Dramatic double discovery of a fish on the brink of extinction


Dramatic double discovery of a fish on the brink of extinction
River phoenix – A precious juvenile ship sturgeon, risen from the depths. Credit: Irakli Tsulaia

Within the space of less than a month, two specimens of a vanishingly rare fish have been plucked from the waters of the Rioni River in Georgia.

Before these two juveniles were caught, conservationists had expressed fears that the critically endangered ship  might have already sunk without trace. This extraordinary, other-worldly fish—whose evolution dates back hundreds of millions of years—had not been seen alive in the wild for many years.

A lack of solid scientific research on the species means that very little is known about the ecology and distribution of the ship sturgeon, but no one disputes that it is in deep trouble. In that context, the capture of two juvenile fish in quick succession, each estimated to be less than three years old, is extremely exciting news, raising the prospect that this elusive and gravely imperiled species might still be reproducing in the Rioni.

Sturgeons were once widespread throughout Europe, but have been virtually wiped out by a lethal combination of overharvesting, poaching and the loss of traditional spawning grounds to habitat destruction. The Rioni is one of the last three remaining refuges of these dwindling denizens of the Danube and the continent’s other great river systems. Remarkably, it still harbors breeding populations of several sturgeon species.

Georgia on our minds

The first evidence of recent reproductive success came in 2018, when a tiny —tentatively identified as a stellate sturgeon—was caught by two female students working  for Fauna & Flora International (FFI) on a  launched earlier that year in an effort to safeguard Rioni’s remaining riches.

Dramatic double discovery of a fish on the brink of extinction
Sturgeon spawning grounds in Georgia’s Rioni River. Credit: Fleur Scheele/FFI

Since conducting what were the very first baseline studies for sturgeons in Georgia, FFI and our in-country partners have set about combating the threats to their survival, in particular poaching and illegal trade. We have established monitoring teams comprising ‘citizen inspectors’ drawn from communities along the river, whose role is to inform governmental agencies about incidences of poaching. FFI works closely with these communities—from schoolchildren to fish traders—to raise awareness of the plight of the sturgeons in the Rioni—and their global importance.

The FFI research team continues to work on the river from early spring to autumn, gathering vital data on sturgeon recruitment and genetic diversity in Georgia’s territorial waters. In collaboration with Ilia State University, we collect samples from any captured sturgeons for genetic analysis, in order to aid identification and shed light on which species still survive in the Rioni.

Hook, line and sturgeon

Ironically, both ship sturgeons were accidentally captured by surprised anglers, the first in mid-March, and the second just three weeks later. All sturgeon species in Georgia are officially protected, and commercial fishing on the Rioni is severely restricted, but sport fishing with rod and line is permitted, provided that anglers release any sturgeons they catch.

The fact that both anglers contacted one of FFI’s citizen inspectors immediately after catching the juvenile sturgeons—thereby enabling photographs and samples to be taken before the fish were returned to the river—is a success story in itself, vindicating FFI’s efforts to engage with nearby communities and engender local support for the project.

A week after the second ship sturgeon was caught, the river yielded a third juvenile, this time captured by the FFI team and provisionally labeled as a Colchic sturgeon—although hybrids are known to occur and can be difficult to differentiate from the real deal without detailed analysis.

While the ichthyologists may be agonizing over the idiosyncrasies of sturgeon subcategories, one thing is certain: the latest revelations provide further irrefutable evidence that the Rioni is an absolutely crucial sanctuary—and possibly the last hope—for these armor-plated icons of the fish world.

Dramatic double discovery of a fish on the brink of extinction
Another juvenile – believed to be a Colchic sturgeon – completed the trio of young fish caught within the space of a few weeks. Credit: Tamar Edisherashvili/FFI

Dammed to extinction?

Further studies will be required before we can confirm categorically that the ship sturgeon is still spawning in Georgia’s mightiest river, but it seems that there could be light at the end of the tunnel. Unfortunately, that glimmer of hope is in imminent danger of being snuffed out.

A significant new threat to the survival of Georgia’s sturgeons has recently surfaced. The proposed development of several hydropower plants upstream from our project site could have a potentially disastrous impact on the Rioni—and put paid to the recovery prospects of its flagship  species.

We risk having to bear witness to the tragedy of a rediscovered species being pulled back from the brink of extinction by conservationists only to be knowingly pushed over the precipice in the name of economic progress. Let’s hope that day never arrives.

Explore further

Little fish, big deal – Baby sturgeon offers hope for the future

This fish is ‘king of the reef.’ But high-end diners may change that.

The luxury live reef fish market threatens the humphead wrasse. Could its unique “eyelashes” help save it?
7 Minute Read
By Danielle Beurteaux

PUBLISHED March 20, 2020

It’s the king of the coral reefs. The humphead wrasse, fittingly named for the bump on its head, can grow to six feet long, weigh up to 400 pounds, and live for 30 years.

Also known as Napoleon wrasses, these giants are things of beauty, with diamond patterning, varying green, blue, and yellow scales, and distinctive “eyelashes”—black diagonal lines behind each eye. The fish live in tropical waters of nearly 50 countries, from the coast of East Africa to the Pacific Ocean.

But they’re disappearing because of their reputation for being delicious. They’re considered a luxury food in Hong Kong, where per capita fish consumption is among the highest in the world, according to the marine environmental nonprofit Bloom Hong Kong.

Fishing for humphead wrasses has intensified in recent years. In 2004, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which sets the conservation status of species, upgraded the fish from vulnerable to endangered. Also that year, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES), the body that regulates cross-border commerce in wildlife, set more stringent regulations to protect the species from overexploitation. Many countries where humpheads are found have banned their trade, but Indonesia—whose waters encompass about a fifth of the humphead’s range—allows 2,000 to be exported each year, a number some experts worry is too high.
© NGP, Content may not reflect National Geographic’s current map policy.

Humphead wrasse can be found in the Coral Triangle, as well as on coral reefs throughout much of the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

Yvonne Sadovy, a professor at the University of Hong Kong’s Swire Institute of Marine Sciences and co-chair of the IUCN’s grouper and wrasse specialist group, says it’s unknown how many humpheads remain in the seas or what their rate of decline has been. What is well known is that the ecologically important Coral Triangle, encompassing a significant part of the humphead’s range, is threatened by overfishing.

Unlike elephants, humphead wrasses don’t get a lot of publicity, but they’re “in probably a worse state of trouble,” says Colman O’Criodain, the World Wildlife Fund’s policy manager for wildlife. Sadovy, who led recent humphead wrasse population surveys, says the fish were so scarce that “we were really quite shocked.” She also hears from divers and biologists that they no longer see mature humpheads in the wild.
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The fact that humpheads are scarce in the wild, despite protections, is evidence of illegal fishing and trading, but ascertaining the scale of the illegal trade is very difficult. Online trading platforms such as the Chinese ecommerce sites TMall and Taobao can facilitate illicit trade, Sadovy says. Social media, chat rooms, and WhatsApp groups, make it “much harder to detect,” O’Criodain says.

The lack of tracking for humpheads motivated Sadovy to create a tool that could be used by both authorities and the public. In what would be a first for fish, facial recognition technology uses the fish’s unique eye marks to determine if a humphead was imported legally. Working with a developer, she created Saving Face, a smartphone app that would enable diners, restaurateurs, and endangered species enforcement officers to compare a photo of a humphead wrasse for sale at a restaurant or market to photos in a database of legally imported humpheads.

