Native fish need you!!!

Robert Rice unclebob at
Wed Aug 21 15:17:35 EST 1996

                The Aquarist as a Naturalist
                         Robert Rice
                    2213 Prytania Circle
                       Navarre Florida
     In the early days of the aquarium trade (the early
1900's) native species were all that most of us could get.
We could not afford to acquire species such as Angelfish or
Discus, even if we had known about them. Our knowledge of
their needs was pretty limited there were no filters, power
equipment, prepared foods, or any of the other luxuries we
take for granted today. Yet in spite of these limitations
the hobby prospered and grew. Our local fishes started the
hobby off fine and for a decade or two they were enough to
keep us happy.
     Then came the lure of the exotics and the profits of
importing them. Suddenly by the late 1930's the Native
Fishes were a non issue usurped by the Guppy and all that
came after them. With their demise in the Aquarium trade,
the Aquarist who was a Naturalist became a dinosaur. An
interesting  but useless relic of days gone by. So memories
of so many colorful species and their unique local names
like the Jersey Discus (Blackbanded Sunfish) and the Kansas
Cichlid  (Central Longear) went to the wayside along with
the men and women who pioneered the movement.
     Now some seventy years later as things tend to do, we
have come full circle in the aquarium trade. Much to the
surprise of tropical fish importers, many Aquarist are
becoming dissatisfied with the current cycle of importation
and exploitation. We have chosen to look towards our  roots,
the way Aquarist got started almost a century ago. More and
more of us are spending our free time studying local bodies
of water in search of suitable aquarium species.
     As a consequence Aquarist are surprised to find
themselves becoming Naturalist. We did not intend it (at
least I didn't) but you can't spend hours in the field
searching and studying our Natural Resources without being
affected. In much the same manner as Aldo Leopold started
out over seventy years ago, we went to take something out of
our wild places and instead we found those wild places took
something out of us (apathy and ignorance in my case) .  We
went to take something away and instead were taken in !
     In the 1955 book by H. Axelrod,  Atlas of Aquarium Fish
almost 100 pages is spend on collecting tips, ichthyology
and identification tips. Approximately 45 0f the 600 species
mentioned are North American Native species. It is clear
from the book that in those days there was a dash of
Naturalist in most serious Aquarist. Since that time the
hobby has changed a great deal and so has the Aquarist
mentality . We have become less like Naturalist and more
like tourist. Ask an Aquarist to name just one local non
game species. You'd be surprised at the percentage who can
not. When was the last time you saw anything about
collecting in a mainstream publication? It's been a long
time I'll bet! Has the hobby been reduced to a passive,
sterile source of entertainment a kind of live Television? I
hope not. I believe within the hobby a movement has begun to
stir, a new generation of Aquarist is beginning to say  I
know we can do more, we can do better. This generation is
rediscovering old roots and in the process rewriting some of
the roles traditionally only held by professional Biologist.
This new generation has become a proactive force in
endangered species preservation. This generation has become
      We are in a unique position in this country. We can
stock our aquariums with beautiful durable fish that are
the envy of much of the world. It costs us nothing more than
a leisurely stroll down to the local pond or creek, and a
fishing license (in most cases). We have largely ignored
that opportunity. Aquarist seldom venture beyond the pet
store or their fish room. I have yet to hear of Aquarist
getting into the environmental fray on a local level. I say
without question  we should! Imagine how your city would be
different if one hundred Aquarist/Naturalist showed up at a
zoning meeting. Think of the impact if Aquarium Clubs
adopted just one stream through the Department of Natural
Resources Stream Team program. It would literally be life
changing, for our waterways and their inhabitants.
   Let me share a personal example of the impact a single
Aquarist can have. A little over two years ago I was
collecting for Orangethroat Darters in one of my favorite
murky, slow Kansas prairie streams. This particular stream
had an unusually colorful and durable Darter strain that
made them excellent aquarium specimens. As I was working the
riffles I began to notice a few Longear Sunfish moving
lethargically across the surface. Wow, I thought, Longears
free for the taking, what a lucky break. I scooped them up
with my dipnet, put them in the bucket and kept working. I
came back to my bucket about five minutes later to drop off
some more fish and everything in it was dead. Suddenly the
light went on! There was something in the water moving
downstream killing everything in its path. I took a deep
breath, grabbed my equipment, dashed to my car and drove as
fast as I could downstream. I hoped I could beat this thing
downstream and save a few fish and their unique genetic
makeup from certain death. I drove a half a mile or so and
went to work as fast as I could. I worked for almost an hour
before the wall of death made its way to me. I collected
samples of every type of fish I could until my buckets were
filled past overflowing ! As I returned back up stream the
creek was littered with hundreds of carcasses and the smell
of death was heavy in the air. I reported the kill to the
DNR and in two weeks returned each and every one of the
survivors back to their creek. If an Aquarist had not
happened to be there those fish and the unique strain of
Orangethroat Darters might have been lost forever.
     The Federal Government realizes the role the amateur
Aquarist can play in species preservation. They have watched
as easy to reproduce species like the Goodenough Gambusia,
Maryland Darter and Blue Pike disappeared because the
federal agencies did not have the resources or skills to
effectively respond when the species hit the critical list.
Serious Aquarist have those skills. They observe fish from a
micro perspective, constantly observing the smallest detail
to learn the intricacies of spawning and rearing a given
species. Biologist observe from a macro level, while very
important skill in resource management, it leaves them
lacking many times in domestic rearing of a species.
Together Biologist and serious Aquarist give a species an
excellent opportunity to be successfully domestically
reared! Think of the impact if every Aquarium club took it
upon themselves to successfully rear and breed just one
species of local fish. If they took the time to document
their findings and make them available to local Biologist or
Universities they could have a tremendous positive impact on
a species chances for survival. If the unforeseen occurs
there  would be a ready source of  specimens to repopulate
the local waters!
     In these days of shrinking habitats and dwindling
natural resources Aquarist must take a more active stand.
Many of us now realize there is a better way. Aquarist spend
literally billions of dollars a year on their hobby. It's
time we diverted some of that capital to our home waters.
Instead of buying a couple more Cichlid's try something
really different. Try a fishing license and a dipnet. You'll
love being out of doors and you'll be pleasantly surprised
by what you'll find. You might just fall in love with the
local waters and what's hiding below the surface . I did and
it has forever changed my perception of the Aquarium hobby.

