Re: NANFA-- position on educational collecting

Christopher Scharpf (
Tue, 28 Aug 2001 23:24:54 -0400

NOTE: The following represents my personal opinions, and not necessarily
those of NANFA.

To me, the issue is simple:

As long as laws allow for the collection of nongame fishes as bait, and the
removal of selected gamefishes for food or trophy, then hobbyists should be
allowed to collect those same fishes for private aquaria.

This is reflected in NANFA's Mission Statement, which says that "the legal
and environmentally responsible collection of native fishes for private
aquaria [is] a valid use of a natural resource."

As long as no laws are being broken -- and laws vary widely between states
-- there's little difference between an angler putting a sculpin on a hook
and a hobbyist putting a sculpin in a tank as far as the ecosystem is
concerned. (The sculpin may have a slightly different opinion on the
matter!) To use Shireen's phrase, both are being collected for

What's important for NANFA -- and for the fish -- is that native fish
collecting (or sampling, or whatever you want to call it) -- be more than
entertainment. There should be an educational, scientific, and/or
conservation component to collecting fishes and their subsequent captive
husbandry. Again, this is reflected in NANFA's Mission Statement:

* "Captive husbandry of fishes acquaints people with organisms they might
otherwise never see alive or know existed, and affords people an opportunity
to witness and appreciate their behaviors (feeding, breeding, parental care,
etc.). Such acquaintance is a vital step in fostering environmental
awareness and promoting a conservation ethic."

* "Studying and documenting the captive husbandry of North American fishes
can provide information about a speciesą life history that is otherwise
lacking in the scientific record, or difficult to study under natural

* "The captive propagation of native fishes can play a key role in
conservation efforts by ... providing crucial life history information
about a species before it becomes endangered; by providing aquarium-reared
specimens for restocking efforts; by serving as a 'last-ditch' safeguard
against the extinction of a species in the wild; and by maintaining species
already extinct in the wild."

Nowhere in NANFA's Mission Statement does it state that the collection of
native fishes is a hobby, nor does it describe itself as a hobbyist
organization (although hobbyists with no higher aspirations than keeping
souvenir specimens in aquaria likely make up a large portion of the
membership). NANFA (from my perspective) is not trying to attract more
people to the "hobby." In other words, the organization is not trying to
convert tropical fish hobbyists into native fish hobbyists (as if implying
that one type of fish is better than another). If anything, NANFA is trying
to turn hobbyists into more scientifically literate and environmentally
conscious stewards of native fishes and their habitats. (That's my editorial
policy with American Currents, which I seek to fulfill with a balanced mix
of articles on biology and conservation as well as aquarium care. This mix
can also be seen in NANFA conventions, which feature speakers and
presentations across a variety of scientific, conservation, and husbandry
topics all related to native fishes.)

None of this denies or demeans the fact that most -- if not all -- of us
were born with that "aquarium gene" which finds enjoyment in the keeping of
critters in fish tanks. And none of us have outgrown that childhood
fascination with turning over rocks and seeing what swims or slithers
underneath. When I was a kid I collected fishes because of some inexplicable
desire to simply possess them. In my young mind, a fish in a creek existed
only for me to catch it, keep it, and pickle it when it died. (Considering
my primitive husbandry skills back then, I pickled many a fish!) But
gradually -- and due in no small part to my association with NANFA -- my
approach to fish collecting and keeping has changed (or matured, as I like
to think). I collect fewer fishes (none from the Ohio convention and none at
all this year) and go on fewer collecting (sampling) trips. Yet my interest
in native fishes -- in their natural history and conservation -- is growing
in leaps and bounds. If NANFA can teach but one lesson, maybe it can be the
lesson I taught myself:

A fish in the wild is more interesting, more aesthetically pleasing, and
more desirable (ecologically speaking) than a fish in captivity.

For me, the aquarium opened up a whole new world outside of the aquarium
(which, come to think, aquariums are *supposed* to do). And while I will
always be interested in the science and technology of aquariums -- and in
awe of aquarists like Ray Katula and J.R. Shute and Bob Muller who possess
the skill and saintly patience to breed fish and raise them -- it's the
natural world of fishes to which I am now most compellingly drawn.

I hate to think what I'd be doing today if I had not been allowed to collect
(and, sad to say, cause the untimely death of) so many minnies when I was a
kid. I'd probably be a developer, or a dam-builder, or a crooked politician.
Thanks to the simple act of going out into nature and bringing a slice of
that nature home, I am now in total reverence of the biodiversity that both
sustains and delights us. And if someone seeing my aquarium can feel some of
the same, then all the better.

I will never begrudge anyone for catching a fish to place in an aquarium. I
just hope it leads to something more profound than having a collectible.

Chris Scharpf

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