Peter Unmack & Karl Moy: Saving an Endangered Fish from Extinction

A release of the formerly endangered Running River Rainbowfish. So how were they brought back from near-extinction?

A release of the formerly endangered Running River Rainbowfish. So how were they brought back from near-extinction? (Image Credit: Karl Moy, University of Canberra, CC BY-SA 4.0)

We talk a lot about getting the public interested in conservation and ecosystems on Ecology for the Masses, but we’ve rarely talked about how conserving a species is actually accomplished. Where does funding come from? How do you decide which individuals to save? And how do you allow a population room to grow?

In 2015, Peter Unmack was sampling in the Burdekin river system in northern Queensland, Australia, when he noticed an alien population of Eastern Rainbowfish had established in Running River. Specifically a 13km stretch bounded by two gorges, which housed the Running River Rainbowfish, a species distinct to this one stretch. Knowing that the presence of the Eastern Rainbowfish could spell the extinction of the local species, he started a crowdfunding initiative, and essentially saved the Running River Rainbowfish. I spoke to Peter and postgraduate student Karl Moy about the conservation effort.

Sam Perrin (SP): Tell me a bit about the catalyst for the conservation program.

Dr. Peter Unmack, Institute for Applied Ecology, University of Canberra (PU): Well there are lots of other Rainbowfish in the Burdekin system that looked a little bit like the Running River Rainbowfish, but it’s by far the most striking. So Michael Hammer from the Northern Territory Museum and I, we were out there poking around, looking at Rainbowfish from a taxonomic perspective. In the process of doing that we found out that the Eastern Rainbowfish had been introduced, which meant that when interbreeding started, the Running River Rainbowfish would just disappear. The subsequent genetic work we did basically showed Running River housed the most distinct population of rainbowfish within that system, so we decided to focus conservation efforts there.

SP: You managed to crowdfund this conservation effort, how was that accomplished?

PU: Rainbowfishes are in every pet store in the world. And there’s a small but dedicated group of hobbyists worldwide that just love these fish. There’s people who will actually go off into the jungles in New Guinea to bring them back at great expense to themselves. And there’s a strong element of conservation in a lot of fish clubs around the world these days. In the US most clubs have dedicated funds or money available to give to researchers and others who are doing conservation work. So I started contacting clubs and set up a crowdfunding through the University of Canberra, and a lot of clubs came through. We had a couple of individual donors who gave anywhere from $500 to a $1000. And then more recently we actually got a $10,000 donation from the Aquarium Society of Victoria. It’s really been a global effort.

Running River Rainbowfish has now been spread around the aquarium hobby to a point where people overseas have them in their tanks as well, people often like to have something that’s threatened that they feel they have contributed to the conservation of. That’s the whole point, to keep it around for everyone’s benefit.

Had it not been for Karl and Peter's work, the Eastern Rainbowfish may have interbred with the Running River variety, hybridising it out of existence

Had it not been for Karl and Peter’s work, the Eastern Rainbowfish may have interbred with the Running River variety, hybridising it out of existence (Image Credit: Bcsr4ever, CC BY-SA 3.0)

SP: What did the actual conservation of the population involve?

PU: We brought back 52 fish, and the first thing to figure out was whether or not they were genetically pure, so we had to genotype them. We had to have pure fish to start breeding with. At this point we didn’t know they were a distinct species, we just thought that they were a variant of the Eastern Rainbowfish. But through that genetic work we figured out that these things were actually distinct, and it changed from “let’s conserve this population” to “let’s conserve this species”.

We fin-clipped them, genotyped them, and of course that costs a moderate amount of money, about 35 dollars a fish. I knew we couldn’t just go out into the wild and translocate them, we had to breed them in captivity. The University of Canberra had just been setting up aquarium facilities, and our collaborators from Luciano Beheregaray’s lab at Flinders University helped tell us which fish to match to minimise inbreeding. The goal was to produce an equal numbers of offspring from each breeding group to try and maximise genetic diversity across the parents and the offspring. We raised them up at the University of Canberra, and then shipped them up to Jason Schaeffer at TropWATER, James Cook University in Townsville.

The next part of the process was finding a place to put them. Fortunately we were extremely lucky to have the support of the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, who owned property adjacent to Running River, which had some suitable creeks. Luckily we surveyed those creeks and found they has seemingly permanent water but no Rainbowfish. It made them suitable translocation sites to ensure the species could persist in wild habitats. And that’s when Karl came into the picture.

Karl Moy, Institute of Applied Ecology, University of Canberra (KM): So my first involvement with the project was to trek the accessible lengths of this creek and look for suitable release sites. We needed pools that were going to last through the dry season, and had appropriate habitat for spawning and feeding.

PU: The key component of Karl’s project was how do you do a conservation release? You can’t just look it up in a book or read about it in a paper. Very little of this stuff has been done, even less for small-bodied species. Most have been targeted at bigger species like trout, cod and Macquarie perch. And even then, it’s mostly been a matter of just putting species out into the wild and waiting years before you can gauge success.

