We are proud to introduce Stuart Ashley who, is not only one of the Senior Partners at Maidenhead Aquatics, but the creator of the Fishkeeper Fry programme which he launched just over 3 years ago.

We asked him to talk to us about how his passion for fishkeeping developed, along with his extensive knowledge, and how the idea for Fishkeeper Fry came about. Here’s what he said:

1. How long have you been fishkeeping and what keeps you passionate about the hobby?

I was given my first aquarium for my 7th birthday and since then fishkeeping has been my absolute passion -the back bone of everything I do. I think that it was probably Koi carp that initially grabbed my interest in fish because of their size and striking colours, but as my hobby evolved I became obsessed with absolutely anything to do with fishkeeping!

Fishkeeping is an incredibly rewarding and wholesome hobby that provides an immense amount of pleasure, relaxation, achievement, and a means of escapism. There is so much scope, with a huge variety and diversity that means I never get bored. By the very nature of the hobby, you are always learning and can be very addictive (in a good way!). Fishkeeping appeals across all generations – young or old, everyone can get involved. The hobby offers something for anyone and everyone, and there is something to be gained from it whatever your background.

2. What first inspired you to start keeping fish and how did your hobby evolve?

I have always loved animals and the natural world from an early age, and this continues to be close to my heart today. My obsession with fishkeeping first started when I visited an aquatic centre with my family as a small child and was fascinated by the fish I saw there. My first aquarium was a very basic 18” x 10” x 10” fancy goldfish set-up with a basic air operated corner filter (far too small by today’s standards!). My first fish were a Black Moor, a Calico Oranda and a Fantail, which were recommended to me by the aquatics centre that my parents purchased the set up from. I can next remember nagging my parents for a tropical aquarium, not long after, having seen one at a friend’s house and becoming fascinated by the rich colours and diversity of these genre of fish. My father finally succumbed two years later when I became the proud owner of my own tropical aquarium. My persistence was rewarded as I ended up with a better than expected aquarium as in the process of buying the new set-up my father appeared to get the bug for the hobby too!

Although in the early days my parents weren’t fishkeepers themselves, they always encouraged me to pursue my passion to the point that at one time I successfully managed 13 aquariums in the family home! I loved to learn everything I could about the hobby, predominantly through books and the Practical Fishkeeping magazine (‘PFK’, and no, Google didn’t exist in those days!). One of my favourites reads was a marine fishes book where I set eyes upon a Percula Clownfish (‘Nemo’) for the very first time and decided that that was the fish I wanted to keep. This inspired my love of marine fishkeeping and to this day has resulted in me actively keep marines from the age of just 13.

In the early days, I also enjoyed spending a lot of time making much of the equipment that I needed for my aquariums. Cost was obviously a factor to consider with 13 aquariums to cater for and it just wasn’t possible to buy all the new equipment I needed. So, I improvised and built a lot of my own filtration equipment, protein skimmers and constructed light units comprising of household bulbs with purpose built reflectors to create the desired effects. And when I wasn’t building the equipment for my aquariums I was always reading, designing and drawing out concepts for my next aquarium. My hobby extended far beyond just looking after my fish day to day but allowed me to find solutions with limited resources to help develop my understanding of how to do the best for the fish in my care. Over the years I have been very fortunate to have kept virtually every genre of fish and successfully bred many of the species kept.

When I was 14, I managed to get a part time job for 2 hours twice a week at Thames View Aquarium, Eton Wick. Rather than taking a wage, I was ‘paid’ in product and took great delight in selecting equipment and food for my aquarium after my shifts immersed in my favourite pastime.
Whilst I was still at school, David Lawrence, now CEO of Maidenhead Aquatics, opened the first Maidenhead Aquatics store in Kings Street, Maidenhead. I saw an advert in the PFK magazine that a new store was opening and went to take a look 2 days before it even opened its doors, such was my excitement. On the day, I was one of first customers through the front door! I met David and immediately started picking his brain for fishy knowledge, and was able to work at this store for my school work experience week. After I completed my A levels I went on to study for a degree in Environmental Biotechnology with Marine Biology at university in London, originally with the goal of becoming a forensic scientist. During the time I was at university I worked part time with Maidenhead Aquatics at the relocated store in Bourne End, Berkshire. The year I graduated, I finished my studies in May and then went on to open my first store ‘Ascot Waterworld’ (the 3rd Maidenhead Aquatics store) on the 1st July 1992 and that was the start of my partnership with the company, and I’ve never looked back! The business continues to be my passion, with 20 stores and over 100 staff, I consider myself to be incredibly fortunate to be doing a job that is all about something I enjoy so much. Very few people can honestly say that!

