Red finned blue eye Adam Kerezsy (2)

To List or not To List? A sensible question

Writing and photography by Adam Kerezsy

I was checking on Ebbsy’s Lair the other day and was interested to read some of the newer postings – particularly the insights of Gerry Allen, Helen Larson and Paul Humphries. Quite apart from reinforcing my perception that a website like this is a good idea for a range of reasons, I found myself specifically relating the expertise of all three to my past and current work (which I think is a natural reaction to a forum-type site such as this). Even more specifically – and especially because of my recent work on endangered species – I interpreted their opinions through this lens.

For the last six years I’ve been working to recover populations of Red-finned blue-eye, a tiny fish found only in a tiny number of Great Artesian Basin springs in central western Queensland. I’ve taken the ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ approach, and thrown most things in the general direction of the problem, including nuking Gambusia (= Gambo) with rotenone, relocating populations of the critters to ‘safe’ areas and building barriers around springs to prevent Gambo incursion. Most recently, I headed down a captive breeding route.

I’m sure most would agree that if saving a species is the idea, this scattergun approach is sensible, but what many may not realise is that once a species is listed as endangered (and this one is, both nationally and at state level), it actually becomes much harder to work on them, because what might be termed the ‘permission loading’ rises substantially. As an example, it took the best part of two years to get a referral approved from the feds to nuke the Gambos and move the blue-eye. Then – and still before the work started – I also had to get permission under the state legislation, not to mention plenty of ethics agreements into the bargain. In the interim, at least one naturally-occurring population of blue-eyes was invaded and overwhelmed by Gambos, but legally, there was bugger-all I could do about it.

It’s important to remember that none of these actions or referrals or permissions relate to research into the biology, ecology and natural history of the species: admittedly, at this point just keeping the species on the planet is a bigger priority. But Paul Humphries is spot-on: unless we know how our creatures tick, we may be jumping the gun modelling their habitats, requirements and future prospects. As an example, I have no conclusive idea what Red-finned blue-eye eat, and whether this may have something to do with Gambo success versus blue-eye extirpation. I’d certainly like to, but here’s the dilemma: I reckon I’ve got Buckley’s and none of getting permission under the EPBC Act to cut open some of the remaining fish. Once something is endangered – and the IUCN list this one as critically endangered – bureaucrats rightfully get a bit antsy about losing a few.

Gerry Allen’s interview gave me another perspective, because Gerry, along with other well-travelled fish people (Heiko Bleher is a suitably eccentric example), has actually done plenty of discovery. They’ve traipsed around tropical jungles and snorkelled in crystal-clear streams, and – significantly – they’ve kept finding new species. In many cases, these ‘new’ species are range-limited to a catchment or even a certain section of a catchment, which is almost certainly why they haven’t been ‘discovered’ before. I’ve noticed a tendency within the trade to jump a few steps forward at this point and draw a logical conclusion between rarity/range-limitation and the conferment of endangered status – in other words, if something is new and rare, it must/should be endangered. I’m not sure this is necessarily the case, particularly if researchers wish to undertake further study on the species in question. In fact, I’d suggest doing the research first, and only then nominating species for listing if rarity can be shored up with immediate threats. A common counter-argument is that endangered listing may be useful because funding is more likely to occur, but I think in many cases this is more perception than reality. If something’s big (like a rhino), or furry (like a bilby) or – even better – big and furry (like a tiger) then this argument probably has a bit of clout. But for the vast majority of Australia’s freshwater fish – small, scaly, unobtrusive – expecting largesse to materialise just because a particular species has a big ‘E’ next to its name is probably a bit unrealistic. Remember that the federal agency, although it ‘manages’ the listings, doesn’t have any cash to throw at recovery effort. In the case of the Red-finned blue-eye, there’s been bootloads of media stories and other publicity – including being included in a 100 Most Endangered worldwide awareness initiative by the IUCN – but money has still been hard to come by. And remember, this is the Australian fish species that is definitely the next to exit God’s waiting room unless active management of remaining populations is continued.

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If only they would fight back (Illustration not provided by Adam Kerezsy)

Taxonomists like Helen Larson deserve all of our admiration, for without them, we (really) don’t know what we’re talking about. (There’s also the number of hours spent peering down a microscope at papillae, which only a very small percentage of Homo sapiens actually possess the patience for.) Helen and her peers (too many to list, but sadly, many less than previously) have – many times – revised and re-written the book on species, speciation and species boundaries, and now, with the assistance of what might be termed the ‘gene army’ (think names like Adams, Unmack and Hammer and you’re in the right territory), these revisions are set to both continue and increase. Although this is good overall, it makes things complicated (e.g. how any smelt species are we up to now?), and if it makes things complicated for people who are actually interested in fish, imagine what it’ll be like for the box-tickers in Canberra (and other places). Remember that going from a listing nomination to acceptance to anything approaching an adopted recovery plan is likely to take about 20 years, so there’s not much point nominating an obscure species if there is every chance it might end up being a different species by the time the dust settles. The up-coming ‘grunter fiesta’ in the Kimberley is a good example: no idea how many Syncomistes and other Terapontids we’ll eventually end up with, but probably a good idea no-ones pressed the ‘endangered’ button until the picture’s a little bit clearer. With regard to listing or not listing, the biggest consideration should be certainty, both of the species and its security.

So thanks to Paul, Gerry and Helen for giving me some inspiration, and galvanising me to throw a thousand words together that might be food for thought for someone else. Thanks also to Ebb for hosting the Lair. If there’s a moral to this story it could be something along the lines of: listing species as endangered is no different from building a house: measure twice, cut once, and if it doesn’t seem right it probably isn’t.

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Editor’s note: Adam Kerezsy is on the cusp of becoming a regular fixture here at the Lair. He is living proof that you do not need to keep your thoughts bottled up inside. If you are interested in adding to Adam’s thoughts or opening up a bottle of your own, feel free to contribute a written piece or just send a short comment for the soon to be released Letters to the Editor section. I am also interested in feedback regarding what else you think would be useful on this website.