July 26, 2004
A fishy fix for conservation concerns
ANN ARBOR, Mich.—When scientists get worked up over environmental issues, they usually discuss their concerns with other scientists, write scholarly articles and present papers at professional meetings. From time to time, they may speak to school groups or local conservation clubs, but they don't often take their message straight to people who may be contributing the problem.
University of Michigan graduate student Ronald Oldfield, a fish biologist and longtime aquarium enthusiast, bucked the trend by starting an organization that brings university scientists together with amateur naturalists and exotic pet owners. Oldfield will discuss the approach and its potential for conservation education July 31 at the annual meeting of the Society for Conservation Biology in New York City.
Oldfield is especially concerned about problems that arise when hobbyists buy exotic fish captured from the wild, which may deplete natural populations, or when they release unwanted pets into local lakes and streams, which can alter natural habitats, introduce new diseases to native fish and otherwise disrupt ecosystems. Citing figures from a recent article in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, Oldfield noted that although most attention has focused on ballast water as a source of destructive invasive species of marine and aquatic organisms, aquarium releases actually account for a much larger percentage of introduced fish than do ballast stowaways.
"I wondered what I could do about the problem, and I realized that there are several groups of people who are interested in fish, both on and off campus ," said Oldfield said. "There are people in the Museum of Zoology who are interested in the evolution of fishes, there are people in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment who are interested in managing fish populations, and there are local people who keep fish as pets. I thought that if I could unify these groups and encourage information exchange among them, the public would benefit from having access to knowledge and resources that they otherwise might not know about. And that, in turn, might lead to more informed decisions about the ethical and conservation aspects of owning fish."
Oldfield's group, The Aquarium Society of Ann Arbor, is an official student organization, but its 25 members include hobbyists unaffiliated with the university as well as students of biology, natural resources and other fields. At monthly meetings, U-M students and faculty and guests from other research institutions have made presentations on topics ranging from the evolution of bright colors in marine fishes to the depletion of biodiversity in Sumatra, but the idea is not for experts to lecture lay members about conservation dos and don'ts, said Oldfield. Instead, informal discussions at meetings and on the group's e-mail list allow members from all backgrounds to explore the issues together.
For example, when one member announced that he planned to release a locally-caught sunfish that he had kept as a pet for some time but no longer wanted, another member pointed out that the fish might spread diseases it had picked up in captivity. A lively debate ensued, and though there was no consensus, "it opened a lot of people's eyes to the issues of releasing fish—even if they are native—and it gave me a chance to provide an example of a disease that was introduced to local fish in Nicaragua when farmed tilapia escaped. Making that connection really helped cement the idea that the problem is real."
For the next outreach initiative, Oldfield plans to print fliers for pet stores to hand out when customers buy fish. In addition to offering basic information on caring for the new pet, the fliers will caution, "Do not release this fish."
He also hopes the scientist/hobbyist club idea will catch on at other institutions. "The most important thing I want to do is show people that this can be done," he said. "Zoos, museums and government agencies generally have outreach programs that target children or the general public, however they all have knowledge bases that could be offered specifically to people who are considering purchasing or importing fish."
Contact: Nancy Ross-Flanigan