The app is still in the testing phase, Sadovy says. She hopes Hong Kong will help promote the app and that it will empower people to be consumer watchdogs and help stop the selling of illegal fish. She says a growing number of restaurants in Hong Kong are intent on offering only legally sourced species that aren’t compromised in the wild, while consumers themselves are becoming more aware of beleaguered species they should avoid eating.

For the app to have a real impact on the illegal trade, Hong Kong would need to have enough inspectors at its ports to photograph each imported live wrasse to register in the app’s database. Further, there would need to be widespread adoption of the app by restaurateurs who buy the fish from wholesalers and restaurant diners. Then if the app does raise questions about the legality of a fish, app users would need to take it upon themselves to report the lack of facial matches to endangered species enforcement officers, who would need to prioritize following up on those reports.

The Hong Kong government needs to make more effort to educate and raise awareness among the public, the hospitality industry, and seafood traders, Sadovy says. “I think there’s a real need for education.”
From Indonesia to Hong Kong

Indonesia not only exports wild-caught humpheads but also ones raised in captivity, in the remote Anambas Islands and Natuna Islands. In 2018, for the first time, the country established an annual export quota of
40,000 for ranched humpheads. These are fish taken from the wild as juveniles and raised in pens. As with the wild fish, they’re shipped live, mostly to Hong Kong, to be kept in tanks in markets and restaurants until they’re sold for a meal (or die of other causes). This flood of humpheads into the market has made enforcement even more difficult, both because of the sheer number of fish and because there’s no way to distinguish between wild and ranched humpheads.

O’Criodain is worried that ranching may worsen the plight of these endangered fish. He says removing pre-reproductive-age wrasses from diminished wild populations may compromise their ability to rebound and that Indonesia doesn’t fulfill the CITES rule that trade in ranched humpheads is permissible only if it won’t undermine wild populations.
“There’s nothing about the overall size of the population and whether the take of these juveniles is sustainable in relation to that overall size,” he says. CITES also requires that a certain number of ranched fish be returned to the wild to bolster diminishing populations, but according to O’Criodain, Indonesia hasn’t declared its intent to do that.
Picture of a humphead wrasse swimming over coral reef

A facial recognition app is being developed that uses the humpheads’ eye markings to help distinguish between legally and illegally traded fish.
Photograph by David Doubilet, Nat Geo Image Collection

The Indonesian Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, which oversees the trade in humphead wrasses, did not respond to requests for comment.

Hong Kong’s Agriculture, Fisheries, and Conservation Department issues fish import permits, manages trade in CITES-listed species, and carries out shipment inspections. Every Hong Kong humphead wrasse retailer must have a possession license, and it’s prohibited for vendors to buy and sell the fish from each other. But if humpheads are smuggled in with shipments of other fish they resemble—groupers, for example—they’re not officially documented.

As detailed in a 2016 report Sadovy cowrote for Traffic, a nonprofit that tracks the wildlife trade, the number of humpheads offered in Hong Kong’s markets and restaurants exceeds the official, legal number.
Additionally, CITES records show that thousands of ranched Indonesian humphead wrasses are simply disappearing. In one instance, 8,000 ranched fish (with the proper CITES export permits) left Indonesia but never showed up anywhere else. “That disappearance means, because Hong Kong is quite good at reporting imports, that they’re going straight into mainland China and not being reported,” Sadovy says.

At present, the Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department is more intent on checking vessels suspected of carrying drugs or goods such as cigarettes, smuggled in to avoid customs duties, than illegal wildlife, says Sophie le Clue, environment director with the Hong Kong-based nonprofit ADM Capital Foundation. She says inspectors generally search for illegal wildlife only if they’ve been tipped off ahead of time; then they call in the Endangered Species division of the Agriculture, Fisheries, and Conservation Department for law enforcement action.

Officials from the department declined requests for an interview but sent an extended statement. Among other things, they said that “Hong Kong is committed to the protection of endangered species [and] takes vigorous enforcement actions together with the Customs and Excise Department in combating smuggling of Humphead wrasse to ensure that the trade in Humphead wrasse is in accordance with CITES and local legislation [and] conducts inspection on local market from time to time and appropriate enforcement action would be taken if any irregularity is spotted.”

The Endangered Species division itself doesn’t have an investigative body. Neither it nor Customs and Excise likely has enough staff or resources to inspect and track all shipments of live fish, says Stanley Shea, Bloom Hong Kong’s marine director.
’Saving Face’ for saving fish

Sadovy says the Saving Face app will be available at no cost. Here’s how authorities and the public will be able to use it: When legally imported fish with proper documentation arrive in Hong Kong, Endangered Species division personnel will photograph them and upload the photos to a database connected to the app. When enforcement officers or diners want to check the legality of a humphead, they can take a photo of the fish and, using the app, ascertain whether it matches one recorded in the database. If it doesn’t, they can use the Endangered Species division’s public reporting phone line to alert authorities.

According to Sadovy, a pilot project tested in the spring of 2019 showed that the app had a 70 percent match accuracy rate. She and the developer are now working on improving the accuracy rate, as well as enabling a desktop and cloud version that would make the system useful for high-volume import inspections. They plan to launch this in June.

Despite the limited number of Endangered Species division inspectors, Sadovy says the Agriculture, Fisheries, and Conservation Department has committed to using the app to process all labeled imports of live wild humphead wrasses. Ranched wrasses, however, make up the majority of imports, and it’s far from clear whether Hong Kong would have the staff to process those as well in the future.

Anil Jain, professor of computer science and engineering at Michigan State University, in East Lansing, whose biometrics lab developed a facial recognition system for primates, says the tool is promising but imperfect. Environmental factors such as cloudy water or bad lighting can affect image quality and compromise accuracy.

Eventually, with sufficient data, Sadovy envisions that the app could be used as a tool to combat trafficking of other wildlife besides humphead wrasses. “If there’s enough sample data,” she says, “enforcers could use this for all sorts of imports.”


Climate change: Oceans running out of oxygen as temperatures rise

  • 8 hours ago
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sharkImage copyrightIUCN

Climate change and nutrient pollution are driving the oxygen from our oceans, and threatening many species of fish.

That’s the conclusion of the biggest study of its kind, undertaken by conservation group IUCN.

While nutrient run-off has been known for decades, researchers say that climate change is making the lack of oxygen worse.

Around 700 ocean sites are now suffering from low oxygen, compared with 45 in the 1960s.

Researchers say the depletion is threatening species including tuna, marlin and sharks.

The threat to oceans from nutrient run-off of chemicals such as nitrogen and phosphorus from farms and industry has long been known to impact the levels of oxygen in the sea waters and still remains the primary factor, especially closer to coasts.

However, in recent years the threat from climate change has increased.

As more carbon dioxide is released enhancing the greenhouse effect, much of the heat is absorbed by the oceans. In turn, this warmer water can hold less oxygen. The scientists estimate that between 1960 and 2010, the amount of the gas dissolved in the oceans de

Media captionClimate change: How 1.5C could change the world

That may not seem like much as it is a global average, but in some tropical locations the loss can range up to 40%.

Even small changes can impact marine life in a significant way. So waters with less oxygen favour species such as jellyfish, but not so good for bigger, fast-swimming species like tuna.

OxygenImage copyrightIUCN

“We have known about de-oxygenation but we haven’t known the linkages to climate change and this is really worrying,” said Minna Epps from IUCN.

