Living the dream - with Steven Chester
Ive been chatting to the lead aquarium keeper from Chester Zoo about his passion for the hobby and luckily he agreed to answer some questions for the Lothian Fishkeeper Channel….
Good afternoon John, thanks for sending me this questionnaire, I am delighted to share my thoughts with Lothian Fishkeepers and hopefully a wider audience of serious aquarists across the hobby. My name is Steven Chester, I have just turned 40, I have a very understanding and supportive partner called Steph and three Children, Ben (21), Kelsey (17) and Grace (10). We live in an industrial town in Cheshire, England called Runcorn. I currently work at Chester Zoo where I am proud to hold the job title of Lead keeper with the aquarium team. My day to day work covers all aspects of aquarium keeping, temperate and tropical freshwater and marine, Invertebrates and aquatic plants, we have a large aquarium facility holding around 50 off show tanks, 23 display tanks plus a further 10 large display tanks in various animal houses across the zoo site! Our largest is a 150.000L tank holding a 14ft pair of Tomistoma crocodiles and approx. 5000 Asian fish, a lot of these were bred and raised at Chester Zoo. We are involved with various conservation projects which I will mention later!
How long have you been a Fishkeeper and what started your life long love for the hobby?
Ha ha, I think I was born with an interest in the outdoors and have been fascinated with water and aquatic life since I can remember, my very first memories are digging up my Grandfathers vegetable patch and making a ‘pond’ to hold sticklebacks that I caught with a child’s fishing net! My Grandfather would invariably fill in my hard work as soon as I returned home! I remember a Goldfish in a family member’s tank when I was four or five, the front panel was always thick with algae and I remember being the only person to ever wipe the window and spent hours watching this fish! Similar to this but a little later on in life, at the age of 13-14 I used to visit my auntie who had a twin 3ft tank setup on the wrought iron stands that were popular in the 80’s/90’s I saw my first neon tetras and pearl gourami and was entranced! My poor mother drove me to the local pet shops and aquatic dealers several times per week and after my aunt tired of the tanks I scraped together enough money to buy them, I installed them in my bedroom and my obsession became my hobby, I bought magazines and books, made lots of mistakes but slowly educated myself and had some early successes. Alongside my love for the hobby of keeping fish I also developed a love for Angling as a young boy and became a competent and successful fisherman, my angling career lasted for over 20 years and I only dropped it when I became serious about keeping and breeding fish and setup my first fish room, something had to give and my angling was the casualty, maybe one day I will wet a line again.
Can you describe your current home setup?
I met my partner Steph in the late 90’s and we quickly fell in love and moved into our first home together, for around 6 months I didn’t have a tank, the two tanks were still running at my family home but there was resistance about bringing a tank into the new house because they ‘smelt and were dirty!’ It took me six months to work a single 2ft tank into the living room, as most aquarists will know! One tank is never enough! One grew to two and eventually I had 9 tanks scattered throughout the house, it was unsightly and difficult to maintain so I made the decision to move my tanks into a fish house outside and utilised a brick outhouse that we already owned. Once installed in my own space I quickly devoted myself to breeding many species of fish from all kinds of families! Over the years, after dabbling with planted tanks, shrimp, larger fish and predatory fish I established that breeding small soft water fishes, especially Dwarf cichlids from South America and West Africa was my primary hobby, I threw myself into collecting rare and unusual species and that of course put me into contact with more experienced aquarists and ultimately into the organised hobby and the world of specialist groups such as the British cichlid association. My hobby has continued to grow and I now have a purpose built wooden fish-house measuring 20ft x 8ft x 8ft, the internal layout has changed over the years but I am very happy with the current layout and the 80 tanks it currently holds, these measure from small 10litre tanks measuring 14x8x8 that I use for characin breeding to a 40x24x18 tank that is on a system holding 1500litres of water and holding larger fish such as a group of lovely wild caught Geophagus sp ‘Pindare’ and a group of ten wild caught Syphysodon aquafasciata from the Rio nanay, Peru.
Your bound to have had countless success stories in your fish house, are there any that’s stood out?
