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THE CICHLID KING

Published Sep. 9, 2005

Some call him a shameless self-promoter. Nonetheless, Don Conkel of Keystone is the recognized expert when it comes to the colorful tropical fish.

Don Conkel's rise to fame in the aquatic world began on a dare.

Recovering from a near-fatal electrocution 28 years ago, he was looking to make the most of a second chance. Enter a friend who guaranteed Conkel he could "make a million" by investing $10,000 in a little-known tropical fish called a cichlid.

Cichlids are an extremely popular family of colorful freshwater fish almost exclusive to the rivers and lakes of Africa and the Americas. Conkel, a marketing major at the University of South Florida, convinced his parents to donate their swimming pool in Clearwater for the endeavor.

The rest is history.

In a quarter-century in the tropical fish business, the ambitious hobbyist-turned-expert has blurred the lines between collector and professor as few before him. The discoverer of 17 species, he is credited with inventing the trade in New World cichlids.

"For Central and North American cichlids . . . he's the man," said Wayne Weibel, chairman of the American Cichlid Association.

Conkel, 48, grew up in Dunedin after moving from Ohio in the 1960s. By 1977, the energetic 25-year-old had moved to 33 acres on Keystone's Lake Glass where he would launch his assault on this fiercely competitive business, the largest aquaculture industry in Florida.

Selling rare species in large quantities has made him rich. He also writes, communicates with renowned academics and sometimes takes the experts on his forays into the wild. In recent years, he has arranged deals with governments anxious to satisfy their foreign donors by reintroducing threatened cichlids into their ravished ecosystems.

Acquaintances variously describe him as amiable and aloof, both charismatic and a shameless self-promoter. He has been accused of falsely portraying the purity of his fish. But no one denies his importance in the cichlid world.

Conkel, recently engaged to a 26-year-old South African woman who visited his home last summer and loved it so much she never left, seems satisfied. He also knows he shouldn't be enjoying all the good fortune.

Doctors said the sailboat accident, in which the vessel hit a high-voltage power line, should have killed him. He remembers floating over his own body in a flood of warm, white light. He regained consciousness on the shoreline. Smoke was spewing from his body.

All the toes on his left foot were amputated, leaving the former athlete with a limp and years of embarrassment. But his survival convinced him he had a star.

He would find it in the brightly colored world of cichlids.

"Besides God and besides the fact I was in tremendous shape, I don't know, it's a pure miracle," he said. "I feel he had my place on Earth."

When most kids were fast asleep, the bedroom light in Conkel's bedroom often would burn bright, remembered his father, Don Conkel Sr. The youngster was never satisfied.

"He just always made himself 100 percent in anything he took hold of" the elder Conkel said.

After settling in Dunedin, Conkel played sports _ wrestling, baseball and football _ and became one of the state's top cross-country runners. He still is trim and athletic. Only the crows feet around his eyes _ the result of so much time in the sun _ betray his age.

Not content to earn his Eagle Scout badge, he received an Order of the Arrow, an even tougher award involving survivalist skills.

He grew up in a close-knit family who spent a lot of time outdoors together. They remain tight. A brother and his parents live on what is now an 82-acre spread, which Conkel owns with his father. They all have their own houses. Rather than isolate himself as he pursues goal after goal, Conkel includes them in his travels.

Conkel, who has an 8-year-old daughter by his second wife, said he never forgot how his parents always encouraged their children. It showed again after his accident, when they let him treat their swimming pool like an oversized aquarium.

"I know it sounds kind of ridiculous," Conkel Sr. said. "He just seemed to be so engrossed with it. I just wanted to help. Of course, eventually they had to go."

Although Conkel immediately fell in love with cichlids, success didn't come overnight. But he read voraciously, contacted experts and began fish collecting trips to Africa in 1978. He concentrated on Lake Malawi, a world supply center for tropical fish farmers and hobbyists.

"I would go down in the water and stay for hours to watch," he said. Thousands of miles away in Hillsborough County he struggled to keep them alive. "There was a lot of trial and error. I lost tons of fish."

Increasingly, he sensed the downside to trading in African cichlids. At one point, Mozambican authorities questioned his work and plopped him in a refugee camp for four days. The gradual destruction of Lake Malawi's cichlid population _ all to satisfy the wants of distant hobbyists _ alerted him to the environmental dangers posed by aggressive fish suppliers and governments who permitted the reckless trading.