“Not only has the decline of oxygen quadrupled in the past 50 years but even in the best case emissions scenario, oxygen is still going to decline in the oceans.”

For species like tuna, marlin and some sharks that are particularly sensitive to lack of oxygen – this is bad news.

Bigger fish like these have greater energy needs. According to the authors, these animals are starting to move to the shallow surface layers of the seas where there is more of the gas dissolved. However, this make the species much more vulnerable to over-fishing.

If countries continue with a business-as-usual approach to emissions, the world’s oceans are expected to lose 3-4% of their oxygen by the year 2100.

This is likely to be worse in the tropical regions of the world. Much of the loss is expected in the top 1,000m of the water column, which is richest in biodiversity.

TunaImage copyrightIUCN
Image captionTuna are suffering from lack of oxygen, says IUCN

Low levels of oxygen are also bad for basic processes like the cycling of elements crucial for life on Earth, including nitrogen and phosphorous.

“If we run out of oxygen it will mean habitat loss and biodiversity loss and a slippery slope down to slime and more jellyfish,” said Minna Epps.

“It will also change the energy and the biochemical cycling in the oceans and we don’t know what these biological and chemical shifts in the oceans can actually do.”

Changing the outcomes for the oceans is down to the world’s political leaders which is why the report has been launched here at COP25.

“Ocean oxygen depletion is menacing marine ecosystems already under stress from ocean warming and acidification,” said Dan Laffoley, also from IUCN and the report’s co-editor.

“To stop the worrying expansion of oxygen-poor areas, we need to decisively curb greenhouse gas emissions as well as nutrient pollution from agriculture and other sources.”

Research Links Pesticide Harmful to Bees With Collapse of Fisheries

Anew study out this week provides more evidence of harm caused by a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, with researchers linking use of the chemicals on a Japanese lake with impacts to an entire food web that resulted in the collapse of two fisheries.

“No surprise,” tweeted former UK Green Party leader leader Natalie Bennett, “soaking our planet in pesticides has broad systemic effects on biodiversity and bioabundance.”

For the study, published in the November 1 issue of the journal Science, the researchers looked at Lake Shinji and analyzed over two decades of data. They found cascading impacts that appeared to stem from the first use of neonicotinoids on nearby rice paddies.

André Müller@andreairplane9

First study in @sciencemagazine to show how –> application of neonicotinoids 💉 around lakes –> less dragonflies, mayflies 🦟 –> less fish 🐟 (perhaps birds and others). https://twitter.com/AFL_org/status/1190021637443325955 

Alliance for Freshwater Life@AFL_org

Fishery collapse ‘confirms Silent Spring pesticide prophecy’ –
Common pesticides found to starve #fish ‘astoundingly fast’ by killing aquatic #insects via @guardianeco https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/31/fishery-collapse-confirms-silent-spring-pesticide-prophecy?CMP=share_btn_tw 

See André Müller’s other Tweets

Masumi Yamamuro@MasumiYamamuro

decreased and smelts in a Japanese lagoon through decreasing foods aquatic insects and crustaceans. Any comments and suggestions are welcome.https://science.sciencemag.org/content/366/6465/620/tab-pdf 

Neonicotinoids disrupt aquatic food webs and decrease fishery yields

It is now well known that neonicotinoids negatively affect pollinators. As research has expanded, it has become clear that these globally used insecticides directly affect other ecosystem components,…


See Masumi Yamamuro’s other Tweets

“Since the application of neonicotinoids to agricultural fields began in the 1990s, zooplankton biomass has plummeted in a Japanese lake surrounded by these fields,” the researchers wrote. “This decline has led to shifts in food web structure and a collapse of two commercially harvested freshwater fish species.”

“Using data on zooplankton, water quality, and annual fishery yields of eel and smelt,” the paper says, “we show that neonicotinoid application to watersheds since 1993 coincided with an 83% decrease in average zooplankton biomass in spring, causing the smelt harvest to collapse from 240 to 22 tons in Lake Shinji, Shimane Prefecture, Japan.”

As for the strength of the link between the pesticides and the collapse, Phys.org added:

The researchers note that they also studied other factors that might have led to fishery collapse, such as nutrient depletion or changes in oxygen or salt concentrations. They report that they were not able to find any evidence showing that there might have been something other than pesticides killing the food fish ate leaving them to starve. They conclude that the evidence strongly suggests it was the introduction of neonicotinoid pesticides into the lake environment that led to the die-offs.

The Guardian, in its reporting on the study, noted that the researchers pointed to the haunting warning from Rachelel Carson’s seminal work, Silent Spring:

In their report, the Japanese researchers said: “She wrote: ‘These sprays, dusts and aerosols are now applied almost universally to farms, gardens, forests and homes—nonselective chemicals that have the power to kill every insect, the ‘good’ and the ‘bad,’ to still the song of birds and the leaping of fish in the streams.’ The ecological and economic impact of neonicotinoids on the inland waters of Japan confirms Carson’s prophecy.”

Similar impacts, the researchers added, are likely felt in other locations.

“Just awful, what gruesome harm we are inflicting on the environment,” Matt Shardlow, CEO of the invertebrate conservation group Buglife, wrote on Twitter in response to the new study.

According to Nathan Donley, senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity and who was not involved in the study, the findings should spur action by the Environmental Protection Agency.

“This study highlights cascading harms to aquatic life from neonicotinoids that our EPA has known about but shrugged off,” said Donley. “The evidence is now overwhelming that these pesticides are turning our rivers, lakes, and streams into inhospitable environments for fish, frogs, and other aquatic life.”

“This landmark new research should make it impossible for even the Trump administration to ignore the immense damage caused by these dangerous chemicals,” Donley added.

Neonicotinoids, or neonics as they’re often called, have also been linked to harm to bees, other insectsbirds, and other animals.

Fish should be part of the animal welfare conversation

Jessica Scott-Reid | Special to The Globe and Mail
Published 6 hours ago
Updated October 20, 2019

From October 19-21, The Globe and Mail is offering complimentary access to
all our election, news and business coverage. Learn more | Open this photo
in gallery

[At Newfoundland’s Northern Harvest Sea Farms, as many as 1.8 million salmon
suffocated to death in early September owing to lack of oxygen in the water.
A ship is seen in Fortune Bay, off the Newfoundland coast, on Oct. 2
disposing the decomposing remains of salmon into the water after the mass
die-off. The layer of rotten fish sludge sitting on the bottom of bay is
said to be more than 15 metres thick in some areas.]

Atlantic Salmon Federation/Bill Bryden/The Globe and Mail

Jessica Scott-Reid is a Montreal-based freelance writer and animal advocate.

It’s a notion that has made headlines several times over the past few years:
Fish feel pain, and the way we catch and kill them for food may actually be
cruel. This evolution in understanding of the sentience of an animal
long-considered too simple has caused some controversy and discomfort. And
as Newfoundland copes with a massive fish-farm die-off, concerns about the
well-being of the fish in crowded farms are being added to this mounting

At Newfoundland’s Northern Harvest Sea Farms, as many as 1.8 million salmon
suffocated to death in early September, due to lack of oxygen in the water.
As The Globe and Mail reported two weeks ago, concerned marine biologists
noted the fish would have been stressed and fighting for oxygen in the
cramped, warm waters. Workers have also been struggling to deal with the
decomposing remains, which are being vacuumed out of the cages, processed on
land and dumped back into the sea. The layer of rotten fish sludge sitting
on the bottom of bay is said to be more than 15 metres thick in some areas,
and marine biologists worry this sludge could create algae blooms that steal
oxygen from the water and choke out other wild marine life.