I am not sure if other serious breeders of tropical fish have a celebration dance? But I have been known to do a jig from time to time! I have bred over 600 species of fish to date but there are several that have stood out as special and that I am proud to have bred. There are several challenging species that I have worked with that are widely regarded as difficult to spawn in captivity or certainly were before I bred them, notable species for me would be the chocolate gouramis, Sphaerichthys Selatanensis and Sphaerichthys vaillanti, the dwarf cichlid Dicrossus filamentosus was commonly known as a tricky species to breed in captivity, I was able to document the entire spawning sequence via pictures and published my work in the BCA journal cichlidae. Other successful spawns of note include. Barbus hulstearti, Ivanacara adoketa, Taeniacara candid, Trigonostigma somphongsi, Betta rubra, Nannostomus espei, Nannostomus mortenthaleri. The list go’s on!
You play an important role in the running of what is arguably the biggest and best fish keeping society here in the UK. How did that come about?
Thank you, I am lucky to be a small part of a very good committee and have had the pleasure of working alongside some of the country’s best aquarists and organisers over the years. I was aware of Preston early on but never attended, my first venture into the club scene was to attend the North west cichlid group auction in 2005 or 2006, from there I attended the monthly meetings for several years, the active membership was always quite small but we had some great informative meetings and I was learning quickly from guys with a lot of experience. Alongside the NWCG I also became actively involved with the British cichlid association and around 2009 found myself on the committee as publicity officer, at the time I joined the Association was in grave danger of collapse, high printing costs for cichlidae (The club journal), a minimum print run of 200 and a falling membership due to a high £20 joining fee were factors that were working against the group, I was present during a meeting that was to change the fortunes of the BCA, we took the decision to drop the printed copy of the magazine, we freed the budget of the printing costs and dropped the membership to a more reasonable £5 yearly fee, this was almost pure profit to be invested back into the group with larger events, better speakers etc, and as a bonus we teamed up with Tetra who supplied a lot of free food samples, myself and Darren Evens toured the country with the BCA stand, we offered a tub of food worth £10 with every new membership and we jumped from 100 to 350 members within a short space of time! All this was valuable experience in organising and running an Aquarium society. I first went along to Preston after I became disappointed with the falling membership of the NWCG, the last meeting I attended had four people in attendance, Preston on the other hand had 40-50 people at every meeting, a vibrant selection of the best aquarists in the Northwest and as a bonus a small auction at the end of the evening, a tempting prospect for a breeder to gain new stock and move on his surplus fishes! The club secretary at that time was an excellent aquarist called John Dean, the meetings were entertaining and I quickly became very good friends with Ray Blackburn, John Dean and Alan Vassiere, we would meet at Alans flat and travel together to the meetings and they were my favourite times in the hobby, unfortunately we lost Alan to cancer but John and Ray remain amongst my closest friends in the hobby. John decided to step down as secretary and I took on the role as other active members were in short supply! This is a common problem in all hobbyist societies, a few people put in the bulk of the work! My role as publicity officer came into good use and I started to advertise our club using social media and eventually our old location was filling up and space was incredibly tight, we moved to a larger venue just down the road and although several members had reservations it was just what Preston AS needed and we have gone from strength to strength, we average around 80 members per month and during 2017 we topped 120 people in the room, we invite the best guest speakers and come up with some novel, educational and entertaining activities! I am very proud of our club and our members, we have a great group of people and always welcome new members with open arms.
Aquarist clubs have been around as long as the hobby itself. They have played an important role in the development of the hobby worldwide. Why do you think this is?
For me, it is the social side of the hobby, to meet up and discuss problems, successes and failures over a pint in a relaxed atmosphere is the overriding advantage. Being a club member gives you access to fish that do not regularly appear in the shops, in our club I know who to approach for rare Cichlids, Rainbowfish, Anabantoids, Livebearers, Catfish ect, even if our members do not have the fish they usually have their own networks within their specialised subject and can help track down the required species, over the years I have acquired most of my rarest fish in this manner. I have been fortunate to listen to hundreds of lectures on a wide variety of subjects by a wide variety of speakers! Without a platform to speak on, this experience would be lost to the world! Gone are the days of detailed informative articles on breeding fish, the social media now offers a short blast of information but rarely is it from experts talking from life experience! A aquatic society allows you to listen to in-depth discussion about various topics.
With the introduction of social media, many Fishkeepers are turning to the online communities to connect with other Fishkeepers. While this has its positives for the community spirit within the hobby, can you foresee any issues for the hobby as a whole?
