Perspectives Online

N.C. State takes research lead in protecting Puerto Rico's unique freshwater fisheries

A team of researchers led by N.C. State University has made an enormous advance in the understanding of some of Puerto Rico's most remarkable ecosystems by conducting the first comprehensive study of the island's freshwater fish species. Dr. Thomas Kwak, associate professor of zoology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at N.C. State, who led the study, says many of these species "are hidden gems that have been largely ignored," and calls the research "a huge first step in conserving and protecting these fish and their habitat."

The study is the first-ever comprehensive population and habitat survey of freshwater fishes in Puerto Rico, Kwak says. The study focuses on identifying those features that support native fish populations, and distinguishing those features that make a system susceptible to invasion by exotic species. Kwak says the research will likely have a significant impact on how the Puerto Rican government makes decisions on issues ranging from fisheries management to water use and habitat management.

Kwak also hopes that the study raises the profile of the freshwater fishes in Puerto Rico both on the island itself and abroad as part of Puerto Rico's natural heritage. "Just letting the world know the fish are there is an accomplishment," Kwak says. "Many of these fish are very charismatic they are unique and really worthy of conservation." For example, Kwak points to Puerto Rico's native Sirajo Goby a brilliantly colored fish that has evolved sucker-like pelvic fins that allow it to climb steep waterfalls and even the sheer faces of some artificial dams.

Sirajo goby: The sirajo goby or olivo (Sicydium spp.), a colorful native Puerto Rico stream fish with pelvic fins modified to form a suction cup that allow this fish to ascend steep cascades, waterfalls, and other wet barriers.
(Photo by Patrick Cooney, NC State University)


The Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources funded the research with federal Sport Fish Restoration funds, and an overview of the study was presented at the American Fisheries Society (AFS) Annual Meeting in Ottawa, Ontario, earlier this year.

Kwak is a professor of biology at NC State, and a unit leader of the U.S. Geological Survey's North Carolina Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit. Other researchers involved in the study include: NC State research biologist Patrick Cooney, who was lead author for the AFS presentation; NC State graduate student Christin Brown; and Dr. Craig Lilyestrom, director of the Division of Marine Resources in Puerto Rico's Department of Natural and Environmental Resources.

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