Fish farming is a rapidly growing sector within Canada’s fishing industry,
with salmon being the most commonly farmed fish, and worth about $1-billion.
There are concerns, however, about a lack of government oversight of these
farms and about the damage they can cause to surrounding environments.
Deterioration of water quality owing to waste production and the spread of
disease to wild fish populations (and of drugs used to treat those
diseases), are included in these concerns. Last year, member of Parliament
Fin Donnelly told CBC News that open-net fish farms are essentially “using
the ocean as a toilet.”

For a food source typically touted as environmentally sustainable, and
perhaps less ethically fraught than their land-bound counterparts, fish may
actually be more complicated than we once thought.

Growing research now points to the fact that fish have the ability to
experience sensations, including pain and suffering. In a 2018 article in
Smithsonian Magazine, It’s Official: Fish Feel Pain, author Ferris Jabr
explains that at the anatomical level, fish have neurons known as
nociceptors, “which detect potential harm, such as high temperatures,
intense pressure, and caustic chemicals.” Fish bodies also produce the same
innate painkillers (that is, opioids) that mammals do.

Mr. Jabr details several studies, which show fish demonstrating atypical
behaviours when inflicted with pain and returning to typical behaviours when
given painkillers.

In more recent research, biologist Lynne Sneddon of the University of
Liverpool told The Independent, “When the fish’s lips are given a painful
stimulus they rub the mouth against the side of the tank much like we rub
our toe when we stub it.” She added: “If we accept fish experience pain,
then this has important implications for how we treat them.”

Although evidence is growing about the sentience of fish, they still lack
legal protection in Canada regarding their welfare or humane handling, and
are legally considered property when caught or farmed. Fishing is exempt
from most provincial animal-care acts as an accepted activity in which an
animal may be permitted to suffer (much like the farming and slaughtering of
other animals for food).

And though there are no statistics on the number of fish killed for food in
Canada each year, we know the industry is worth several billion dollars,
with exports of $6.6-billion worth of fish and seafood in 2015 putting
estimates in the hundreds of millions of fish permitted to suffocate to
death each year. The potential suffering associated with that number of
animals is hard to comprehend.

Ethical and environmental concerns surrounding the way we farm, catch and
kill fish for food are increasing. Allowing sentient animals capable of
suffering to be crammed into cages where they are unable to escape harmful
conditions, or to be pulled out of their environments, allowed to suffocate
to death, no longer aligns with the values of many Canadians who care about
the humane treatment of animals.

Compounding environmental stress upon already vulnerable ecosystems and
biodiversity only exacerbates this very obvious problem.

It’s time to care about fish, and perhaps that means leaving them alone.


Animal Cruelty Charges Dropped Because Fish Are Not “Animals” Under North Carolina Law

Animals are defined as “property” under U.S. law, which complicates efforts to advocate for them through the legal system. Property classification is not the only aspect of animals’ legal status that presents challenges. Also problematic is when animals are expressly excluded from the definition of “animal” under state cruelty laws, as this case illustrates.

In April 2019, a North Carolina man was arrested and charged with four animal cruelty s — one count of animal abandonment and three counts of cruelty to animals — for failing to provide his oscar fish with food and fresh water and abandoning the animal in his home when he was evicted. The fish was malnourished, swimming in a dirty tank, and suffering from a parasitic disease when discovered by authorities in the abandoned residence.

While animal cruelty prosecutions involving fish are rare, Lt. Jerry Brewer, a spokesman for the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office, said: “This is a life just like any dog or cat. If you harm or neglect an animal in New Hanover County, we are coming for you.” Authorities believe it was the first time a suspect had been charged in the county with cruelty over a pet fish.

The following week, however, all of the charges were dropped because according to North Carolina’s animal cruelty law fish are not “animals.” The state’s animal cruelty statute defines animals as “every living vertebrate in the classes Amphibia, Reptilia, Aves,[1] and Mammalia except human beings.”[2] Fish are not represented in these categories and are the only vertebrate class not included.

In a statement, New Hanover County District Attorney Ben David said:

We take a very dim view of anyone who would abuse any creature great or small and appreciate [the Animal Services Division’s] enforcement of the laws to protect vulnerable animals. Fish are not included in this statute, however, so my office is ing these charges.

What is an “Animal”?

Despite the fact that they are living beings, animals are defined under U.S. law as property, which has been an obstacle to gaining recognition that they have basic legal rights. Animal cruelty laws are one of the few legal protections animals have that distinguish them from other types of property. However, some animals are not even granted the basic status of “animal” under the law, meaning they are generally excluded from even the elementary protections provided by animal cruelty statutes.

Animal cruelty laws are powerful tools to protect animals. But these protections are watered down in important ways, such as by exempting otherwise lawful practices that harm animals (e.g., farming, research, and hunting and fishing) and excluding entire classes of animals from the legal definition of “animal,” which leaves them with essentially no statutory protection from abuse and neglect.[3]

The statutory definition of “animal” under cruelty laws varies by state, and does not always adhere to commonly accepted biological and cultural understandings of what an animal is. There are a total of ten states that exclude fish from their statutory definitions of animals.[4] In addition to fish and other aquatic animals, farmed animals (or “standard,” “customary,” or “accepted” farming practices),[5] cold-blooded animals,[6] and wild animals[7] are sometimes excluded by definition from state cruelty laws. Other statutes are more vaguely worded and neither specifically exclude nor include fish and other animals;[8] other states provide no definition whatsoever.[9]

While there is no uniform definition of “animal” under state animal cruelty laws, the situation is not much better when it comes to federal animal protection laws (of which there are few). In addition, as with other animals, if fish are defined as animals at all, the cultural category into which they are placed matters: Being classified as a “pet” (versus “food” or “research subject”) will yield different levels of legal protection. As we have written in “Fins or Fur — How the Law Differs:

It is now more or less indisputable that aquatic animals like fish feel pain and suffer as other animals do but have fewer legal protections. The federal  does not protect fish (or birds, farm animals, rats and mice bred for labs, and reptiles, among others). Fish are also not included in the Humane Slaughter Act or federal laws governing the treatment of animals used in research; not only that, but fish are not counted in the United States Department of Agriculture’s yearly report on animal usage in labs despite the fact that they make up an estimated seven percent of animals used in labs.

Fish Are Living, Feeling Beings

The fish rescued in this case was taken by authorities to a retail pet store called the Fish Room, where employees have been nursing him back to health with a proper diet and medication. One of these employees, according to the Washington Post, characterized oscar fish as “very trainable” with “huge personalities.” Oscar fish can live up to 20 years. The recently rescued fish is estimated to be about a year old.

It was a positive step that the sheriff’s office in this case brought cruelty charges involving a fish, but unfortunate that the district attorney’s hands were tied by North Carolina’s statutory definition of animal, which essentially erases fish and sends the message that their suffering isn’t relevant.

Indeed, fish are living, feeling beings — not essentially different from the animals who are protected by cruelty laws. Animal cruelty laws should be extended to apply to fish where they currently do not. There is no longer any doubt that fish are sentient. Substantial empirical research shows that they feel pain.[10]Therefore, at the very minimum fish should be recognized as “animals” under the law.