Ah social media! A hotly debated topic amongst club members and experienced aquarists. The way I see it aquarists have always communicated, firstly we wrote into question and answer sections of aquatic and club magazines, an expert in that field would reply (A month or months after!) and usually that persons advise was taken as gospel. The internet brought us message boards and forums, it allowed us to discuss problems with other enthusiasts, problem solving was shared amongst people of all ages and ability and allowed good records to be kept and old threads to be found and re-read. I personally started off on the PFK forum and was an active member, I also spent a lot of time on the Apistogramma.com forum and many experts there were able to help me and likewise I was able to help others. Social media kind of caught up with me a few years ago, I use Facebook, mainly for my hobby, it is a great, fast and easy way of seeing what my aquatic friends are doing and allows almost instant contact between aquarists! I can easily see what my friends in America and Asia are up to and can share my own photographs, successes and disasters with the world. Negatives! There are a few in my eyes, firstly the amount of ‘Internet experts’ many a time I have been convinced that a person online really knows their hobby when doling out advise, these people generally stick their opinion into everywhere and are very vocal and active in dishing out advise, I have met quite a few in person and they cannot hold a conversation about fish face to face, without google to help they are not quite the ‘expert’ they like people to believe they are! Secondly the number of sales pages and cheap second hand equipment available has really damaged the retail side of the hobby, the unregulated, unlicensed import of tropical fish by ‘Garage sellers’ who sell cheaply and often only last a year or so before getting bored and moving onto more profitable ventures! I believe this kind of seller is a great threat to our shops and retail trade! Where will we buy our fish if the retailers are forced to close because they cannot compete with sellers with no overheads, staff, VAT ect? I am not talking about breeders such as myself, we simply sell a surplus of stock, the result of successful breeding programs, I am talking about people that import fish as a unregistered business and sell from a home location, these people are certainly damaging the hobby/trade. If we loose our best specialised shops what do we then turn too for a supply of beautiful fish that are not common in the ‘bread and butter’ trade.
For some Fishkeepers, the thought of 'bagging' a job in their local fish store, surrounded by like-minded people all day sounds like the perfect job. For yourself, some may say you have the ultimate job of jobs when it comes to aquarium related employment. Growing up on a council estate in Widnes, did you ever imagine yourself as a zookeeper at Chester Zoos aquarium?
Not for one minute! I was not overly academic at school. I had ability but lacked enthusiasm, I drifted through school without much thought as to my future, enjoyed fishing with my friends and ‘having a laugh’ but I was never going to be career minded. After leaving school my responsibility was to find a job to help support the family home, I started as a shopfitters apprentice, a joiner and eventually ended up working in a sawmill, a dead-end job, low pay, few prospects and the kind of job that you watch the clock all day just to go home. I had a loving family and my hobby of breeding my fish and was happy with life but unfulfilled in my working day even after several promotions to management level. This changed when I saw an advertisement for a job as a freshwater aquarist at Blue planet aquarium in Ellesmere port, never before had I considered working with fish so I applied and was interviewed, I am naturally a confident person and with my experiences in the hobby I felt confident that I was more than capable of running a freshwater department and was willing to quickly learn the bits about public aquarium management that I did not yet know! I was given the job and very quickly my enthusiasm for my work was noticed, my curator and the managing director were very complimentary of the changes I made to the section, my tanks were clean and neat and tidy, the fish health improved, my ideas for changes to displays were excepted and I was very happy in my role, after a year the role of Display supervisor came up, a promotion beckoned, I applied and was given the job, I now had the responsibility of being second in command to the curator and relished the chance to have a say in the running of the entire zoological section including marine and Herp sections. Unfortunately, or fortunately!! I did not last long in this role, six weeks to be precise! Chester Zoo beckoned and I was offered the chance to apply for a temporary position within the aquarium team at Chester Zoo, I applied for the position as Assistant team manager (Maternity cover) and was given a 12 month temporary contract, luckily for me the lead keeper left almost immediately and I applied for that position, I was given the job and allowed to complete the 12 month contract as assistant team manager whilst secure in the knowledge that I had secured a full time role within the Zoo team as Lead keeper. I have the best job in the world for me, I work with an amazing team of people and relish going to work everyday! I have this to say.. ‘ Any man spending his working day doing something he does not love is a fool, life is so short and we spend most of our time at work, retrain, apply for a more suitable job! Do something that makes you happy!’
