Book Review by Peter J Unmack


Battle Against Extinction: Native Fish Management in the American West. Minckley W. L. & Deacon, J. E. (eds.) 1991. The University of Arizona Press, Tucson. ISBN 0-8165-1221-3. 517p.


Battle Against Extinction is the result of a special symposium commemorating the 20th anniversary of the founding of the Desert Fishes Council (DFC). This is the book to own if you want the full story of western North American fishes. Little is omitted from it. All the big names in western ichthyology contributed chapters. This is not an aquarist’s book. Fishkeeping does not get a mention. This thorough book is for those who would like to learn about western North American native fishes, their discovery, plight, early struggles to protect them and the present situation in regard to their management and conservation. It provides a realistic, though optimistic outlook for the future of these unique fishes. While concentrating on desert species, the management and conservation issues discussed are relevant to all fishes regardless of where they occur in the world. In time, this book may be seen as one of the first chronicles of the loss of a complete fish fauna in a major region of the world unless there is a dramatic change in political will to conserve it. Much will be learned from the conservation efforts outlined in this book. The principals discussed here are being applied to fish conservation efforts in other parts of the world.


The following is a summary of the main sections of the book: The subjects and their plight provides a detailed outline of the ichthyological exploration of western fishes from Linnaeus to the present day. A highlight of the book is an enthralling description of the Carl Hubbs-Robert Rush Miller era, (1915-1950). This often humorous summary of their field work in the west includes stories of chewing gum being used to patch holes in fuel tanks, a rancher who, as a child, met them and remembered their visit as one of the highlights of his life 26 years later, payments for the children, Clark, Earl and Francis Hubbs, for fish collected at 5¢ per species, $1 per new species and $5 per new genera, and many others. Additional features include descriptions of new discoveries made, the early spread and translocation of introduced and native species, and the search to discover which pupfish inhabited the warmest water. Altogether, this is a series of truly wonderful stories which is bound to excite the imagination into dreaming about how things used to be.


The section on Spirals Towards Extinction: Actions and Reactions outlines the major environmental battles that began in the 1960s and the emergence of the DFC as a result of them. Ghosts of the Green River outlines the efforts, ongoing controversies and outcomes as a result of the poisoning of a 715 km (429 mi) section of the Green River in 1962 to remove native and non native “trash” fish prior to closing Flaming Reservoir to develop a “prized” trout fishery. Ash Meadows and the legacy of the Devils Hole pupfish relives the battles to protect Ash Meadows from agricultural developments during the late 1960s and 1970s. The Supreme Court finally ruled to protect Devils Hole. This should have been the end of the saga. But, through a lack of communication, the regional USFWS office failed to act as directed to purchase the land, and it was sold to another party. This led to the next battle in 1980, after an urban/commercial/agricultural development was proposed by the owner of Ash Meadows. Finally, the Federal Government purchased the land in 1984. In 1969, the DFC arose out of all these controversies to fight for the protection of desert fishes. One amazing tale was of a phone call by Phil Pister to the Commissioner of the USFWS to discuss actions aimed at protection of Ash Meadows and other pupfish habitats in 1970. As it turned out, the Commissioner actually grew up near Bishop, some of his childhood haunts were threatened pupfish habitats and he was very keen to see them protected.


Some Concerns, Facilities, and Methods of Management is a detailed presentation of the current methods being used in native fish management. Genetic considerations in threatened species management are explained clearly. The importance of undertaking genetic studies in order to improve the chances of species recovery and also for choosing stocks for re-introduction are explained. A very useful classification system is also proposed which separates sites based upon their condition and native fish stocks so that conservation priorities can be assigned relative to the values of each site. A summary of the history of refuges for native fish is given, including an evaluation of their success and options for their future management. A rather disheartening tale of Mexico’s declining springflows and other major threats demonstrates that many fish stocks are in bad health. Unless quick action is taken, it is suggested, many species will be lost. The activities of the Dexter Fish Hatchery and the role of hatcheries in species conservation is provided. The final chapter deals with stream rehabilitation. Emphasis is placed on the many problems encountered in rehabilitating sites, including natural and artificial barriers being destroyed, undesirable fish moving upstream over them (often with the help of humans), and the difficulty of removing non-native fishes. Based on past experience, recommendations for future restoration projects are given.


No Time to Lose: Management for Short-Lived Fishes is an outstanding assessment of the problems which arise in the conservation of short-lived species such as livebearers, pupfish and goodeids. There is a brief introduction to their typical habitats, survival strategies and life histories. A comprehensive list of the cyprinodontoid fishes of the west is provided, including range, habitat, and status of each species. Obituaries are given for five extinct species, including the causes of their loss. Conversely, there is an account of three fortunate species who nearly required obituaries. Finally, an account is given of three formerly abundant, widespread species which are currently endangered. An assessment is made of the role of hatcheries and the translocation of native fishes for their conservation. Evidence presented demonstrates that only a small percentage of transplants have been successful, in as much as some populations have persisted, although they have yet to stand the test of time. Despite the poor transplantation record so far (which is openly recognized), there have been some important success stories. The Big Bend gambusia (Gambusia gaigei), whose total population once consisted of only three fish after being out competed by dambusia (Gambusia affinis) appears to be recovering. Today the species has been captive-bred and reintroduced into several habitats.


Problems of Time and Space: Recovery of Long-Lived Species deals with fishes from the family Cyprinidae, that while still present in some areas, have not had successful natural recruitment for as long as 20 or 30 years. These include species such as the cui-ui (Chasmisties brevirostris) from Walker Lake, the razorback sucker (Xyrauchen texanus), and the Colorado squawfish (Ptychocheilus lucius), both from the Colorado River. For each species an outline of historical range, causes for decline, present status, biology and future management strategies are presented.


Epilogue: Swords of Fathers, Paying the Piper, and Other Cliches considers the future of western fishes. This section reviews the advances made and the problems still to overcome. The primary conclusion (which is echoed throughout the book) is that the battle to save western fishes from extinction still has a long and tortuous path to travel before recovery is secured. Many more battles will be fought, some lost, some won and some species lost irreplaceably.


This book is very well referenced. It has 60 pages of citations. It is indexed by common and scientific names, author and general terms. It is a definitive text for anyone interested in the history and management of western ichthyology and general strategies for aquatic conservation. I found the book to be exceptionally enjoyable reading and rate it ten out of ten for excellence.


Reprinted from The Advocate, January 1995 Vol. 2 No. 1, the quarterly newsletter for Tropical FishKeepers Exchange USA, a captive maintenance study group.