By Danny Martin
Shows are a good way to entice new members to join an organization. Sadly, because of the extra work involved and the insurance requirements of most facilities where such an event could be held, shows within Texas have become very rare. The Houston Aquarium Society even ran “home shows” ( judges traveled to entrants homes, judged and video taped the entries and award ceremonies were held at local restaurants) for several years. Society members seem to have little time or interest in anything longer than a weekend. At one time mall shows of a couple of weeks were the norm for fish clubs, rock and gem clubs, car clubs, and art competitions. It’s hard to believe now but clubs used to be paid to hold such events at malls to increase foot traffic and visitors at these facilities.

Multiple clubs could hold joint events using specialty judges for each category. Pond and garden clubs combined with an aquarium society would be a fairly normal association. In some climates koi and goldfish events would be held outside and aquarium related competition would be held inside. Of course, combined events require more planning, co-operation, and co-ordination… more people… more time… I could go on but you get the point.

These shows still take place despite whatever conflicts and difficulties. I admire the people with the courage and determination to take this on. TCA’s Spring Seminar, taking place in Arlington April 16th through the 18th will include a show. HAS, as well as many other aquarium societies use “tank beautiful” shows instead of “species” shows. The distinction?? Tank beautiful competition uses decorated tanks like most people would want in their home vs. bare tanks with only a sponge filter or a box filter. The thought process is that a newbie seeing a tank beautiful show would be more likely to want to recreate that tank at home. Unlike HAS’s shows TCA’s is primarily cichlids. While other classes are offered and judged the emphasis is on 1. Asian, Central, and South American cichlids 2. Lake Malawi and Lake Victorian cichlids 3. Lake Tanganikan and other African cichlids.

Before launching into the judging process or deviances I’ll give a short picture of my background. I’ve been keeping fish or working within aquaculture or the aquarium industry since 1967. I’ve owned a tropical fish store, managed several, including full-line pets shops, and designed several others. Right now I’m the general manager of Neptune’s Garden in Houston, a store I designed and built. My interests include but are not limited to koi and goldfish, saltwater, livebearers, killies, and cichlids. I’m a life member of the American Cichlid Association (ACA) and a member of TCA. I’m also a member of the Texas Fish Judges Registry and have been involved in judging in Southern California, Florida, Tennessee, and Texas. For a short time I was involved with the judges committee of the Federation Of American Aquarium Societies ( FAAS) I’m mentioning all of this to give you an indication that I’ve worked with organizations of varying specialties and guidelines using multiple judging methods. I’m not always right but I will stick around to defend my judgment with the individuals that cared enough to enter a show and answer judging questions.

I’ve been asked about FOTAS rules. FOTAS HAS NO RULES. FOTAS publishes guidelines for clubs to use as a starting point for whatever rules they choose to adopt. Maybe a basic understanding of FOTAS is needed for understanding. FOTAS, the Federation of Texas Aquarium Societies, is an organization formed to centralize assets (people, money, information) and make these assets available to member clubs and individuals wishing to form a fish club so they don’t have to start from scratch. Organizational structures, by-laws, insurance, meetings, membership, publications, speakers, and special events are intimidating to even an established organization. These topics would seem insurmountable to newcomers without some form of assistance. Of course, some clubs come and go within Texas without even knowing these assets are available or choosing to go it alone.

So the guidelines are available for clubs to adopt or deviate as they see fit. Specialties are highlighted. General categories are eliminated or expanded determined by the interests and direction of the clubs officers and membership. Rules are the responsibility of the club’s show committee. Disclaimers normally state “decisions of the judges are final” that should instead read “decisions verified by the show committee are final.” I’ve judged shows using point systems where the points were added incorrectly and the judges blamed for an obvious inequity only to find out after the show that the wrong person was declared the winner. This is the exception obviously but things like this do happen.

Judges: Some are really good, some are not. Certain standards should be maintained. Most judges try to stay within their expertise unless pressed into service by the show committee. A lot of stuff goes on behind the scenes that are not easily evident to competitors. References should be made available to the judges, sometimes provided by competitors, anticipating lack of knowledge about new species, an unusual color morph, or exceptional specimens. These items should be made known to the show committee and they should communicate this to the judges. Reference publications should be recent with rare exceptions.

Now that I’ve added all the disclaimers I can think of at this time, here’s how things normally go:

Scenario #1
Multiple judges, fairly large show, some huge closely contested classes, some classes with just enough entries to qualify a ribbon. The judges get together and pick a head judge. The head judge then passes out the entries of various classes to individual judges. Variant #1. The show committee has predetermined judges for certain classes for whatever reason. ( a speaker? a local icon? a non-entrant expert? ) The rest… point and shoot or judges pressed into service.

