Why care about native freshwater fish?


Sculpin: one of California’s underappreciated native fish. Photo credit: Jason Baumsteiger

By Jason Baumsteiger

Even with a strong El Niño year, there are no assurances the drought is over. Clearly we need a better plan for future droughts and that plan needs to include provisions for native freshwater fish.  But why include native fish?

There are many reasons.  Many feel that native fish have a right not to be driven to extinction for economic purposes.  Indeed, enough people feel this way that this is Federal and state law. In addition, many native fish support human needs, such as providing food, recreational opportunities, future medicinal alternatives, economic well-being or purely aesthetic value. For species like salmon and trout, the benefits to humans are straightforward.  But what of the many less charismatic species which naturally occur in the state? Do they matter? Is there any reason to keep them around, or can they be replaced with introduced species which more readily support human economic objectives?

Our recent studies on sculpin  have introduced ideas which shed light on the discussion. Sculpin are small (10 inch max) bottom dwelling freshwater fish and one of the most abundant native fish groups in California.  Most Californians are unaware of these fish. Between their small size, overall abundance and general unwillingness to take a hook, sculpin have largely been ignored. But this oversight helps make them special. Because they have been ignored, their history reflects the natural history of California’s waterways. By studying native fish like sculpin, we can learn which freshwater systems were historically connected/isolated and how long ago this occurred.

So how do we get this information? Fortunately it is stored in their DNA. An organism’s DNA contains the unique blueprint or code for that specific individual.


Historical connectivity of species to specific regions. Source: Baumsteiger (2014)

However the overall code for a species (group of inter-mating individuals) is largely the same, with only slight variations between individuals. Those variations directly reflect where the species is found and chance, both of which allow or prevent the code from being passed to future generations.

By matching specific variations to specific regions, we can trace how and when species were introduced to our systems  and which show signs of historical connectivity.  For example, some sculpin found in the Pit River (extreme northeastern CA) actually originated from the Snake River system in Idaho (over 400 miles away).  The same data support geologic findings that the Pit River actually once flowed in the opposite direction of its current path today (~three million years ago).


Ash Creek in the Pit River basin. Photo credit: Jason Baumsteiger

Variations inherent in the DNA structure of sculpin are also correlated with different ecological conditions. There is a reason for different sculpin in different areas.  Each is adapted to local ecological conditions and part of a specific freshwater system. We rely on these systems to maintain, clean and filter our water and they work efficiently, with little expense.  Thus the ecological and environmental “system” is the important idea here, composed of multiple species who have evolved to work together to produce these results. Sculpin are one of those participants, along with specific bacteria, aquatic vegetation, aquatic insects, and other native freshwater fish species. If we start removing parts of the system, eventually the native system will collapse. A freshwater ecosystem can be thought of as a game of Jenga.  Sure, you can remove parts and the tower stays standing. But eventually, if you remove too many, the tower falls. And if you lose pieces and try and replace them with an alternative (let’s say Legos), is the tower nearly as sturdy?

Native freshwater fish and their supporting ecosystems are important.  I am not saying we should stop everything to protect these fish, only that we consider their importance in water management plans as we go forward.  After all, they are in decline, due to ascending human prosperity.


Numbers of California native freshwater fish species in four assessments of their status (stable, vulnerable, ESA-listed and extinct). Bars reflect percentages. Source: UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences

If we could glean this much knowledge from just one species group (sculpin), imagine what other information lies in the DNA of the dozens of other native species in the state. And with all of the changes we are making, such as dams, aqueducts, and reservoirs, California’s native fishes are increasingly vulnerable. Their decline not only risks losing a wealth of information on California’s rich past, but also indicates the well-being of some of our important freshwater ecosystems may not be stable.

Jason Baumsteiger is a Center for Watershed Sciences post-doctoral research fellow with Drs. Peter Moyle and Mike Miller.  His research focuses on using genomic techniques to explain ecological and evolutionary patterns in native freshwater fishes. He is currently working on Devil’s Hole pupfish and California roach while continuing his research on sculpin.

Further reading

Baumsteiger, J., et al. (2012). Life history and biogeographic diversification of an endemic western North American freshwater fish clade using a comparative species tree approach.

Baumsteiger, J., et al. (2014). Complex phylogeography and historical hybridization between sister taxa of freshwater sculpin (Cottus).

This entry was posted in Biology, Conservation, Fish, Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Why care about native freshwater fish?

  1. Pingback: Blog round-up: Bloggers on “Regulatory flexibility”, Delta pumping restrictions, Cal Water Fix, native freshwater fish, Sites Reservoir, alfalfa exports, and more … | MAVEN'S NOTEBOOK

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  3. Brad says:

    The status of California fish species bar graph most recent date is 6 years old. Is there an update coming?

  4. Peter Moyle says:

    We have a slightly updated (2014) version in the Fish Species of Special Concern report, just recently uploaded on the CDFW website. Not much has changed.


    Peter Moyle

  5. robert says:

    If you like saltwater and freshwater fish check out http://www.aquatic.fish

  6. Pingback: Why care about native freshwater fish? | river why

  7. Ryan hart says:

    Thankyou for writing this article it was very helpful in identifying them. I first noticed this fish a few months ago. They are thriving in the Hinckley water basin.

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