NANFA 2000...and Beyond
by J.R. Shute
Conservation Fisheries, Inc.
3709 N. Broadway, Knoxville, TN 37917
I was asked several months ago to write an editorial for the first American
Currents of the year 2000. I'd like to say "Thanks!" right now for giving me the
opportunity to do so. I consider it quite an honor!
For more than 25 years, I've been fortunate enough to be involved in the study
of freshwater fishes in the southeastern United States. I've had the
opportunity to work with some of the rarest fishes in North America. In doing
this, I've developed working relationships and, in many cases, close friendships
with some of the greatest "Fish Heads" in the world. These are people who are
dedicated to making the world -- or at least our part of it -- a better place
for all aquatic animals, which, in turn, benefits all of us. The wonderful thing
about these folks is that they run the gamut from hobbyists to professionals to
academicians to all-around naturalists. Contributions from all of these
disciplines are necessary to further the protection of our aquatic environments
and the animals that live in them.
Over the past couple of years, I've seen NANFA grow from an organization that
was almost strictly a hobbyist-oriented group, to one that is made up of all of
the types of folks listed above, and more. It's this diversity that sets NANFA
apart from other organizations and allows NANFA to continue to grow and become
an even more productive organization in the coming years.
This is an exciting time for the conservation of our nongame native fishes.
Until recently, very little attention had been given to the problems facing
these beautiful and interesting treasures. A few species, such as the snail
darter and Devils Hole pupfish, have received some national media attention.
Generally, however, the public is unaware of the plight of our aquatic fauna.
Still, the lion's share of attention, and funding, for endangered species
protection goes toward charismatic vertebrates -- whales, giant pandas, eagles,
and the like.
Fortunately, interest in freshwater aquatic animals and their habitats is on the
rise. This interest is taking the form of local watershed conservation groups
and national conservation organizations, and is a major focus of some federal
and state government agencies. This is a very encouraging trend indeed! And,
once again, NANFA's direction reflects this increased public awareness.
In October of 1999, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife hosted a workshop in Chattanooga,
Tennessee, with the goal of defining the problems facing imperiled fishes in our
region and how best to improve their situations. Approximately 50 people were
invited from state and federal agencies, educational institutions, private and
non-profit organizations, and conservation groups from all over the southeastern
U.S., for three days of rather intense head banging. This was probably one of
the most interesting and well-organized workshops I had ever attended. Each
participant had access to a laptop computer, which was networked to a central
computer. As topics were raised, everyone had the opportunity to comment through
their terminal, and all comments were displayed on a centrally located screen.
All of the comments were distilled into a rough document (nearly 140 pages!)
from which a final document will one day emerge.
The Executive Summary opens with the following:
"Fish species are not just disappearing in the Amazon rain forest. They're
declining from creeks and rivers of the southeast United States at an alarming
rate. Thirty percent of the North American species listed as threatened,
endangered, or of special concern are found in the Southeast. More than 20% of
these are found nowhere else on earth. Evidence points to this trend [as]
That's a pretty disturbing statement! The problem, of course, is not confined to
the southeastern United States. We're seeing similar trends throughout all of
North America. The details vary from location to location, but usually the
problem boils down to one thing -- habitat loss. This can be in the form of
siltation (usually from agricultural, stormwater or construction run off),
impoundments, channelization, or specific point-source pollution.
Unfortunately, most of us are all too familiar with the problems. The bigger
questions are: How do we deal with these problems without becoming too
discouraged? How do we deal with the inevitable population growth that will
accelerate these problems? How do we minimize the negative impacts of population
grown on our streams and rivers? These are not questions that are easily
answered. We certainly didn't come up with the answers at the meeting in
We were, however, able to establish goals that should start us heading in the
right direction. If there was a central theme that nearly all participants
agreed on, it was that increasing public awareness is going to be a key factor
in our efforts to protect our aquatic resources. This includes educating
landowners as to which activities impact their watershed and how to minimize
these impacts, and teaching students (from kindergarten on) the importance of
protecting aquatic environments. Children are very impressionable and will carry
the message home to their parents.
One way to educate landowners is to work with established watershed groups or,
if there are none in your area, to help establish one. This is sometimes best
accomplished by working with a larger organization, such as The Nature
Conservancy. At the very least, The Nature Conservancy can help you find out if
such organizations already exist in your area.
NANFA is in a unique position to serve as an educational resource. Some NANFA
members are involved with their local school systems. Some are scout leaders.
And I suspect that some are involved with local government. I would like to see
NANFA develop "canned" educational programs aimed at native fish conservation
that could, perhaps, be tailored for particular geographic areas. Members could
present these to school groups or other organizations in their area. This could
benefit NANFA by promoting our association, and would certainly benefit the
local aquatic habitats by raising public awareness, as our Chattanooga workshop
What else can NANFA members do to help promote aquatic conservation? This is a
question I hear over and over again. Unfortunately, it's not practical to have
members working with truly endangered fishes. There are simply too many
restrictions and too many regulations involved. And, though some of you may
question the relevance of these restrictions, they really do have the best
interest of the fish at heart. A major consideration here is the taxonomy of
some of these rare species. We're seeing many cases where one of these rare
species turns out, in fact, to represent two or more cryptic species. This is
sometimes not discovered until extensive genetic studies are conducted. Mixing
of these different populations might create a taxonomic nightmare, or worse,
result in the genetic swamping of one of the two species.
There are, however, many, many things that can be done by the general membership
to promote the conservation of our native fishes.
One thing that comes immediately to mind is working with surrogate species that
are closely related to rare species. We have used this technique at Conservation
Fisheries when working with extremely rare fishes. A protocol for spawning a
close relative is developed and can, in our experience, be applied to rare
species when needed. This type of information is almost completely lacking for
many species, especially spawning and rearing techniques. These are the things
that NANFA members are so good at, and this is the kind of information that the
scientific community is somewhat lacking.
I would like to see NANFA establish a library of spawning and rearing techniques
that are available to researchers and managers of rare fishes. I'd also like to
see NANFA, and the member(s) responsible for developing the techniques, properly
acknowledged for their contributions. Some of this could be accomplished through
NANFAšs web page. Also, it might be useful to generate a list of protected
species and their potential surrogates for members to work on developing
breeding strategies. This is something that could be published on the web page
and in future issues of American Currents.
NANFA is an organization of talented individuals. We collectively have a wealth
of information that's not readily available to others who might need it! As we
enter this new millennium, we should become a more proactive group. Our
contributions could go a long way toward helping reverse the disturbing trend
wešre seeing with our rivers and streams throughout North America.
I hope each of you have a great New Year. And I hope each and every one will go
out and educate someone about our wonderful native fishes.
J.R. Shute is co-director of Conservation Fisheries, Inc. (CFI), a tax exempt,
non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of aquatic biodiversity.
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