According to a study published in the journal Animal Cognition, “fish are seldom afforded the same compassion as warm-blooded vertebrates, in part due to the large gap between people’s perception of fish intelligence and the scientific reality.” This matters because public perception guides government policy. In reviewing the scientific literature, the author concluded that:

Fish perception and cognitive abilities often match or exceed other vertebrates. A review of the evidence for pain perception strongly suggests that fish experience pain in a manner similar to the rest of the vertebrates… The extensive evidence of fish behavioural and cognitive sophistication and pain perception suggests that best practice would be to lend fish the same level of protection as any other vertebrate.[11]

Learn More!

To learn more about the emerging field of aquatic animal law, tune into the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s free webinar, “Aquatic Animal Law: Overview, Aquaculture, and Alternatives,” on Friday June 14, 2019, from 12-2pm PT. It’s free to register but space is limited, so reserve your spot today! Lewis & Clark Law School is also offering Aquatic Animal Law as an online summer class for the first time this year. Class begins June 18 and is open to visiting and auditing students.

Further Reading:

Lawsuit Launched to Protect Endangered California Salmon Harmed by Federal Beaver-killing

SACRAMENTO, Calif.— The Center for Biological Diversity today launched a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services program for killing California beavers and harming native salmon, southwestern willow flycatchers and other endangered wildlife that uses habitats created by beavers.

In California last year, Wildlife Services killed nearly 1,000 beavers using firearms, traps and snares.

“California’s beavers need to be protected, not persecuted,” said Collette Adkins, a Center attorney and biologist. “Beavers are nature’s engineers, building dams and ponds that help endangered fish and frogs. Our federal government needs to stop shooting and trapping native beavers whose ponds are safe havens for other wildlife.”

Last year, in response to a similar litigation threat, Wildlife Services agreed to stop killing beavers, river otter, muskrat and mink in Oregon.

Numerous studies show beavers benefit endangered salmon and steelhead by building ponds with natural cover and food for the fish. Endangered frogs and birds, including Oregon spotted frogs and southwestern willow flycatchers, rely on wetland habitats formed by beaver dams.

But Wildlife Services kills beavers without considering the impacts to other animals that rely on their dams and ponds to survive.

For example, over a 10-year period in Sacramento County, Wildlife Services killed more than 1,000 beavers, even though federally protected Chinook salmon and steelhead live there and use habitats created by beavers.

“Not only are beavers ecologically important, they’re smart, hardworking and adorable,” said Adkins. “My heart breaks for the thousands of beavers needlessly shot and trapped by Wildlife Services.”

Wildlife Services has never analyzed how its killing of beavers affects California’s endangered wildlife, even though the Endangered Species Act requires such study.

Today’s notice letter starts a 60-day clock until the Center can file its lawsuit to compel Wildlife Services to comply with the Endangered Species Act.

Beaver photo by Larry Palmer, USFWS. Images are available for media use.

Update: 11 Koi Rescued From Abandoned Pond in Cumming!

With the help of Home Partners of America, which permitted access to a vacant rental property in Cumming, 11 neglected koi were removed from a dangerous situation. Thank you to everyone who took the time to speak out about this urgent issue and to Atlanta Koi Rescue for coordinating the rescue effort and ensuring a happy ending for these animals.

Please be sure to check out our other urgent alerts and help animals who still need your voice!

PETA has been alerted to an evidently abandoned koi pond reportedly located on a vacant rental property in Cumming, Georgia. We’re told that the pond once contained as many as 30 fish but that up to a month has elapsed without anyone feeding them. Water levels are running perilously low, and a nonworking pump has resulted in inadequate oxygenation. One witness claims that dozens of fish have perished since April and that approximately 10 koi remain in the murky water struggling to survive. Local entities stand ready and willing to rescue these survivors but can’t do so unless the property management company that oversees the location gives them access. Despite numerous calls from PETA and local officials to the company, access has still not been given.

How a tiny endangered species put a man in prison

They passed around a bottle of Malibu rum as gunshots bellowed into the desert night. A trio of young men had set up camp near the unincorporated town of Crystal, 80 miles outside of Las Vegas, Nevada. As recently as 2005, the tiny town hosted two brothels, but by April 2016, it was pretty much empty, ideal for carefree camping on a moon-like stretch of desert, the perfect place to pass around a bottle and a shotgun for some bunny blasting.

As often happens on a night like that, things went downhill. Drunk on rum and the roar of the gun, the three men fired up an off-road vehicle and drove away from camp. Riding in back was Trent, a chestnut-haired, bearded 27-year-old, who carried the shotgun and blasted away at road signs as they tore across the Amargosa Valley and Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. They headed toward a remote unit of Death Valley National Park: Devils Hole, a deep pool inside a sunken limestone cavern. The area’s surrounded by 10-foot-tall fencing, a fortress erected to protect an endangered species of pupfish found there.

Trent shot at the gate to the pedestrian walkway area and then shot the surveillance camera and yanked it from its mount. Then he and one of his companions, Steven, stumbled into the enclosure. Steven was so intoxicated that it took him multiple tries to clear the fence. Inside the enclosure, he paused to empty his bladder.

Filled with mischief, Trent lunged toward his partner and punched him in the crotch with a left hook. Then, as Steven stumbled over to a large boulder to vomit, Trent dropped the shotgun, stripped off his clothes, and slipped into the deep warm water of Devils Hole. He didn’t know it yet, but that would prove to be his worst mistake of the night.

Devils Hole pupfish — some of the rarest fish in the world — are found only in a deep geologic fissure fed by water from the aquifer that lies below the Mojave Desert.
Brett Seymour/NPS Submerged Resources Center

SIXTY THOUSAND YEARS AGO, a narrow fissure opened up in the Amargosa Valley, releasing water pooled deep in the earth and creating Devils Hole, the opening to an underwater cavern. Scientists disagree over just how it happened — whether by way of underground tunnels, ancient floods or receding waters — but several desert fish were separated from the larger population and trapped in Devils Hole. There, a tiny sub-population — the Devils Hole pupfish (Cyprinodon diabolis) — evolved in extreme isolation for tens of thousands of years, eventually, according to scientific consensus, becoming an entirely new species.

Today, visitors to Devils Hole get a rare window into one of the Mojave Desert’s vast aquifers. Steep limestone walls surround a tiny opening into turquoise water. Divers have descended over 400 feet into the cave without reaching the bottom. The water is so deep that earthquakes on the other side of the world cause it to slosh, shocking the fish into spawning.

The environment in Devils Hole is so remote and extreme that scientists have long puzzled over how the pupfish can live there at all. Still, a modest population has managed to survive on a shallow, sloping rock shelf that gets just enough sunlight — only four hours per day at its peak — to allow algae to grow for the fish to eat.

The environment in Devils Hole is so remote and extreme that scientists have long puzzled over how the pupfish can live there at all.

The Devils Hole pupfish are truly unique. The males are a bright blue, the females a subdued teal, and they’re only about an inch long. They are more docile and produce fewer offspring than their cousins, which are found in pockets ranging from the Southwest toward the Gulf of Mexico. The Devils Hole pupfish lacks the pelvic fin that enables its kin to be vigorous swimmers. But it is able to thrive in temperatures far warmer than similar species can tolerate. Trapped by geology in a consistent 93-degree womb, Devils Hole pupfish have nowhere to go. In fact, they have the smallest geographic range of any known vertebrate species on earth.

