Selecting Judges and the Judging Process

After almost every competitive judging of fishes and aquaria, one will hear some grumbling regarding the judges.

Judging is by its very nature a subjective activity. Every judge without exception has limitations and personal biases. Perfect judges probably don't exist and even satisfactory ones are hard to find.

Who Would Be a Good Judge?

  1. Should be able to identify every species of fish he is expected to judge.
  2. Must have knowledge of the fish species including proportional variation in size and shape of the sexes, all ontogenetic (developmental) variations in shape and color.
  3. Must be without bias (no preconceived ideas of beauty; no preferences to color, size or species of fish, no prejudice for or against aquarium strains or wild strains).
  4. Be able to detect irregularities in deportment and coloration due to the use of hormones.

If you know of such a person, they will quickly become famous and exhausted since the demand for their services will be without limit.

Let’s take a look at a look at a few examples of challenges that judges face.

Example 1

Clubs have a bad but absolutely necessary habit of asking judges to evaluate one species against another in a mixed category, e.g., scavengers, egg layers, etc. This is difficult situation. This is the equivalent of going to a local fish store and picking the best single fish or pair of fish in the store.

You must be certain of your identification in those cases where a category has been restricted. In a recent local show, one dissatisfied aquarist complained that his archer fish did not place in the cichlid category. Regardless of any individual qualities the archer may have had, the aquarist—not the Judge—was wrong since an archer is not a cichlid. But beyond identification to family or genus, a judge should know his species, since species knowledge is necessary to understand the second criteria.

Example 2

Club rules vary as to whether fish are to be judged as pairs, singles or otherwise. If as pairs, the sexes must be naturally in proportion to one another.

For example,  in livebearers of the family Poecilidae, females are naturally larger than males. A pair of guppies whose male is equal to, or larger than the female, in size, is flawed in my opinion. You should exhibit pairs of fish which are of comparable age and of the same strain so that these proportions are natural. Most fishes continue growth throughout their lives and  within a species maximum size is not necessarily a point in the fish's favor.

Fish of average adult size are more likely to be better physical specimens and evidence better color and deportment than aged adults.
It becomes necessary to make a value judgment as to what is acceptable by the Judge's standards. One often sees some catfishes entered and winning competitions where the adult sizes are more than ten times greater than the fish exhibited. But have you ever seen a winning guppy which was one-tenth adult size? In the same vein, have you ever seen a 90 year old beauty queen? No? Yet I've seen huge senile fishes judged winners’ over robust, virile young breeders which were smaller but better fish in my opinion.

If you were judging Butterfly Fish, Pantodonbuchholzig and Rim Fish, Oryzasis latipe, and found that some specimens had deep irregular fish indentations bordered by splayed fins rays, what would you do? The males in both these species are characterized by such fish structure and a good judge would know this or he would have disqualified himself from the category including those fish.

In one show in the catfish section, a hobbyist entered a large Callichthys. It was beautiful except that its pectoral fins were badly swollen and inflamed—obviously from moving the fish. We're judging for perfection of the fish, so we point the fish down. That is, of course, if the fish isn't a mature male in breeding condition and characterized by such "raspberry"' like knobs on his pectorals!
Time and time again I've seen judges criticized for pointing down veil angels for having broken fin rays. It's always pointed out to the judges that the veil angels have injury-prone fins, and of course they do. But the wise aquarist does not net show veils; he catches them in jars. It isn't the judge’s fault that the aquarist injures his fish in transportation. Have you ever seen a dog turn up in a dog fight or a pretty girl in a long cast win a competitive contest?

Example 3

A judge must be without bias. He must judge fish on the basis of what it is, not what he'd like it to be. Strongly restricted categories are most helpful to judges. Bias is largely removed if the judge is choosing the best male velvet wagtail swordtail rather than the best single livebearer in the show. Judging guppies is difficult without categories since the wild Trinidad Guppy just does not stand a chance with most judges; yet it may be the embodiment of perfection. I am biased toward wild-type fishes myself and was once nearly lynched when I chose a pair of swordtail guppies (not exactly wild-type) over many veil and delta tail guppies.

There is never enough time to evaluate several hundred fish of mixed species by pointing them.

Judges generally go down the line and visually eliminate all fishes with gross defects or subjective demerits such as smallness, immaturity, etc. They then mentally must choose the best remaining fish, usually by eliminating down to twice the award levels (if 4 awards, then 8 fish). Final decisions are then made among these fish by reevaluating strong points. It is here that a panel of judges is useful since individual biases are overcome. Surprisingly, consensus of opinion often occurs among judges right down the line from start to finish.

After all, a good fish is a good fish, or so one would think before listening to the post judging bellyaching.

Recommendations for Individuals Entering Fish in Competition

If you are putting on a show, you can avoid upset participants by communicating some best practices for entering fish.

  1. Choose sexually mature fish.
  2. Choose an average sized young adult; avoid oversized fish who would exhibit signs of old age.
  3. If in pairs, select fish of normal adult proportions to one another.
  4. Avoid diseased, deformed, injured or disproportioned fish.
  5. Check carefully for missing scales and broken irregular fish rays or split fins. In fishes with colored fins, look for pigmentation that may represent scar tissue or regeneration.
  6. Catch your fish carefully: a perfect fish injured in transit might well have been left homeA.  big fish or fancy finned fish should be caught with a jar or plastic bag. Beware of sharp rocks, etc., in the show tank on which a frightened fish might injure himself.
  7. If at all possible, show the fish in the tank he is used to.
  8. Use common sense in decorating the tank  the tank (if allowed). The fish is on display, not the tank; avoid highly contrasting gravels (including black). Most fish look best over red flint or brown natural gravel. Subdued lighting will keep the fish happier.
  9. If your judging committee does not object, feed a color intensifying food to angels, black tetras, etc. Those fish have a tendency to pale when frightened.

Adapted and summarized from the article “Hang Him High” in Tropic Tank Talk, publication of the Greater Detroit Aquarium Society, by Jim Langhammer.