Czech Republic – A surprising source of quality freshwater tropical fish

What do you think of when the Czech Republic is mentioned? Prague? Pilsner? A stag do? When we visited in December last year we didn’t experience any of that (ok one or two Pilsners – rude not too!) but we did experience something that may not be obvious to fishkeeping hobbyists – houses and outbuildings filled with tropical fish, fish and more fish!

Fuelled by low gas prices associated with an Eastern Bloc nation and low living costs due partly to the Czech’s non involvement with the Euro, with some hearty insulation (the outside temperature rarely got above freezing during our visit) it is possible for families to captively breed tropical fish on a small scale basis and sell them to the lucrative European market providing a steady and healthy income.

Landing in the late afternoon we were met by our hosts and driven from the small regional airport to our base in the east of the country not far from the Polish border. Certainly not Prague and you’ll struggle to find a quieter town in the whole of the UK, seemingly no traffic around – almost as if cars were banned in order to protect the quaint cobbled streets. Wondering how on earth there could be a thriving tropical fish breeding facility in our midsts we insisted on squeezing in a visit to our first supplier immediately to prepare us for what to expect the following day.

Back in the van we got and within five minutes pulled up outside a lovely house built into a hillside with perfectly manicured gardens and an Arsenal FC flag hanging from a bedroom window (great taste in football teams the Czechs…). Assuming we were picking up the breeder to head over to his warehouse initially none of us rose to exit our minivan. Summoned to get out into the subzero temperatures we rushed to go inside the house through what looked like the basement door…

Instantly hit by a rush of warm humid air and surrounded by the bubbling of a hundred air powered foam filters we had encountered our first tropical fish breeding facility and it was under his kitchen! Used to visiting expansive facilities of thousands of systemised aquaria it was a pleasant surprise to encounter a low scale, low tech facility with high quality captive fish at every (cramped) turn.

Although brimming with both broodstock, fry and everything in between there we only 5 varieties to be seen – Electric Blue Rams, Golden Eye Dwarf Cichlids, Bristlenose Catfish, Rummynose and Cardinal Tetra.

Instantly it dawned upon us that this was the set up, this was were the fish were bred and raised. And the only way to do so with such limited resources was to focus on a small number of species and do them well.

Each breeder would have specialist knowledge in reproducing his particular varieties and our agent would have up to a hundred breeders producing fish exclusively for export through them. Already on that you maths the agent has 500 varieties available, each bred and raised with the care and passion that only a small scale producer could manage, but are able to offer the selection of an intensive large scale producer.

We explained to our agent what varieties particularly excited us and which we felt our customers back in the UK would be keen for us to stock. We had three days and weren’t going to visit 100 basements in 100 towns in that time! That evening a shortlist of facilities was drawn up and we were told to be ready to leave the hotel at 6am and not expect to be back before midnight – we had a serious day ahead of us…

The morning soon came and straight off to our first breeder! A quick pit stop on the way to a slightly larger facility this gentleman only produced two varieties – Serpae Tetra and the true Bloodfin Tetra, Aphyocharax anisitsi. Beautiful healthy fish, yes, but not the Dwarf Cichlids, Catfish and Rift Valley fish that we had earmarked the previous night for our attention. What was interesting however was the again low tech spawning method. Small unfiltered 8″ glass tanks with coarse webbing raised from the base to protect freshly laid eggs from the parents and abundant Java moss to encourage the scattering in the first place. Parents were rotated every couple of days and eggs removed to bare aquariums with air agitated water movement. An exclusive diet of Cyclops raised the fry to adult size ready for export within weeks.

We moved onto the largest facility that we were going to visit on our trip. The owners lived on site but this was actually an outhouse dedicated to Rift Valley Cichlids.

The broodstock here were amazing and mostly kept in groups of a single male and several females which is really how they should be kept, and boy did they look good because of it! And no matter what we offered they were not for sale… Sorry, we tried!

An amazing find was the rarely seen Placidochromis phenochilus lupingu. The patterning on the male was particularly impressive!

What was really fascinating to see was how these mouthbrooding cichlids were raised. When the female has been holding fertilised eggs long enough she is ‘milked’ by the breeder and the eggs placed into a submerged wine glass where they are kept in constant suspension until they have hatched and consumed their yolk sac, after which they are transferred to small heavily fed and filtered aquariums to grow on ready for sale.

We visited a couple of breeders who specialised in Catfish. You can see baby Hoplosternum thoracatum to the left. Also present were Synodontis and several more varieties of Ancistrus and Whiptails, including the amazingly graceful Sturisoma panamense.

One breeder in particular was massively into his Corydoras and was establishing good size colonies of Barbatus, Weitzmani, Venezuelan Blacks among others. Watch out for these fish in our stores in good numbers and at good prices.

On the last day we managed to see many varieties of Dward Cichlids – Apistos, Rams, Kribs of all varieties, Nannocara among others.

And finally we were delighted to find a relatively new variety of Apistogramma agassizi – ‘Flameback’. Only available on the market for a year or so they have previously commanded prices in the UK of upwards of £40 for a pair. We hope to be able to supply them on a regular basis for as little as half that.

When it comes to importing fish it is really important to have a good relationship with the suppliers at the other end, and we certainly now have that with many of the breeders in the Czech Republic.

As they are familiar with us they can take constructive feedback to ensure that the fish always arrive in the best possible condition, and hopefully knowing that they are going to a retailer that cares about quality they ship nothing but the best.