Julian Dignall, catfish enthusiast

Hi Guys,

One day I was reading Practical Fishkeeping and I stumbled upon a feature which was about a catfish enthusiast. At that time, I was amazed at the collection of fish this guy was keeping at his home. Reading all about the dedication and contribution he gave our hobby blew me away. Here was someone that travelled to far away lands to collect new fish who also runs the best catfish website on the internet and boasts a collection of some of the rarest and unusual catfish in the country. You could only imagine how excited I was to find out he lived less than 10 miles away from me. 

Some of you have met Jools at our catfish event and some of you have been lucky enough to visit his fish house. I was delighted when Jools agreed to an interview for the Lothian Fishkeeper Channel. 

First of all Jool's, for anybody that doesn’t know you can you introduce yourself. 

My name is Julian Dignall, I live in West Lothian Scotland and I’m in my mid-forties. I’ve been keeping fishes since I was a boy.

Before becoming focussed on Catfish, did you have an interest in other fish?

I find most fishes interesting from one angle or another; I have kept and continue to keep a lot of fishes beside cats; part of the fun of keeping catfishes is selecting other fishes that go well with them. The challenge is to find fishes that in no way detriment the catfishes and so it can be quite involved. I have a soft spot for medium to small south American cichlids, smaller west African fishes generally and I do like a shoal of characins, or barbs. Never really got the bug for big fishes, marines or killifishes, but have kept quite a few species of most other groups.

So why Catfish? 

They are diverse! There are so many of them, thousands actually, and when started there was very little known, or able to be known through books and before the internet. So I started keeping as many as I could find, soon I started writing about them. 

What led you to start traveling to south America to collect these fish yourself? This surely has to be a dream come true. It certainly would be for me.

Growing up in central Edinburgh, one of the guys in the old fish store told stories of a trip to Colombia. I grew up watching seminal nature TV from the likes of David Attenborough and Jacques Cousteau and so I just had a desire to see the wild for myself. That then married with the interest in fishes and, if I look back now, I like to travel more generally. It is a great teacher, you find new foods, customs, viewpoints on the world that you can pick and choose the best of and bring home and adopt the ones you like. I was lucky to be able to afford the time and costs of being able to travel to Peru just after the turn of the millennium and it really opened my eyes. That’s the thing about this hobby, there is always another level, just when you think you know a fair bit, whack, another level opens up. Going to the Amazon did this as I, for the first time, scratched the surface of a next level, the one where all the living things in a habitat effect each other and the effect of the seasons becomes clearer to you. By way of example, I remember standing neck deep in water and noticing that the water at my neck was a lot warmer than that around my toes. Fishkeepers strive to keep balance in their tanks and drive to exacting parameters for the water and it’s temperature and so on. Here I was in a column of water filled with aquarium fishes and the temperature was anything but pre-set.

Over the years. there has been a lot of changes on the Amazon basin and you must notice things deteriorating. With man-made disasters and construction work slowly destroying the area, it must be hard to see what was once thriving with fish now all but drying up and masses amount of fish dying off?

The creation of the trans amazon highway brought a new era in the fishes we got into our tanks, but it also meant that accessing the previously impenetrable “green hell” was much easier to do in numbers. Cars could drive much of the route and so towns popped up everywhere. There is still much left to go and see which is still how it has looked for centuries. However, with climate change this is at risk and, eventually, I suspect only national park areas will remain. It all depends on how much can be saved. My generation has not done very well by the Amazon, perhaps the younger generation will do better.

You have written about the damn built on the Xingu river already and how this has made many of our favourite fish disappear from the hobby. Are there any in particular that you are sad to see perish?

No species, described or undescribed has a greater or lesser right to exist in my view. It is tragic to lose them, it is a new thing to us in the hobby, the number of fishes available to us has always gone up in my 40 years of fishkeeping. However, in my lifetime, I think it will reduce. Several species in the Xingu will survive because they are pretty, I am especially sad to see the ugly ones perish. 

With so many fish now endangered, would you agree that breeding these fish in the aquarium is an important challenge for catfish keepers?

It is vital, the next generation must know what is lost, and why and try to maintain aquarium populations. Captive breeding is a great thing but let us be clear that it is not overfishing that is endangering the vast majority of aquarium fishes in the wild. It is the ceaseless destruction of the river and surrounding habitat that does this. Indeed, if fishes are all bred in captivity, then the communities depending on sustainably harvesting them for the trade don’t have a source of income. So maybe then they look for work building the next dam, or moonlighting with the illegal gold extractors. 

you have had some success with the rarer species, based on your experience, what would you consider the key to success?