SP: When you raise a fish in captivity, it’s not a natural environment. How did you ensure the fishes would be prepared upon release for a natural environment?

KM: We conducted predator training, which involved taking one Rainbowfish, crushing it up, straining off the chunks and then adding a bit of that water whilst simultaneously adding a caged spangled perch, which was likely to be the main predator in the release sites. It was hoped they would associate the stimulus of the dead Rainbowfish with the threat from the Spangled Perch. So they’d make the connection that if they avoid spangled perch, they’d avoid death.

Building on that, I put some environmental enrichment into their rearing ponds. When you put a fish in a pond or an aquarium it’s usually empty, just to grow fish up. But where they’re going’s not going to be empty, there’s going to be some sort of predator, so they need to know how to hide in all sorts of different structures within the creek, so I added rock and plastic fencing mesh as artificial habitat in their enclosures.

PU: They need to be familiar with the concept of cover and hiding. We also tried to feed them a mix of artificial and natural food. A lot of salmonid studies show that whenfishare released into the wild they don’t know how to forage. They’ve only ever been fed pellets, or they’ve only ever lived in a sterile raceway without any cover. So a predator comes in and they don’t understand the concept of escape. They’ve never had a place to hide.

SP: How did the release work?

PU: Karl went and put an equal number of fish into ten pools on Deception Creek. Part of it was to understand how to do conservation release, so we released trained fish in half the pools and untrained fish in the other half and then monitored them until it started raining.

KM: I monitored immediately after release, the next day and then every day after, because studies have shown that mortality is really high immediately after release. And so if you only come back a year, or even just a week after you release them, there’s no way of knowing what actually went wrong. You want to be there as it’s happening so you know why it’s failed, and how to fix that in the future. So I snorkelled up and down each of the pools and counted the number of fish that I saw each time. Then there was a large rainfall event that connected all the pools together which more or less ended the experiment. But all the releases bar one were able to establish. And we did see some behavioural differences between trained fish and untrained fish.

SP: A lot of the time, particularly in Australia, we only start worrying about species when there’s 50 left in the world, or one patch left in a remote jungle. Do we need to change how we view conservation?

PU: Well it’s a challenging subject, because for the most part, unless there’s a specific individual that really chases money for a specific thing, nothing happens. A couple of decades ago the federal government were a bit better on providing some funding towards threatened fish. But all that money has dried up in the last decade or so. Even though we knew this fish was clearly going to go extinct, we approached QLD fisheries and the federal government and there was no help, nothing in the budget. At this point endangered fishes pretty much all ignored, irrespective of how bad things are or how good things are.

The next challenging question is, do you look at the stuff that’s endangered and say “there’s no point, they’re not going to make it”, and instead try and save the things that are more widespread, that still have some of their genetic diversity? But there’s not a lot of that going on either. There’s been some encouraging work on southern pygmy perch in the Murray Darling Basin, with both NSW fisheries and some of the Victorian regions bringing them into refuge areas to conserve them. But that’s an exception.

Fishes aren’t much of a conservation priority at the moment. Despite the fact that fish are one of the more threatened vertebrate groups. There’s a whole pile of species out there that are down to a few kilometres of stream or creek.

KM: There’s also a problem with keeping an eye on them, unless it’s around the major population centres or in a well-populated area. Peter only found this Running River problem by chance really. It was just a fluke. He wanted to go upstream and catch a different fish, that was likely up there, and instead found this newly established alien population. If he had just packed up and left they’d be gone now.

Drumming up support for fish conservation can be difficult, but Karl's just happy he doesn't have to do the same thing for snails

Drumming up support for fish conservation can be difficult, but Karl’s just happy he doesn’t have to do the same thing for snails (Image Credit: Doug Beckers, CC BY-SA 2.0)

SP: We have a lot of charismatic species in Australia, so it’s no wonder sometimes that smaller species get ignored when it comes to funding. How do we change this?

KM: I always wake up thinking I’m lucky that I don’t have a passion for snails, because that would be really tough. I’ve tried to get other biologists supportive of snail research, just as an experiment of my own, and I couldn’t do it. Unless you can hold it, pat it, or it looks nice, or tastes good, it’s very hard to get anyone interested.

So we need to frame it differently. Frame it as having some sort of ecosystem process, maybe say that it’s ugly or boring but uniquely Australian. That’s the approach I would take.

PU: The challenging part of course is that most people don’t see these things or know they exist. So everybody knows about Murray Cod and Barramundi and Golden Perch, the iconic stuff that people angle for, and an awful lot of people know about Rainbowfish, but once you get beyond that it’s much slimmer pickings. There’s not a whole pile of public education on fish.

Australian fishes are just as unique if not more unique than our mammals. People harp on about how unique our marsupials are, when our fishes are actually the most distinctive unusual fish fauna in the world when compared to other continents. Because of its long isolation, there’s a completely different assemblage of fishes here. It’s highly unique, but I’m not sure that’s something that most people, even fish biologists, fully appreciate.

To learn more about the effort to save the Running River Rainbowfish, check out Andrew Katsis’ article on the project here.

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