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President's Corner

Interview with Gerald Bassleer, newly-elected President of Ornamental Fish International (OFI), as published in Aquarama Magazine Issue 7 (Sept. 2006)
Gerald Bassleer was born in 1954 in Belgium. He is a biologist who specialised in ornamental fish diseases and fish health management through studies at the universities of Antwerp (Belgium), Athens (Georgia, USA), Stirling (Scotland), Höhenheim (Germany) and Maracay (Venezuela). Since 1977, he has worked as director for five different wholesalers in the ornamental fish industry. He is the producer of Bassleer’s Biofish Food and author of three books on fish diseases (published in English, German, French, Dutch and Chinese). Recently, he produced a DVD-rom entitled ‘The New Illustrated Guide to Fish Diseases’. In 1995, he established his own wholesale company, Bassleer Biofish, in Belgium.
How did you end up in the aquatic industry?
As a young boy, I had always been fascinated by fauna and flora. This was the reason why I became a biologist. During the last year of my studies (in 1977), I was offered a job opportunity at a wholesaler of ornamental fish, Aquaria Antwerp (Belgium), which was owned by the late Mark Van de Weyer, one of the founders of OFI. He was looking for a biologist who would be able to identify ‘the disease’ which was killing many of the fish in his fish house.
I was challenged as a young scientist to take up this unique opportunity, since -in those days - little was known about ornamental fish diseases. I was not an experienced aquarist; I only had a small tank with a goldfish and we didn’t get any aquatic training at university.
Within a few months, I had to disappoint Mr. Van de Weyer: his fish were not dying from one major disease and I couldn’t provide one general cure to treat all his fishes. Luckily, I was well trained in the use of a microscope, backed up by a few small books on fish diseases from Dr. Schubert. When I showed Mr. Van de Weyer all the different pathogens under the microscope and informed him that we had to bring in many different medicines and that, as a result, we would end up having many more healthy fishes, he believed me.
Of course, he was a businessman, and, when he saw that his company was becoming more profitable, it made him proud and happy to know that he was one of the first to hire a biologist.
Why didn’t you stay at Aquaria Antwerp?
During 1979-1981, I had followed special training on fish diseases (mostly food fish) at universities in Venezuela, USA, Germany and Scotland. This had taught me that little was known about ornamental fish diseases and that my career should be ‘paved with fish diagnosis’. I therefore emigrated to Chicago (USA) to become a fish doctor until 1985.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t ready for the US way of life and this made me decide to take up the position of Commercial Manager at Ruinemans Aquarium in The Netherlands. So, I went back to Europe. Then, after six years living like a Dutchman (I am Belgian), I went to work for Aquarium Glaser, the largest ornamental fish wholesaler in Germany.
All these great experiences led me to start my own company in Belgium, together with my partner and wife, Angélique Gillhaus, who had also been in this industry since 1991.

How did you become involved with OFI?
In the beginning of the 80’s, Mr. Van de Weyer informed me about the necessity to protect wholesalers (i.e. those companies which had a fish house and staff) against a new kind of fish business (i.e. transhippers) and that an international organisation was needed for this.
After OFI had been established for a few years, however, the members of the organisation realised that transhipping couldn’t be stopped and that it had to be accepted as just another way of doing business. One of the major reasons was that Singapore was the main supplier and they had developed great skills in organising and packing tropical fish shipments.
As from 1986 I therefore became actively involved in OFI and managed to get to most of the meetings on regular occasions, making presentations and holding discussions on fish diseases.

What made you interested in becoming President of OFI?
Well, as you get older and more experienced in this industry, you start to think differently.
In my case, I have always tried to share my knowledge on fish care with customers and suppliers, and, over the years, I have seen OFI developing into a progressively more professional organisation, thanks to the secretaries and presidents who have been in office in the last ten years.
When Svein Fosså (who, by the way, did a great job for the future of OFI), stepped down as President, I was approached by several members to stand for this position. Since I had finished the writing of my latest book and the production of the new DVD-rom, I saw this as a great opportunity to share my experience and knowledge with the members of this international ornamental fish organisation. I therefore accepted the nomination.

What do you want to achieve within OFI?
As President, it is not what I want to achieve, but what OFI and its members can and want to achieve. Our organisation can only be strong when we use the capacities and the capabilities of our members.
What I mean is that we have many experienced fish people who, for many years, have been members of our organisation. Everyone is a valuable stone of our foundation.
I feel it is my task to organise this group of experts and to make OFI known worldwide within the ornamental fish industry, as well as outside the industry, e.g. among government and other agencies. We should also aim at becoming known as a ‘caring’ organisation so that non-members will realise that, if they don’t join, they will be missing on great opportunities.

How do you want to achieve this?
I can only see one way: by creating good reasons why someone should become a member and by making the partners in our industry aware of our ‘good reasons’. I have noticed, since I have followed OFI from its establishment in 1980, that 99% of our members want to learn more from OFI and have one major goal: they want a good return for their investment (the OFI subscription fee). They are always looking for ways of achieving a better and healthier business!
Well, this is the unique opportunity that OFI presents. We have repeatedly shown that members derive great advantages by meeting other members through the OFI Journal and through the annual meetings which are held in Germany and Singapore. As a result, many suppliers from Asia (including China) can reach other markets, such as the West, by joining OFI. In addition, members can obtain information on health certificates, regulations, etc., on a regular basis.
This is also one of the reasons why OFI has a booth at Aquaria China 2006, where our Secretary General (also a fish biologist), Alex Ploeg, will be in attendance.

How do you see the future for OFI and the aquatic industry?
Well, the challengers are getting greater! I can see different important issues.
  • Laws and regulations relating to animal welfare: The laws and rules on trading live animals are getting stricter, which means that our industry is becoming more regulated. Fish must be stored, conditioned, packed, shipped, handled, etc., according to certain rules to protect their welfare.
  • Fish health and certificates: In the international trade of animals, the paperwork involved in shipping fish is becoming more important. Some people even say that the paperwork is more important than the fish! Every exporter should realise that, when shipments arrive without the correct Health Certificates, they will not be allowed to enter the country of destination. In addition, certain fish farms for goldfish and koi, have to prove that they are free of certain diseases (such as KHV and SVC).
  • Fish health management: Most of our members are dealers in ornamental fish. They can therefore only make a profit when they have healthy fish that they can sell. I believe that this is one of the key issues we should work on within OFI. This will also give non-members a good reason to join.

Do you have any plans for OFI?
Yes, I can already give you one example.
We plan General Meetings for our members where they will get the opportunity to obtain more benefit from their membership. Our meetings will become different, with more possibilities for fellow members to get to know each other better, to learn more about the working of the secretariat and its services towards the members, and to receive an extra educational session on important issues. For example, at Aquarama 2007, we plan to hold a session on fish diseases where people can send their fish health problems in advance and these will be discussed, both at the meeting and after the meeting!  Such meetings are very valuable, especially for new members.