Your job must give you a great chance to care for fish that you would never normally get the opportunity to do so?
The public aquarium industry gives you the opportunity to work with fish too large or difficult to easily keep in home aquariums, I have worked with sharks, Rays, Octopus! And many others, I have swam with a shoal of 80 piranhas and a group of 3ft Pacu, I have worked with some amazing species such as seahorses, pipefish, mudskippers ect. It is a dream to work in my role, it is a challenge and a job that can be quite stressful when things go wrong! But the positives out way the negatives and I love my role in the aquarium team at Chester.
Is there a species you would really like to see housed at Chester Zoo aquarium?
That is a tough question because I love all fish, our collection at Chester is predominantly small freshwater fish, I would love to see some larger species within our collection but do not really have any preferences, I am a bit of a generalist although I have specialised in Apistogramma for the last 15 years or so I love all fish, I get excited planning a Tanganikan tank with Xenotilapia species or a Amazon river setup with various tetras and cichlids.
Whats a daily routine for you at the zoo? Is everyday a maintenance day?
Everyday is different, we have a team of five, a Team manager, assistant team manager, lead keeper and two keepers. We also have two interns that work with us on a full time contract for 12 months. Every morning someone is scheduled to check the external tanks (These are the tanks around the zoo in various animal houses), someone else is scheduled to work in Islands (The flagship £40million pound development) where we have tanks, someone is scheduled to feed our animals, sort out live foods, we maintain all tanks weekly and this is done via a rota, we do morning spot checks on all aquariums so the standard is very high and we ensure that all our displays are presentable to the public once we open at 10am. Mid morning and afternoon jobs vary, we maintain our offshow area, we breed fish and setup new projects, give special care and attention to fry, we maintain live food cultures, build new displays, theme tanks using a variety of materials. We have team meetings once per week and discuss issues or upcoming projects together. We have an excellent management team and we are organised and enthusiastic, I think this shows around the zoo where I feel we are respected and liked as a team.
Working for Chester Zoo has seen you get involved in some brilliant projects over the years, more recently the Mexican Fish Ark Project. What does this involve?
Chester were involved with the Mexican fish ark since the beginning, I met with ex Chester zoo director Dr Gordon mcgregor Reid and he was amongst the first to support the fish ark financially via Chester zoo funding. He was out in Mexico looking for projects to support and at the time the University of Morelia had a aquatic facility that was breeding common aquarium fish such as guppies and tetras for resale and to raise funds. Together with Ivan Dibble a plan was formed to maintain a population of endangered livebearers called Goodeids. Today this collection holds almost all species of Goodeid and is expertly ran by Omar Dominguez and a team of university lecturers. In 2017 I was told that I had been selected alongside aquarist Nadia Jogee to visit Mexico to view the setup, meet the people behind the project and to help with reintroducing Zoogoneticus tequila back into the Rio Teuchitlan. It is a long story and I do have a lecture that I give to clubs that explains it in much more detail but basically the University breeds a strong population of Zoogoneticus in captivity, the Rio Teuchitlan has been observed and studied for many years to ensure that it is suitable as a site of reintroduction. The Zoogoneticus have started to be released back into the river and are marked with elastomer to allow recognition of the original stock whilst non marked fish that are captured in the future must have been bred there in situ! My powerpoint lecture is well received and does go into the finer points of the project with lots of picture and video of the Mexican fish ark!
Back to home aquariums and whats your best advice for someone looking to set up a breeding project for Cardinal Tetras? A fish you are enjoying great success with at the moment.
Thanks, it has taken me three years to work out the finer details and although I am always willing to pass on advice I am just in the middle of writing an in-depth article on breeding cardinals and don’t want to give too much away here. Sorry! I will say that you will need a very soft water, PH does not seem to matter too much, in the Rio negro the fish are found in Blackwater with a PH averaging 4.5 with minimal hardness. I experimented with PH and at PH7 I still get very good viable spawns, just make sure that the water is soft. The conditioning diet is also important, I feed plenty of live foods including newly hatched artemia, grindalworm, Whiteworm and tubifex.
You must have kept so many different fish at home and in your fish house, to choose one favourite would be impossible. What I would like to know is that one species you would love to keep at home and breed yourself?
An impossible task!! Can I please select my top three favourites?
