Campus News

Fishing for change

Ecology faculty help guide local conservation policy in Ecuador

As Bud and Mary Freeman describe a recent trip to Ecuador to collect fish samples to help guide local conservation policy, their story is abundant with color—giant electric blue butterflies, orchids rampant in the lush landscape and tropical fish species with a variety of interesting patterns. (See “Ecuadorian expedition” on page 8 for more photos from the trip).

The duo served as volunteer collaborators with the Global Water for Sustainability (GLOWS) Program funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. Their job was the first step in an effort to help those in the Ecuadorian Pastaza River Basin protect its rich biodiversity while meeting the needs of growing eco-tourism.

“Our challenge was to visit as many sites as possible in 10 days,” said Mary Freeman, adjunct faculty member at the Odum School of Ecology and a U.S. Geological Survey ecologist. “We were able to collect fish from 25 different sites which will establish a baseline survey of fishes in the area.”

Armed with backpack electrofishers, the Freemans, along with others including Seth Wenger, associate director of the Odum School’s River Basin Center, were able to send an electric shock through the water, ­prompting fish to flow into nets. After collection, the fish were photographed, had their fins clipped and then preserved.These samples will enable policymakers to have an understanding of the richly varied biodiversity that will need to be protected in their conservation plan. In addition, this will arm them with knowledge to make informed decisions about water quality, water supply, hydropower and more.

A typical day on this research trip began  at 6 a.m. for breakfast at the Freeman’s favorite lodging—a picturesque hostel surrounded by gardens. After that, they would make the trek to their research sites, not always an easy feat.

“We often had to drive over one-lane suspended wooden bridges and take makeshift cable cars across raging rivers,” said Bud Freeman, faculty member of the ecology school and director of the Georgia Museum of Natural History. “And once we reached our destination, a familiar sight would often be the local residents snorkeling, swimming, washing clothes and using spears to capture fish to eat or sell. The rivers are very much a part of daily life for the locals.”

In these bodies of water, which ultimately flow into the Amazon River, the variety of fish is incredibly diverse.

“In North America, we have one family of catfish with fewer than 50 species; in South America, there are multiple families of catfish with the largest having 700 described species,” said Mary Freeman.

And for the Pastaza River Basin, one of the most rapidly growing areas in the region, having clean water and dealing with regulatory issues is essential. Balancing this growth with protection of the natural world is the ultimate goal of this project.

“In addition to issues of water quality, another aspect of this research is investigating genetic divergence among fish populations that have become isolated by lava flows from volcanoes, landslides and other events,” said Bud Freeman. This research will set the stage for student research opportunities as well as provide collaborations between the River Basin Center, the Georgia Museum of Natural History and the Museo Ecuatoriano de Ciencias Naturales in Quito, Ecuador.

And so, between eating a local delicacy—guinea pig—and watching flocks of flying parrots, the Freemans contributed to research that is very much relevant in not only South America, but North America as well. As the world becomes more urbanized, conservation plans that do not sacrifice the natural world are necessary and the GLOWS Project has taken the first step in helping to protect biodiversity.