Something Fishy

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On a recent trip to the Mojave Desert, I visited the home of the Devil's Hole Pupfish, a tiny creature no bigger than my little finger.  In environmental circles, this rare little fish is the proverbial David to the Goliath of private property rights.  Not only did it become the first fish listed under the federal Endangered Species Act, it spurred a landmark Supreme Court decision restricting human water uses.

A survivor of the Western water wars, real estate developers, bureaucratic screw-ups and political infighting, in recent years this iconic species has been in decline. From a population of about 300 in 2003, only about 30 fish remain.  So far, biologists have been unable to identify the cause of this alarming trend.

The Devil's Hole Pupfish lives in a small pond at the bottom of a pile of rocks in a separate unit of Death Valley National Park just over the California state line in Nevada. I knew this pupfish was endangered when I visited its home, but nothing prepared me for the virtual prison it now lives in. Surrounded by a cyclone fence topped with coils of barbed wire, if I were led there blindfolded I might have thought I was standing at the gates of San Quentin. With a species as rare as this one, biologists go to great lengths to preserve it.

A relic of a time when vast lakes once occupied what is now sage-studded desert, the Devils Hole Pupfish has recently been the subject of much debate. Some people say its day has come, that it is a living fossil not worth the money and effort to preserve it. Yet it is here at this pupfish's home that the connectedness of all nature reveals itself. Earthquakes from as far away as Mexico have caused mini-tsunamis in this little pond, and the algae the pupfish survives on blooms most abundantly when fertilized by barn owls nesting on nearby rocks.

When we remove one creature from the planet, who's to say what happens to the rest? I say let's do what we can to preserve this little fish. He has survived for thousands of years, and deserves to be around for many more.


With a Perspective, this is Carol Arnold.

Carol Arnold is an environmental planner and writer in San Francisco.