1. Copella arnoldi – I will never tire of watching this fish spawn, its unique method of breeding fascinates me and although I have spawned them hundreds of times I am still entranced when watching them.
2. Taeniacara candid – This dwarf cichlid is very special to me, they are now bred commercially in the Czech republic and are not as difficult to find, years ago the situation was different and I searched for years without success, when I did eventually find a pair and bred them the feeling of success was incredible, I managed to keep the line going for seven generations before eventually adding new blood into my breeding lines.
3. Symphysodon sp - When you are a soft water cichlid fan how can you not love the Discus! I started with a group of turquoise discus around 15 years ago and have kept them on and off ever since, I adore the wild types and currently house ten young wild green discus from the Rio Nanay, they are growing well and I am hopeful of breeding from them in the future.
Who do you admire within the hobby?
I admire anyone who takes time to put back into the hobby. To all those who help Aquatic clubs, associations and societies, to those that write articles for journals, books, magazines or website, I admire those that work in the scientific and professional fields. In a take, take, take society I really admire those that give up their own valuable time for the good of the hobby! I have known people to travel worldwide to give a lecture on their chosen subject! I know many aquarists who spend late nights pouring over books to help identify a fish for a fellow aquarist, I have seen disabled aquarists as an auction runner whilst able bodied members sat back and did nothing to help a club. Ultimately, I admire all those true hobbyists with fish in their blood and their brains, it is a strange affliction but once bitten it is hard to stop caring about our wonderful hobby. Finally there is one person that is no longer with us, Alan Vassiere was the best breeder I ever met, I was lucky to know Alan well for several of his final years and we got along well, we had similar interest (Cories and Pencilfish) and he gave me lots of valuable advise whilst always being interested in my opinion. He remains in my memories and his personality and skill as a breeder made him unforgettable.
Whats on the horizon? Do you have anything planned that you want to share?
My fish room and breeding my fish still remains my primary focus, I have not lost the love for it despite working with fish from 6am to 10pm almost every day, I continue to collect aquatic literature and educate myself further! I have recently made several trips abroad with work to Mexico and Brazil and have gained the travelling bug! With my kids growing older I am hoping to travel more in the future and explore the world, especially South America as that is where my heart lies, it is a beautiful continent and the people are amazing, to snorkel in a Brazilian stream viewing dwarf cichlids in their habitat was something I will treasure forever, hopefully I can travel further and increase the knowledge about these fish, not only with myself but with others in the hobby. I have always said that I wanted to write a book on my experiences and breeding, unfortunately the amount of people reading paper seems to be dropping in this digital world, I prefer a paper copy myself but I am realistic enough to know that the digital world will not go away and is here to stay, I have recently been putting ideas together for a website to share my knowledge on, I have many thousands of pictures, I have visited hundreds of breeders and fish rooms and have lots of photographs and information to share, I have over 600 breeding records for a variety of species that I would love to share with the world. My only problem is a lack of spare time! Something may have to be dropped before I can find time to put that project together? We will see. In the meantime, I will continue to work hard at my hobby and hopefully share my experiences with fellow aquarists around the world, I have a series of lectures containing good pictures and video and am always happy to listen to offers to come and give a talk or two. The lectures prepared are as follows. Please make contact via firstname.lastname@example.org
- Apistogramma – A guide to keeping and breeding
- Brazil – Project Piaba expedition 2018 (Can cardinals save a rainforest?)
- Breeding Fish – A guide!
- Chester Zoo – A behind the scenes tour of the aquarium
- Dwarf cichlids – A guide to the dwarf cichlids of the world.
- Mexico – The Goodeids and the Zoogoneticus tequila reintroduction project.
- A fishroom refurbishment project!
- UK Fishroom Tour 2013
- UK Fishroom Tour 2014
- UK Fishroom Tour 2015
- UK Fishroom Tour 2016
- UK Fishroom Tour 2017
Finally, thank you to John and the members of Lothian Fishkeepers, I have really enjoyed sharing some of my experiences with you, the above is just a snapshot of my life so far so I look forward to talking more over a beer sometime.
All the best, Ste
Well guys, I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I did. I think its safe to say that Ste is a very dedicated and enthusiastic Fishkeeper. We should all be inspired.
For more information on what Steven gets up to, visit the following links below.
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bye for now