The pupfish were among the first species to be protected under the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1967 — along with the American alligator, the California condor and the blunt-nosed leopard lizard — and that protection was carried over to the Endangered Species Act of 1973. At the time, around 220 survived in Devils Hole, but since the 1990s, the species has been in significant decline, sinking to just 35 fish in 2013. Today, there are modest signs that the population is growing; the last population count was 136.

The tiny fish has become an icon for those looking to protect endangered species and their habitat, but it’s a target of deep resentment in Nevada, and particularly in Nye County, where, according to critics, the interests of an obscure fish are pitted against the livelihood of local agricultural families. The issue has tested water rights in this arid part of the American West and raised questions about how far officials should go to save a handful of imperiled fish. The drunken invasion of its habitat in 2016 was not unprecedented: Dozens of trespasses have been documented throughout the decades. But such crimes are difficult to investigate and rarely prosecuted.

This time, however, would be different.

Video from security cameras in the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge shows three men entering the Devils Hole enclosure. Then, a few minutes later, the pool is disturbed by a foot splashing into the water and a man walking around. Then you can see a Devils Hole pupfish swimming away from a foot. National Park Service

ON MONDAY, MAY 2, 2016, Kevin Wilson, an aquatic ecologist and manager of the Devils Hole research program, arrived at the National Park Service outpost in Pahrump, Nevada, a beige, low-key building in the middle of anti-fed country.

“We have some news you won’t like,” one of his research associates told him, gesturing toward a surveillance video playing on her computer screen. Wilson peered at the images just as one of the three trespassers tried — and failed — to clear the fencing before barging his way in on the other side of the enclosure.

“As I watched the surveillance footage, I could tell they had definitely been drinking,” Wilson told me when I visited in February. “But it was really just the one guy that had actually gotten in the pool that concerned me the most.”

Wilson, who is 51 with dark gray hair and bright blue eyes, wears his green uniform comfortably, a slight potbelly protruding above his belt. He jokes often, but the deep wrinkles in his face, tanned from years in the unforgiving Nevada sun, give him a stern appearance.

Normally, the nocturnal visitors would have been caught by a motion sensor that triggered a loud alarm. But a barn owl roosting in the area had caused too many false alarms, and rather than spook the bird, officials had disabled the device. So once the men broke in, they felt no real urgency to leave. Little did they know that multiple cameras captured their every move.

A small earth tremor that occurred over the weekend had prompted Wilson’s staff to review the footage. “Obviously, we saw much more than we had been expecting,” Wilson said, raising an eyebrow.

The video continued to play in Wilson’s office. As one man swam, another remained at the edge of the water, while the drunkest one leaned against a rock. The swimmer climbed out of the water, dragged himself over the algae-covered shelf and got dressed. Then the party fled on their off-road vehicle.

Wilson paused the video and backed it up. The man who fired the shotgun and plunged into the pool had left a few things behind — his wallet and cellphone. The next morning, in the fog of a hangover, he broke in to Devils Hole to retrieve them, ignoring the empty beer cans and his underwear, which was still floating in the water.

Wilson reviewed one particular piece of footage, a view from an underwater camera, over and over: A foot plunged through the placid, algae-filled water onto a shallow shelf — the only breeding area in the world for the Devils Hole pupfish. The man had waded in at the most inopportune time possible, in late April, the peak breeding period for the pupfish. “I couldn’t immediately tell if any fish were harmed,” Wilson told me. “But I decided to do a site visit to find out for sure.”

That morning, Wilson, his research team and a bevy of law enforcement officials assessed the damage. The area reeked of vomit; beer cans were scattered around and Trent’s underwear still floated in the water. The group huddled around for a closer look. In the pool, a single bright blue pupfish was also floating on the surface — dead.

In the pool, a single bright blue pupfish was also floating on the surface — dead.

Kevin Wilson ascends from the Devils Hole pool, reachable through the gate of a locked enclosure. In April 2016, three men climbed the fence and scrambled down the rocks to reach the pool, which is closed to the public.
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

IN FEBRUARY, WILSON TOOK ME TO THE SCENE OF THE CRIME. Wilson has dedicated a good portion of his life to pupfish. He first visited Devils Hole in the 1970s, when he was just 8 years old, tagging along with his geologist mother. Those early visits to national parks and camping trips with his family helped inspire his post-graduate work: the first-ever holistic study of the Devils Hole pupfish. And then the perfect job opened up at the perfect time. “As soon as I defended, this permanent position to study the Devils Hole environment and the pupfish opened up. I’ve been here ever since,” Wilson told me as we stood near the edge of the pond, as cold raindrops began to fall. Just paces away, pupfish flitted through the water.

The 2016 trespass swiftly activated an intricate legal enforcement network designed to protect the fish. After reviewing the footage and finding that a pupfish had indeed died as a result of the incident, Wilson notified the National Park Service at Death Valley and in Washington, D.C., as well as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Nevada Department of Wildlife and the Nye County Sheriff’s Office.

A team called the Scorpion Task Force was assembled. Its leader was the Park Service Investigative Services’ Paul Crawford, a seasoned Brooklyn-born detective with a constellation of freckles across his face. In 2012, he was the lead detective investigating the murder of ranger Margaret Anderson in Washington’s Mount Rainier National Park.

Based in Boulder City, Nevada, and nearing retirement in 2016, Crawford decided to make the trip to Devils Hole. He would supervise two other men: Morgan Dillon and Josh Vann. Dillon, a detective for the Nye County Sheriff’s Office, jumped at the chance to work on the case. “I was excited that I might have an opportunity to go all the way down to the pupfish pool and see the fish,” Dillon told me. “I originally went to college to be a wildlife biologist. I’ve always been passionate about that and still like to read scientific articles on the pupfish. Me, personally, though — I wasn’t smart enough to be a scientist, so I became a detective instead.”

“I originally went to college to be a wildlife biologist. I’ve always been passionate about that and still like to read scientific articles on the pupfish. Me, personally, though — I wasn’t smart enough to be a scientist, so I became a detective instead.”

Vann, a ranger at Death Valley National Park, worked alongside Dillon. At Devils Hole, they gathered three empty beer cans as well as two empty boxes that had held shotgun ammunition, two live rounds and multiple spent shotgun shells. Dillon attempted to fingerprint the beer cans and swabbed them for DNA evidence. He even collected the underwear and entered it into the case file.

Abundant surveillance footage gave the detectives clear images of the three suspects’ faces. “We see you, and now we’re going to find out who you guys are,” Crawford remembers thinking. The four-wheeler stood out most: a blue Yamaha Rhino, with flamboyant stripes along its doors. “It was altered with a second seat, extended roof, skid plates up front. It wasn’t something these guys bought and just drove off the lot,” Crawford said. “Those are a dime a dozen. We would have never found them.”

On May 6, Crawford put out a crime-stoppers tip form. Meanwhile, back at the Nye County Sheriff’s Office, Dillon showed his colleague, Sgt. Thomas Klenczar, an off-road aficionado, video stills of the customized vehicle. “We were really just BS-ing about it,” Dillon said. “But he’s into OHVs and is always on Craigslist, so he decided to take a look.” Minutes later, Klenczar and Dillon found the vehicle on Craigslist. It had been listed for sale just one day prior to the drunken break-in. “The fact that the vehicle was so unique and that we were able to quickly find it on Craigslist was the one and only piece of this that allowed the case to move forward,” Dillon said.

