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From Discus to Sunfish: One Man's Journey
by Robert Rice
It seems kinda strange that I one time self declared King of Tropicals and breeder of Discus' and Frontosa's am now known almost exclusively for my part in the native fish movement. Today each and every tank I own is inhabited exclusively by native fishes. Darters dart, shiners shine, and Sunfish spawn all the while devoid of any tropicals of any kind. It was not how I had planned it and now that I look back on it was a very strange journey.
It started innocently enough I was fishing with my daughter at a local Lake in Wisconsin and caught some pumpkinseed sunfish (Lepomis gibbous) and as Fathers tend to do I gave in to my daughters request to take it home so it can "live with us and be our pet". They seemed like an attractive fish so I threw two of these beasts in a 20 gallon tank and gave them little mind as I was a " Serious Aquarist " and gave zero thought to natives. All my fish came from a store with a pedigree and a cute name. I was a bit of a fish snob. Wild caught fish from South America now that was fine, even desirable but wild caught North American Species bah humbug.
Well as fate would have it my daughter kept after to me to look at her new "pets" and just when I thought I was safe. I opened my eye's and began to learn. I realized these were a very interesting fish. They had excellent color and their manners where very interesting not unlike my friends the Cichlid's. I was intrigued and decided a little further investigation was in order. I really did not even know the names of these fish. My daughter named them both princess I however thought a more scientific approach might be in order.
So I made the trip to our local library and stumbled across a book called "Fishes of Wisconsin " by Dr. George C. Becker. I soon found out how little I knew about native fish and was both shocked and intrigued by the information the book held. In general Mr. Beckers book so impressed me that I began to seriously study native fish. I wallowed in his book absorbing the nearly 200 species available in Wisconsin and Illinois. I learned about darters and saw for the first time a rainbow darter and I was in love. It suddenly seemed so simple. Why not keep local species? When I grew tired of them I could just take them back from whence they came. I had a revelation the world was my pet store! This country has species of beautiful fish, no one seems to know much about them, or even care. I alone had made the connection, Aquarium rearing native fish. What a great idea! I would be first! I would be famous.
Then I found it, under the heading for northern redbelly dace the line that brought me back to reality. This species makes an excellent home aquaria species. I was shocked, so others before me had made the connection. As I read species account after species account in Mr. Beckers book it would pop up again. This species makes an excellent home aquaria species. Why then had I never heard of a rainbow darter, a redbelly dace, a stickleback?
I didn't know why I'd never heard of such fishes but decided a trip back to our local pond was in order to see what other things were out there, and do a little follow-up investigation. I grabbed my net, my daughter and headed out. I was very unpleasantly surprised. When we arrived we were greeted by a huge fish kill, thousands upon thousands of rotting carcasses floating atop the pond. The smell and the waste was sickening. When I called the city government and the Department of Natural Resources they said "must be the heat happens every couple a years" and had no real concern. I was shocked and outraged.
That was the beginning of my turn towards naturalism. I found my self clearing one tank after another to house some new species of fish I had collected. I spent the bulk of my free time reading as much as I could about native fish and their aquarium needs. I realized the best advocates the native fishes could ever have would be people like me . Aquarist who had turned their hobby into a conservation movement. There are millions and millions of Aquarist nationwide. Who better to help out our fishes than You?
You don't think Aquarist can make a difference? Imagine a small prairie stream frequented by an aquarium club collecting Longear Sunfish. Suddenly there is a fish kill, who is going to notice it first, the 50 Aquarist who frequent the stream or the 10 department of Natural Resources field employees in the State? Imagine a mid size city with 500 Aquarist who are aware of the local waterways and their inhabitants. Imagine how much would the city planning be changed when these folks show up at a city council meeting! Imagine a small darter that's struggling to maintain a population and so little resources are available to preserve them that it drifts to extinction. Even though literally hundreds of Aquarist have had great success breeding darters of all types. You don't have to imagine the last one it's already happened!
So I went from the self declared "King of the Tropicals" to the "Native Fish Guy". I began to speak at schools, aquarium clubs and Universities. I began to write and write and write until I became good at it. I reasoned the best way to reach people was via the written word. So after quite a few failures I got my first article published by a major aquarium magazine. The editor took a risk he was not sure if Aquarist were all that interested in Native species. I received over 500 letters from that article. Aquarist are interested! Now the movement, is truly a movement, fish are kept, new species bred, writers write, people read. The world has begun to take notice of the Aquarists. Government agencies have begun to ask for the help of Aquarists in rearing unusual native fishes. The future looks brighter but the job remains serious.
Let me leave you with these sad but true story's .The good enough gambusia due to population pressure and destruction of habitat went on the endangered list in the 1980's and a small population was kept in a single sight for domestic propagation. When the wild population declined and finally went belly up no one bothered to expand the domestic population. Scientist were shocked to find the domestic population was impure and was therefore destroyed. An easy to reproduce live bearer gone for ever!
In the 1950's blue pike were the staple of fish fry's in the upper midwest and was the number one in volume of fish taken in the Great lakes by commercial fisherman. As late as 1965 we took out 250,000 tons of blue pike out of the great lakes. However due to environmental pressures by 1975 they were gone, no one bothered to keep any specimens alive anywhere as a precaution and now all we have are a few odd preserved specimens and photos. It sickens me that at this day and age these passenger pigeon type extinction's can take place. If Aquarists had been there would it have been any different?
So that is how I became the native fish head that I am today. So become aware, get involved, or learn to explain to your grand kids why we don't have any of those anymore!
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