Listening to other people to get a broad view, reading a lot and watching your fishes. This results in a calmer, less reactive approach to fishkeeping. Get the water right, change it often and feed as much as you can afford of what the fishes are evolved to eat. In the early days of the zebra pleco (and the internet) all out warfare could be instigated by just asking what pH these fishes would spawn at. Turns out they spawn at a wide ra
nge and this water parameter is secondary to diet and temperature. So everyone who got so upset at everyone else who was wrong just wasted effort. Pretty much everybody was right; but they just hasn’t got good at listening I guess.

You have collected some amazing species over the years, do you have any the you are still to find while out collecting? is there a particular species you dream about seeing in the wild?
Jools in his fish room. 

I would like to spend some time in Borneo, Sumatra, that kind of place. My number one bucket fish list to see in nature is Bagrichthys hypselopterus, the true black lancer. It is probably a deep water fish; but I’d settle for seeing any of these. I would also very much like to see Conorhynchos it’s a weird fish that looks like nothing else. Living only on Brazil’s Rio Sao Francisco, it’s a larger fish, silvery which a loach face and a catfish body.

Do you have any more trips planned?

Not at present, my kids are 8,6 and 2 and so taking time to go to faraway places is very limited. I hope to take my family to the Amazon when my youngest is 6.

Another side of your hobby is Planet Catfish. can you tell us about that?

Register free and get to know your catfish better
I started a small website in 1997 which I put some of the writings I mentioned earlier online. Soon I was adding pictures. Then I built a database for species, it grew, a lot. I then added a forum (2003) and loads of catfish keepers just came right out of the bogwood they’d been hiding under for years. A core community was formed. The database got bigger. Thousands of species now, over twenty thousand images of catfish that are confirmed IDs and many more thousands of user submitted pictures. There are lots of good fishkeepers, writers, photographers out there, but bringing it all together appears to have fallen to me. I am driven by the benefit for all of sharing good information, so I continue to run it. My plan is to keep it going until I have more time to work on it, it’s more or less ticking over nicely for now, the future will bring more.

With so many fish groups on Facebook nowadays, what makes planet catfish still so popular with catfish enthusiast worldwide?

Facebook is a website set-up to first and foremost make money for its shareholders, it is not always a happy place. Moreover, it seems to me to be like radio. Great entertainment, but it is hard to go back and listen to something again. Finding the quality in a lot of lesser content is also hard. There will always be social media, at least in the form of ways in which people can interact online, but I think we also need the great Wikipedia and knowledge based sites too. I think these are like books as opposed to radio and should be places where you can go and find info. These things are not in competition, they are parallel things. It’s Planet’s “job” to continue to capture the good content, vet it, test it and make it freely accessible online for this and future generations of aquarists.

The knowledge and information available on planet catfish is second to none. you must be proud of what you have achieved so far?

I am, but I think every day I could do more and I must do more.

Since Facebook groups entered the fishkeeping hobby, many forums closed as a result. Planet catfish is still very much active and going strong. why is that?

A lot of the old forums were replaced by Facebook because it was like for like. Planet is a reference website first and a forum second, furthermore there is unique linking between the species database and the online community. People also trust it will be there in the future, because it has been around for so long in the past. And I hope that’s true.

 why not join the catfish study group today?
Your also involved in the catfish study group. can you tell us the history behind this organisation? 

The catfish study group has been around in one guise or another for over 40 years. It exists to further the study of catfishes. It organises fund raising raffles, annual catfish conventions which have world class speakers and has an open show and quarterly high quality journal. It’s a great resource for Fishkeeper with an interest in catfishes to interact in person as opposed to online, and continues to support events up and down the UK.

Jools travels the country giving talks and presentations all about catfish and his trips to south America. Catfish keepers all over the country enjoy hearing about the natural habitat of their favourite fish. Education catfish fans about the correct care these fish require is an invaluable service to the hobby in my books. Lothian Fishkeeper were very lucky last year when the Catfish Study Group joined us for our catfish event in October. Jools brought along some of his own plecos and some of us were even lucky to take home some very special fish. We were also treated to a talk all about his adventures collecting plecos.

I encourage anyone reading this to visit both the catfish study group and planet catfish today. register, sign up and begin learning all about your favourite catfish. You will not regret it.

On behalf of all the catfish fans out there, Id like to thank Jools for taking the time to share this will us. Thank you! 

If you have enjoyed reading today, please share it with your friends and leave a message to let me know what you thought.

Thanks for reading 

bye for now

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