Scenario #2
A couple of judges, each judge all entries. Winners of classes, when determined, are listed and then judged for best in show or special awards. This is the best scenario but only works for small shows or when there’s plenty of time for judging. Extra judges help for larger shows but complicate the selection of best in show. When the showroom is locked but seminar participants or entrants are milling around in the hallway clamoring to be let in to view the tanks and possibly learn the winners, things get a little hectic.

Scenario #3
This is the absolutely the worst situation. A specialty show where the best qualified judges are also entrants either in classes they’re best qualified to judge or other classes. The problem?? They’re in the room and equitable judging becomes even more difficult than the norm. Ego enters the picture and in practically every case something regrettable is said or done by somebody. As hard as it is to believe I’ve seen rifts created at shows that have splintered clubs.

If you’ve just been skimming this article until this point start reading now.

The FASTEST way to judge a show is to check out the entire class and then just pick the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd places. The BEST way to judge a show is to point compared to a “perfect” tank or fish. Subtract for obvious flaws.

To prepare for a show… What type of show is it?? Tank beautiful? A species competition?

For a tank beautiful show you provide the tank and often the stand. The tank needs to be clean. Duh. Inside and out. Just draining the tank and transporting it to the site doesn’t mean you’ll win. Oh, you might, but it’ll be harder. Decorations for theme or in some cases artificial (plastic plants) or natural (live plants) classes need to be selected and cleaned or pruned. All materials and fish need to be transported and set-up to look well-established but immaculate. The fish need to be properly chosen for compatibility and size. A tank that elicits WOW! stands a good chance in such a competition. Fish entered in species competition in a tank beautiful normally color better and point better than in a bare tank.
For a species show using bare tanks you need to be even more prepared. Fish shown in a bare tank normally wouldn’t show good color or have the proper attitude (deportment) unless properly conditioned previous to the show. Show “pros” even go to the extreme of setting the fish up in a similar situation at home for weeks before the show. Bringing your own water from home and an established sponge filter for each of your entries may even the playing field. Some entrants request two tanks next to each other placing a female in one and the entry male in the other. Usually only the male is entered so only the male is judged. Such tips used by the “pros” could be the difference in tightly contested classes.

Remember that the fish need to be transported in a manner that would not tear or mangle fins. Remember also that such tears are more evident on large fish than on a smaller fish. I have to admit a bias. Because of the inherent risk in moving a larger fish, small tears in the large fish are, or should be, either ignored or pointed differently than a smaller fish. In a competition for best in show between a large specimen vs. a small specimen with equal flaws, the larger fish should win in my opinion.

Another note when discussing size of fish in a show. Some fish grow larger in an aquarium than in the wild. Lake Malawi cichlids, for instance, when too large to fit crevices between the rocks are eaten by predators. I normally ask the show committee if they want me to slant my decisions in either direction. Red or white fish are not the norm in the wild but are highly prized as aquarium fish. Imagine a show where a brownish-gray red devil won over a orangish-red specimen of equal size. What would you think?

Working in a store environment I catch a lot of flak for having hybrid fish for sale. Until you’ve had ACA honchos yelling “get the bleach” in your store you’ve yet to experience everything. Rather than get into such a discussion here I’ll remind you that there are only about three species of discus, and about as many species of angelfish in the wild. Red swordtails are not found in the wild and “ditch” mollies don’t sell well. Selected breeding is apparently only selectively okay.???? I’ll let the show committee choose to appease whomever they select. I get testy when someone says they speak for ALL cichlid fanciers on the subject though. Okay Eric??

If you’re interested in becoming a certified judge in the Texas Fish Judges Registry you’ll need to do some apprentice judging at shows several times. You’ll be handed the same judging sheets used by the other judges and have your sheets compared with their sheets to evaluate the differences. We’re just trying to establish a consistency within the group. As in everything else it’s easier with more experience. It’s not unlikely that many of you are just as good as the existing certified judges. If so, the process will go quickly.

It’s unlikely that every entrant will agree with the judges. Welcome to the real world. FOTAS judging guidelines are available to member clubs and members of those clubs. Your show committee can make them available to you.

UPDATE: I’ll be one of the judges at the April Spring Seminar and Show. For those interested we can have a judging seminar sometime during the show. Questions?? I can be reached at the store (Neptune’s Garden in Houston) or via my e-mail address. Dan Martin__

(Dan Martin will be demonstrating how to judge fish at TCA’s spring show)

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