3. How was Fishkeeper Fry conceived in the first instance and what is your vision for it in the future?

It came about when I visited my stores and I noticed that there were so many children coming in with their parents to look around in the way that I used to do as a child, but very few actually kept fish at home themselves. This saddened me given the how fish-centric my childhood had been and the potential missed opportunities for these children.
We first introduced the idea of ‘Feed the fish’ in our stores to help children get hands on experience, along with some form of connection to care for the fish, and therefore Fishkeeper Fry was the next logical step.

My idea for Fishkeeper Fry was to try and break down some of the barriers traditionally associated with fishkeeping and enable children to have the opportunity in a way that was safe and controlled for the fish and low risk for parents. By this they could demonstrate their commitment to their parents and understand the possibilities out there for them.

In providing this opportunity it was my hope that children might wish to find something more wholesome before they discover the internet and social media, and gain some exposure to an educational pastime where they are learning wider life values such as responsibility, time management and core science concepts to name a few and to give them an interest that could potentially last a lifetime. In addition, by providing a structured programme to fishkeeping beginners it was my hope that we could start to instil some of the best practices and ethics in fishkeeping for the next generation of fishkeepers for the wider good of the fish we sell.

4. What is your vision for the future of Fishkeeper Fry?

I would like the Fishkeeper Fry programme to be a nationally recognised scheme and for all schools across the UK to be aware of its value. In the shorter term I would like to see over 6000 children (circa. 200 schools) across the UK participating each year - providing a fantastic opportunity to experience an amazing hobby. Each year we aspire for the programme to become better than the year before. At the end of each programme, we ask all participants to tell us what they liked about the programme and what we could do better, and the more feedback we can get the better. We want to keep on improving and tailoring the content to what our teachers and children need so that everyone can get the most out of this programme. If the programme provides a means of supporting core national curriculum science topics such as the Nitrogen Cycle, photosynthesis, nutrition, respiration and digestion, for example then that is fantastic. If children take away wider life skills, then that is equally valuable too, and if with all of that we can start to develop the next generation of committed and passionate fishkeepers who will carry on the hobby, then we’ve achieved our ultimate goal.

5. What do you see as the main challenges for young fishkeepers starting a new aquarium?

There are obviously lots of distractions available nowadays for children and lifestyles have shifted greatly since I was growing up. That said, I see the following as the main challenges for new fishkeepers starting out in the hobby:

• Diminishing markets – hobbies are under constant threat and have to endure increasing pressure from the internet, online gaming and a social media lead world. Events such as the Olympics have proven to inspire children to take up sport and help divert from these distractions. But inspiration for wholesome hobbies such as fishkeeping are very much needed to show our children what else is out there and what they are potentially missing.

• Lifestyles –parents and children nowadays lack time. This is just an inevitable fact of the increasingly disposable society that we live in.

• Disbanding the myth that fishkeeping is difficult. Ensuring that good advice takes away the change of failure in fishkeeping.

• “Google advice – everyone has the opportunity to be an authority!” Good retailers such as Maidenhead Aquatics have a vested interest in giving great advice – without our customers we cannot survive. Listen, ask as many questions as you can, and take advantage of what is being shared.

6. What are your top 5 tips for young fishkeepers? (in no particular order)

• Read and ask advice as much as possible
• Test your water regularly
• Do everything little and often.
• Patience is a virtue
• Do not cut corners