      Think of the tremendous fundamental change that would
occur in the environmental movement if a small percentage of
Aquarist, say three percent, got involved in keeping,
collecting and rearing Native Fish. They would rival sport
fisherman in numbers and impact . The Department of Natural
Resources would take notice. What if these Aquarist joined
organizations like NANFA, The Aquatic Conservation Society
or the Desert Fishes Council. The influx of members,
resources, energy and capital would be tremendous ! These
organizations could help set public policy, do species
propagation, restoration and community education. With the
new members they would be better prepared to assist on
projects like the Department of the Interiors endangered
Madtom breeding site in Georgia. They could do so much, the
effect would be immeasurable. Sadly at this point only a few
dozen Aquarist in all of North America are making a
difference through endangered species propagation.. I must
ask why? It's not the lack of skill that's the problem it's
the lack of involvement. The Federal Agencies have asked for
our input and help. Are we able to give any? Will you take
the road less traveled and make a difference? The choice is
yours. It is time to get busy, so get out of the easy chair
grab a dipnet and see what's out there . The fish are
waiting and the water is fine!

     The author is involved with NANFA and speaks and writes
regularly about North American Native Fish. He can be
reached at Robert.Rice at or 2213 Prytania Circle
Navarre Florida 32566

 Here is a non comprehensive list of places to get started:
North American Native Fish Association (NANFA)-membership
15$ a year USA 19$ all other countries. Includes a quarterly
magazine, six newsletters a year, regional chapters and
meetings. Dedicated to the Aquarium study and rearing of
Native Fish.
To Join send dues Name Address etc.
Bob Schmidt
C/O Simons Rock of Bard College
Alford Road
Great Barrington Mass.

Desert Fishes Council-dedicated to the study of fishes
native to the Desert regions for further information please

Desert Fishes Council
P.O Box 337
Bishop California

Aquatic Conservation Network- dedicated to the domestic
propagation of endangered species for further information
please contact:
Attn.: Rob Huntley
540 Roosevelt Ave.
Ottawa Ontario Canada

Federal Agencies :
Biologist Greg Looney- C/O Dept. Of The Interior Warm
Springs Regional Fisheries Center Rout 1 Box 515 Warm
Springs Georgia 31830-9712 . Seeking information on the
successful spawning of Madtoms (Noturus sp.)

Stream Team/Adopt A Stream Programs- Check with your states
Department of Natural Resources (DNR) about this worthwhile
program. On a regular basis you or your team will monitor a
stream and sample its contents plus do regular cleanups.
Supplies and support are usually supplied by the DNR or
Program coordinator.

More information about the Zbrafish mailing list