Tired of the risk and the market saturation from African tropical fish, he turned to an untapped cichlid gold mine thousands of miles from Lake Malawi. Conkel would claim it as his own.

Some fish lovers knew about the rare Central and South American cichlids. But rarely did they own them, said Conkel's friend and sometime travel companion, Paul Loiselle, who is curator of freshwater fish at the New York Aquarium. Conkel sought them out with single-minded purpose, trekking on his infection-prone foot through dense jungle and countryside with local guides who needed to be won over before they would assist him.

"The heck with this," he recalled saying. "There's a lot more fish where the scientists haven't been."

Eventually, he would demystify the region's cichlids for many hobbyists and experts with his glossy book, Cichlids of North and Central America. Weibel called it "probably the only comprehensive book available in the English language on Central American cichlids."

In the mid-1980s, Loiselle joined Conkel on a trip to Costa Rica and Panama, followed by another to Belize and Guatemala. He remembers them as exciting journeys. They encountered natives and explored dense jungles and countryside, capturing what had mostly been documented for science.

The trips would make Conkel famous among cichlid collectors, not to mention friends and family who had new species named after them. Now, when he is invited to speak before cichlid groups it often is to recount his adventures.

Don Danko, a longtime acquaintance and the president of the Ohio Cichlid Association, described Conkel as "entertaining . . . very sociable, extremely informative and knows his subject matter."

While dedicated to saving cichlids and their ecosystems, Conkel is unembarrassed by his acute business sense. The only thing preventing him from earning more money is his wide-ranging interests that push him toward conservation and research projects.

To this day many of his 125-plus species sell for $5-and up, more than most aquarium owners are willing to pay. Although there are much larger tropical fish producers in Florida, he is one of a handful who export. He sells about 200,000 fish a year, 80 percent of which come from the Americas.

Some of the new fish he brings to market garner as much as $50,000 in an 18-month period, Conkel said.

"He did very well," at the fish shows, said Rick Biro, an admirer of Conkel's who specializes in raising high-end African cichlids. "As I recall . . . in his categories he probably kicked butt every time."

Biro, who has sold fish to Conkel, is familiar with his reputation for bold self-promotion. Some suppliers declined to discuss him, hesitant to sound negative and sever business ties. But in Biro's opinion, Conkel is the real deal.

"In a world where everything is mediocre, cocky gets you ahead," he said. "From my understanding from people who ordered from him, you get what you order. I know a lot of guys who got fish from him and are breeding them now."

Ad Konings, a non-scientist who wrote a Central American cichlids book before Conkel, is less generous. Calling him a "poseur," he accuses Conkel of dishonesty in his book.

According to Konings, Conkel misidentified at least two species _ Chomba and Ebano _ as pure blooded when, in fact, they are hybrids. "You could say he's a controversial figure," Konings said. "I think he likes to promote himself. It's good if you have something new to sell."

Conkel is aware of the criticism. In fact, he readily admits to having made a mistake when he described Ebano as a pure breed. During a trip to the Ebano Canal, he noticed that manmade diversions for agricultural purposes had altered the fish's ecosystem, leading to hybridization. The finding was later backed by DNA testing.

But he defends the purity of Chomba. Although he respects Konings, Conkel rails against "armchair scientists" who challenge his work.

"We don't hybridize any items," Conkel said. "It's how good a fisherman you are. It's talking to the natives. Of course, I've been lucky on a couple."

As for his competitors, he said, "It's a small business sector. "I had great difficulty entering into the marketplace," he said. "You don't come into this business without people trying to do you out."

Despite their disagreement over some cichlid species, even Konings acknowledges Conkel's contributions to the hobby. "He really opened the market," Konings said. "He was really interested in promoting the fish and breeding them so everybody could have them."

In love and financially secure, Conkel continues to forge his future. There are articles to write, speeches to give and, perhaps, a television career to launch. Conkel said he is working with a European agent on a series of travel videos of Central America that he hopes to pitch to a cable travel show.

His plans for Keystone are less clear. While he talks about keeping the property as a family nest "for generations," Conkel also yearns to "spend more time in the world."

Success has come with a disturbing awareness of environmental neglect. Upbeat by nature, Conkel can become cynical about the foreign governments he relies on for fish collecting and travel permits. Gone are the days when he could visit remote places and return with handfuls of new, exciting species. By his own estimate, at least 15 to 25 species are close to disappearing. In this way his remote fish farm has become an important safeguard against extinction.

"When we do discover now it's purely by accident," he said. "I think it would be very difficult to replicate what I did."