Dillon used the phone number from the Craigslist ad and a house number in one of the photos of the Yamaha to come up with the owner’s name. A photo of the man — Steven Schwinkendorf of Pahrump — matched one of those on the Devils Hole footage.

Scorpion Task Force leader Paul Crawford. A custom four-wheeler, driven by the suspects — spotted on Craigslist by one of the investigators — helped crack the case.
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

THE EARLY 20TH CENTURY WAS AN ANXIOUS ERA for the National Park Service. The fledgling agency hemmed and hawed over its identity and whether or not it included a responsibility to protect wildlife and wild spaces.

From the 1920s through the 1940s, the Park Service managed land mostly for tourists to enjoy. In one of the agency’s founding documents, Interior Secretary Franklin Lane described developing the parks as a “national playground system.” The prevailing attitude at the time was that protecting a rarely viewed species like the Devils Hole pupfish was a project “better left to another agency,” according to Kevin Brown, an environmental historian who authored a 2017 Park Service book on the history of Devils Hole.

With no entity charged to oversee Devils Hole and the pupfish, the deep cavernous pool gained fame among locals. The area, with the pupfish swimming serenely within it, was subject to constant trespass. To this day, locals often refer to Devils Hole as the “Miner’s Bathtub.”

In 1950, an ichthyologist named Carl Hubbs excoriated the Park Service for its refusal to protect Devils Hole. Early the following year, Lowell Sumner, a Park Service biologist, visited Devils Hole and did a pictorial study of it. He argued that it was in the national interest to include this geological wonder in Death Valley National Monument. In 1952, President Harry Truman added the Devils Hole unit to Death Valley National Monument under the Antiquities Act, specifically mentioning the “peculiar race of desert fish,” and declaring that all of the species and ecosystems of Death Valley would be protected. “It was incredibly forward-looking at that time,” said Patrick Donnelly, the Nevada state director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “That was really what began this saga of the role that pupfishes ended up playing in battles down the road.”

A car streaks down the Bob Ruud Memorial Highway west of Pahrump, Nevada.
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

ON MAY 9, 2016, THE SCORPION TASK FORCE — Dillon, Klenczar and Vann — drove through Pahrump, Nevada, to meet their first suspect in person. The harsh beauty of the desert around Pahrump clashes with the severity of the city’s neon glow. Under the surrounding Black Mountains, the desert’s sage seems greener, the needles of its barrel cactus redder and the flash of the nearby casinos, motels and fast-food chains even brighter. One street is named “Unicorn,” another “Tough Girl.” “Don’t Tread on Me” flags wave above many front doors. The locals elected brothel owner Dennis Hof to the State Assembly, a month after the self-proclaimed pimp and so-called “Trump of Pahrump” died of a heart attack on his 72nd birthday, at a bash attended by notorious Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio and the porn star Ron Jeremy.

The detectives located the suspect’s home and walked to the door. Steven Schwinkendorf, dark-haired, 6 feet tall and topping 200 pounds, answered it, facing Dillon, his arms crossed. A small boy, Schwinkendorf’s son, peeked around his legs. Dillon showed the photos from the surveillance video and asked him if the vehicle was his. Schwinkendorf admitted that it was and explained that he had already traded it in as part of a deal for a new four-wheeler.

“Is this you?” Dillon asked, pointing to one of the men on the video, according to investigation transcripts. Schwinkendorf said it was. The other two suspects had come to his house for a barbecue before they went camping, he said. “We had been drinking quite a bit,” Schwinkendorf admitted. He told the detectives that the trio then went to Ash Meadows to shoot rabbits. Schwinkendorf said he had only vague recollections of being at Devils Hole, though he remembered vomiting; his friends had teased him about it.

Schwinkendorf identified his companions — Edgar Reyes, a Las Vegas local, and Trenton Sargent, the skinny-dipper — and gave Dillon their phone numbers.

The next day, Dillon called the other suspects. He first dialed Reyes, who didn’t answer, though he quickly phoned back. Dillon remembers Reyes saying he was scared. “I woke up, and my face is plastered all over everywhere on the internet,” Reyes said. He admitted to the trespass and confirmed that the shotgun belonged to him, but he said that all three of them had been shooting it. “Not long after speaking to him, I got a call from his attorney,” Dillon told me.

But Dillon had yet to reach Sargent. “I was afraid that Schwinkendorf and Reyes would get to Sargent and spook him. I felt like I was running out of time.”

That afternoon, Dillon called Sargent. “He told me that he heard I was looking for him,” Dillon said. “He was very cooperative and forthcoming.” The crime-stoppers tip had gone viral, and in the days since it went public, Sargent told Dillon he had received “hundreds of messages” and even a few death threats. He admitted that he had taken off his clothes and gone swimming in the pool. “I was showing off for my friends,” Sargent said, “and I wanted to see how deep it was.” His demeanor was extremely polite, Dillon remembers, and they spoke on the phone for several minutes.

“Sargent asked me, unprompted, if I had run his criminal history,” Dillon told me.

“I have so much to tell you,” Sargent said to Dillon. “I’m a convicted felon. I know that I can’t have a gun, that I can’t be around guns. I wasn’t intending to shoot that night and was just going to hold the spotlight while the others shot.” There was a pause — a long-enough silence that Dillon thought the phone might have been disconnected. “But because of the drinking, I shot as well,” Sargent told him.

Sargent had been convicted of grand theft of money and property three years earlier in San Bernardino, California. He had struggled with addiction for most of his teenage and early adult years, but since then, he had cleaned up his life and returned to his hometown, Indian Springs, Nevada. He lived in a trailer and often saw his son Logan, who was then only 1 month old and lived with his in-laws in town.

Sargent later admitted to knowing about the pupfish and their endangered status, but insisted he didn’t mean to harm them. His drunken break-in was a slip, he said, a momentary lapse of judgment.

  • Underwater researchers surface in Brown’s Room, one of the rooms of Devils Hole, deep within the earth in Death Valley National Park.

    Brett Seymour/NPS Submerged Resources Center

TRENT SARGENT’S SWIM was just the most recent threat to the existence of the Devils Hole pupfish. Back in the late 1960s, after the National Park Service began its first studies and population counts, the Cappaerts, a ranching family in Pahrump, decided to dig a number of wells on their 12,000-acre ranch just a few miles from Devils Hole.

When the Cappaerts began pumping, the water level in Devils Hole dropped, exposing large parts of the algae shelf. That exposure, the Park Service argued, decreased algae production and limited the pupfish’s spawning area, which in turn reduced its chance to survive. The aquifer level lowered so drastically that it alarmed not only Park Service staff, but also the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Nevada Department of Wildlife. The park’s staff ordered the Cappaerts to stop pumping.

The Cappaerts said they had spent a lot of money drilling the wells and changing their farming operation, and that they intended to go right on pumping without limitation under “Absolute Dominion,” also known as the “English Rule,” a 19th century common-law doctrine adopted by some U.S. states that allowed landowners to use as much groundwater as they pleased. (Nevada had actually abandoned Absolute Dominion in favor of prior appropriation for both surface and groundwater decades earlier.) The Park Service argued that the special status of Devils Hole pupfish under the Endangered Species Act and its habitat’s status as a national monument trumped the Cappaerts’ rights to the water.

