Updated: October 16, 2006
Like most biodiversity, cichlids face increasing threats in the wild. Interestingly, cichlids are also the cause of problems in many areas as well. Click here for the latest cichlid conservation news.
Cichlids and Illegal Drugs: Something to Think About
Probably the single most important thing you as an individual can do to help conserve cichlids in the wild is to NOT CONDONE, PURCHASE or USE illegal drugs. Why?
The illegal drug trade (e.g., cocaine, marijuana) has a tremendous destabilizing effect on grovernments in Latin America. Besides fueling corruption, it saps their resources and hampers their ability to put in place effective conservation strategies. It is impossible to protect an area of land if people are highly motivated to illegally enter that area to grow illegal crops. Latin American governments do not have the resources, money or manpower to stop these sorts of incursions.
Furthermore, the growing of illegal crops for the drug trade makes it very difficult for scientists like myself to work in many parts of the neotropics. For example, there are large areas of Columbia, Peru and other countries where biologists simply cannot go for fear of accidentally discovering an illegal growing operation.
Put simply, purchasing illegal drugs seriously harms cichlid fishes and endangers the lives of biologists trying to study them. Please think about it.
Good cichlid, bad cichlid?
In many places, cichlids are threatened in the wild. For example, in Lake Victoria in eastern Africa, hundreds of species of cichlid fishes have gone extinct in the past few decades, largely the result of the introduction of the Nile perch, Lates niloticus, into Lake Victoria. The cichlids of Central and South America are facing similar fates but for different reasons. Pollution, the damming of rivers and exotic introductions are severely impacting a growing number of cichlids. In Madagascar, overfishing, habitat destruction and introduced exotics have reduced the native cichlids to crisis levels.
Surprisingly, in some cases, the introduced exotics that are causing so many problems are themselves cichlids, typically tilapia. Many introductions are Tilapia (=Saratherodon) mossambicus, or one of its close relatives or man-made hybrids. These fish have phenomenal powers of reproduction and can rapidly displace native species. Tilapia are sometimes introduced deliberately and in other times escape from aquaculture facilities. Because tilapia grow quickly and reproduce prodigously, they are often used for aquaculture in many parts of the world. They are often sold as "Saint Peter's fish" in markets.
In other localities, convict cichlids have been introduced and appear to outcompete native fishes. Convicts are found in many locations outside the normal range of cichlids, including hot springs in California, Nevada and even Banff, Canada. They have also been introduced to localities which contain cichlids where they displace the native cichlids (e.g. in Mexico).
Conservation and the Aquarium Hobby
Cichlid hobbyists and researchers often wonder whether taking fish from the wild has negative impacts on wild populations. There is surprisingly little information about the impact of collecting fishes on wild fish populations. My own observations from over a half dozen field trips to the tropics in which I spent a lot of time underwater observing cichlids are that collecting cichlids with handnets is unlikely to have any effect on native populations. Cichlids are fast swimmers and adept at hiding. Cichlids also produce large numbers of young, the bulk of which seldom survive more than a few weeks. From this I conclude that collecting young cichlids (for the aquarium hobby) is not a "bad thing" and in fact is probably a good use of the habitat in which the cichlids are found. Such collecting encourages conservation of the habitat.
Collecting of adults, particularly breeding adults, is much more serious and should not be encouraged unless populations are very healthy. Fishing for adult cichlids (e.g. fishing for wolf cichlids, Parachromis dovii) is an important tourist activity in parts of Central America. This sport can only be condoned in areas where cichlids are doing very well (as they appear to be in some places).
Cichlids are caught as food fish in much of their range. Trawling in the Great Lakes of East Africa is far more effective and potentially detrimental to cichlids than catching them one at a time with fishing line. However, recent studies show that some of these cichlid populations are healthy and can sustain large harvests.
One particularly destructive method of acquiring cichlids is "grenade fishing". In essence, a live grenade is thrown into the water. It explodes and stuns and kills all fishes within a certain distance. Some of these fish float to the surface where they are collected. Fish that are not killed outright may be damaged, e.g. the swim bladder may be ruptured, destroying the fish's ability to adjust its buoyancy. Such fish are often seen on the bottom of the lake and are called "belly crawlers". This kind of damage cannot be repaired and such fish will likely never mate nor reproduce. Other fish are killed by the blast but do not float to the surface right away making it impossible to collect them. The result is massive destruction of vast quantities of aquatic life for a relatively small catch. The bottom line is that while genade or dynamite fishing is an easy way to collect some dead cichlids (typically to eat) it causes massive environmental damage and should be banished everywhere.