An Interview Between Travis Mitzel (Artist) and Kevin Brown (Historian) Conducted Over Gmail in Late 2018.
Travis Mitzel: What was the most detrimental human activity historically to harm the devils hole pupfish?
Kevin Brown: Groundwater pumping near Devils Hole probably is the most significant detrimental action for the pupfish that has taken place in the recent past. The amazing thing about it, though, is how at first, before it was visible to the naked eye, was being recorded by a US Geological Survey chart recorder. The realization that pumping was damaging the habitat was the result of a pre-existing fear--embodied in the recorder--that the water (and the fish) were vulnerable.
TM: What are the lasting threats to the pupfish now?
KB: It seems like the historical threats have had a new life as the temperature warms in the Amargosa Desert. For example, the water level only partly rebounded after the cession of groundwater pumping. As the temperature rises, it makes the shallow water over the shelf where the pupfish breed warmer, which in turn, reduces the success of eggs, and perhaps, the total population. So the significance of the historical problem (reduced water level) is being, at least in this case, reinvented by climate change.
TM: Do you know what the intended species lifespan (for lack of better descriptor) is/was for the devils hole pupfish? That is to ask is living in devil's hole a particularly wise choice? is it sustainable long term or was it always kind of a volatile habitat?
KB: For some reason this question reminds me of Blade Runner. Roy, as Tyrrell reminds him, has had a short life, but has burned very bright. The science of "minimum viable populations" suggests that species tend to blink out below some long term minimum number of individuals. Scientists have argued about what that number is, but the Devils Hole pupfish is certainly near or below it. I often wonder whether there have been multiple previous Devils Hole pupfish-like populations that succeeded in Devils Hole for a time, before blinking out. Is this the first/only fish to be introduced? Why not others? Not a lot of evidence here, obviously, but I wonder about this a lot.
TM: I read that in 2015 the Ash Meadows Fish Conservancy finally produced a 1st generation of captive offspring. Their current captive population is around 30. This was done in a 100,000 gallon tank. Do you think the future of the species lies in these artificial habitats?
KB: The fish facility is certainly one future for the pupfish. Depending on your perspective, though, the pupfish are already in lots of other places, too: the accidentally hybridized pupfish (Cyprinodon diabolis x C. nevadensis mionectes) carry Devils Hole genes and are in research labs around the west.
TM: Can the pupfish do anything for us? Is there anyway we could have a symbiotic relationship with them, even if it is a novelty? especially if it is a novelty.
KB: Biologists/managers think about this all the time, calling it ecosystem services. How do healthy ecosystems actually do good stuff for us, like filter water, improve air quality, etc. Using their traditional accounting, I'm not sure that the pupfish have done a whole lot (possible I'm wrong on this). But as a question we ask about ourselves -- are we the kind of species that tries to preserve other species? -- the pupfish clearly has a value (in addition to whatever non-anthropocentric values it may be said to have inherently).
TM: If the pupfish turn out to do well in these 100,000 gallon captive habitats would you like to see them colonizing new territory? A pupfish habitat for ever city? Corporate sponsorship? A Pupfish Seaworld?
KB: The guide for the federal government when it comes to endangered species recovery, is a "recovery plan." The Devils Hole pupfish recovery plan calls for at least one more backup habitat (for a total of two), so theoretically they should be thinking about another habitat. Practically, though, this is not under discussion as far as I am aware. Other pupfish species are exhibited in aquariums, though. And usually this is a sign of their health as a species. So maybe that would be great?
TM: What do the pupfish want?
KB: I do love this question. It is relatively easy to imagine that a dog or a fox or a whale want a variety of things, including play, food, sex, company, etc. This is harder to imagine for a fish, so distant from us on the evolutionary tree. Go to the Shedd Aquarium and it is hard to see yourself reflected in in a gar, a darter, or a sturgeon. Is this why we have the distinction between fish and wildlife? (ie. "California Department of Fish and Wildlife" or "US Fish and Wildlife Service").