The Cappaert case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, testing the power of the Antiquities Act and the weight of the new Endangered Species Act. In 1976, the High Court affirmed the federal government’s right to maintain water levels sufficient to support the pupfish, even at the expense of water rights held by nearby ranchers.

“There are two endangered species here: the pupfish and the American rancher.”

The decision enraged the residents of Nye County. The attorney representing the Cappaerts argued, “There are two endangered species here: the pupfish and the American rancher,” and said the federal government had chosen a fish over the people. A Pahrump newspaper editor even threatened to throw the pesticide Rotenone into the sunken cave to “make the pupfish a moot point.” The community split into factions, and anger pervaded the air. Warring bumper stickers — “KILL THE PUPFISH” and “SAVE THE PUPFISH” — were plastered on cars, street signs and office buildings across the Southwest.

A 1960s bumper sticker against the preservation of pupfish and their habitat.

But the decision has stood the test of time. In the late 1970s, the Cappaert family sold their ranch. The land has since changed hands a number of times, eventually becoming the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. Had that case gone any differently, had the Park Service not decided that part of its mandate was to protect the species and stop the Cappaerts from pumping — had Truman not designated Devils Hole a national monument in the first place — the Devils Hole pupfish might now be extinct, though Pahrump would probably be a little greener. “If it weren’t for that decision, the Amargosa Valley would have been pumped dry a long time ago,” Wilson, the biologist, told me recently. “There would be no Death Valley, no Devils Hole, no Devils Hole pupfish — but there would be a whole lot more golf courses, I bet.”

The Devils Hole pupfish, a tiny species that has survived such obstacles, represents a paradox for Wilson, who would not live in Pahrump were it not for Devils Hole. He told me that adjusting to a life in the gravel-covered, billboard-lined city was difficult for him and his wife, a Canadian, who, after a few years in Nevada, finally found her niche in, of all things, golf. “I do wish I could just pick up and move Devils Hole and put it somewhere with a higher standard of living,” Wilson told me. “But it’s worth protecting — and worth punishing people who threaten this little species.

“The most important advances in science have come from the edges of what’s possible — from the most extreme environments,” Wilson said. “We have a lot to learn about how the Devils Hole pupfish has even been able to survive.”

Josh Sargent holds a photograph of his children, Bella and Trent. Trent has his own son, Logan, on his lap.
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

TRENT SARGENT TURNED HIMSELF IN just after Memorial Day and pleaded guilty to violating the Endangered Species Act, destruction of federal property, and possessing a firearm while a felon. A few days before his October sentencing, he submitted a letter to U.S. District Judge Andrew Gordon, who would decide his fate.

“I’m not one to make excuses for what I have done wrong and I’m not going to start now,” he wrote, in all capitalized, slanted script. “I made a stupid mistake. … I’m not a bad person, your honor, and I take full responsibility for my actions and the crimes I committed. … I would like to ask you to accept this letter to you as my verbal ‘handshake’ that upon my release I will complete all stipulations given to me by the courts and you will not see me again in your courtroom.”

On the afternoon of Oct. 25, 2018, Sargent stood quietly beside his lawyer in a Las Vegas courtroom as Judge Gordon handed down his sentence: A total of 12 months and one day — nine months specifically for his violation of the Endangered Species Act — in the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Once he is released from the Los Angeles Metropolitan Detention Center, Sargent must pay nearly $14,000 in restitution to the National Park Service, along with a $1,000 fine. He’s also forbidden to enter federal public lands for the rest of his life.

Four months later, I journeyed to Indian Springs, Nevada, an unincorporated community of fewer than 1,000, where Sargent has lived for most of his life. It’s home to Creech Air Force Base and the Desert Warfare Training Center. I met Sargent’s family at their spacious and warmly lit doublewide manufactured home. There was a chill in the air and a blustery wind, but his mother, Norine, sat outside, watching her grandchildren jump on a trampoline in the yard. Trent’s father, Josh, joined us a few minutes later, home from work at the Nevada National Nuclear Security Site, where he’s been employed as an ironworker for 30 years.

I had assumed that the Sargent family would consider what happened to their son unfair. But I was wrong. In fact, they defended the Endangered Species Act with a conviction that surprised me, and they knew a lot about Devils Hole and the pupfish that swam there. Norine recalled the family taking trips to Devils Hole when Trent was a boy, teaching him about the pupfish. “Trent would just as soon give first aid and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to that little pupfish than have this thing go on and on,” Josh Sargent said. He acknowledged that his son was paying the necessary price for his actions. “He knows about endangered species, and he takes responsibility for what he did.”

“He knows about endangered species, and he takes responsibility for what he did.”

The Sargents’ home was filled with pictures of family, including several of Trent throughout the years. In one, the beaming 12-year-old holds up the first fish he ever caught, a minuscule rainbow trout. But now Trent can’t visit public lands or use a firearm. “Trent grew up hunting and fishing,” Norine said. “And now he’ll never get to go hunting with his dad ever again.”

Had that fateful evening unfolded just slightly differently — had that single pupfish not died — Trent would very likely be sitting in the living room with his family. Sometimes it is a bitter pill for the Sargents to swallow. “I understand the way people feel about the fish,” Josh Sargent said. “But what if someone runs over a cat? Are they going to stop and make sure the cat is alive? No, I don’t think so. They’re just going to keep on truckin’. But Trent kills a fish — and certainly not intentionally, and he’s in prison. … We’re not trying to defend him; the Sargent family is deeply sorry for what happened.”

Josh and Norine Sargent, right, pose in their Indian Springs, Nevada, home, filled with Southwestern memorabilia, hunting trophies and family portraits. “Trent grew up hunting and fishing,” Norine said. “And now he’ll never get to go hunting with his dad ever again.”
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

BECAUSE THERE ARE SO MANY ENDANGERED SPECIES, society is forced to make difficult choices about which ones to protect, and to what lengths we should go to save them. Climate change has quickened the pace of extinction, and already the number of critically endangered species exceeds our ability to save them all.

The Devils Hole pupfish, serene, obscure and tiny, has survived a very long time in an unkind place, just one drunken night or one jug of poison away from oblivion. It is a wonder, to be sure. But how far do you go to save a species like this? For Wilson and the others at Death Valley National Park, it means surrounding this biological wonder with an impenetrable cage. Biologists occasionally feed the fish and clean out Devils Hole as if it were a giant aquarium. They even have a backup population held in a huge climate-controlled tank nearby, insurance against outright extinction. Protecting the species means harsh punishment for anyone who kills even just one fish, according to Patrick Donnelly of the Center for Biological Diversity, which offered a $10,000 reward for help in identifying the drunken skinny-dipper and his friends. “We desperately wanted justice for this. If they didn’t get the book thrown at them, what’s stopping others from doing whatever they want and eliminating an entire species?”

“Why does this place look like a prison?”

Since the incident, Devils Hole has become an even more formidable fortress. The Park Service capped its towering fences with additional barbed wire. The public can only view the sunken cave from a distance now, more than 20 feet above it. And inside the fenced viewing area are even more cameras, motion sensors and “No Trespassing” signs.

“I hate it,” Wilson told me this winter. “I hear from the public all of the time — ‘Why does this place look like a prison?’ People get really upset that they can’t get a closer look. But it’s just what we have to do — to stop people from doing stupid things.”

The enclosure that protects the extremely rare Devils Hole pupfish. Barbed wire was added after a 2016 incident in which three drunken men broke in, one entering the pool, leading to the death of a fish.
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News