface supplied air. With fish catching, the divers are able to surface directly in case something goes wrong. The divers submerge in pairs at the places the fish are expected to be. With mbuna they place the nets around the rocks where the fish hide and chase them out of hiding into the nets.

The open water species are more difficult. They have to be chased into strategically placed nets. After the fish have been chased in the nets, a selection is made, based on looks, and size. The selected fish are put in barrels covered with nets. Once enough fish are caught, the rest are released. The barrels are then brought to the surface. Some species that live in deeper water can not be brought to the surface all at once. Just like divers that stay down too long, the fish need to go through stages of decompression. Depending on the location, the fish are brought onto the boats, or taken to temporary storage along the lake. If the desired fish are far from Kambiri point, the boats will stay on location for several days. It would not be cost effective for the boats to return after each day. Also on the smaller boats, the trip back can be too long for the fish. In those cases the fish are transported from the temporary storage to Kambiri point on the commercial ferry Ilala.

When the fish arrive at Kambiri point they first are taken into the fish house. There they are put in glass tanks. A day later the catch is checked. Species are split in males and females. Fish that did not survive are removed. After that there is a good overview of what was actually caught. After a couple days, the catch stabilises and is ready to be moved to the concrete holding tanks or prepared for shipping. Species that are often exported are kept in stock. Other species are caught only when ordered. Some species only live in the protected Lake Malawi National Park region and can not be caught legally. Another problem for the exporters is the absence of an ordered species. Sometimes, an order can't be filled since the fish were not found at there usual location or not in enough numbers to catch. As a result, a catching expedition ends up with nothing. A lot of time and money is wasted when the fish decided to move to a different location. In that case there has to be another trip at a different time which will hopefully be more lucky.


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