Fish Taxon Advisory Group

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Conservation Programs of the AZA’s Fish Taxon Advisory Groups

Programmes de conservation du “Fish Taxon Advisory Group” de l’AZA

Doug Warmolts1 and Colin Bull2

1 Columbus Zoo & Aquarium, P.O. Box 400, Powell, OH 43065 USA

2 John G. Shedd Aquarium, 1200 South Lake Shore Dr., Chicago, IL 60605 USA


The freshwater fishes and the marine fishes Taxon Advisory Groups (TAGs) for the American Zoo & Aquarium Association (AZA) were formally created in 1993 and 1994, respectively. This was followed by the approval the AZA Lake Victoria cichlid SSP in 1994, the first SSP for fish. The initial and continuing objectives of TAGs are to expedite communication between and coordinate husbandry activities amongst AZA institutions displaying fish species, and to advise participating institutions with regard to their management and conservation. Over the past decade, the TAGs’ priorities have given greater emphasis towards identifying and promoting relevant in situ conservation activities and towards building partnerships with their international counterparts.


Les “Taxon Advisory Groups” (TAGs) pour les poissons d’eau douce et d’eau de mer de l’Association Américaine des Zoos et Aquariums (AZA) ont été officiellement créés respectivement en 1993 et 1994. Cette création fut suivie par l’homologation de la Société de Protection des Espèces (SSP) de Cichlidés du Lac Victoria, la première SSP créée pour des poissons. Les objectifs des TAGs sont d’accélérer la communication et de coordonner les activités des élevages au sein des institutions de l’AZA qui présentent des poissons, et de conseiller les institutions participantes pour la Gestion de la Conservation. Au cours de la dernière décennie, les priorités des TAGs se sont orientées vers l’identification et la promotion des activités utiles de Conservation in situ et l’instauration de partenariats avec leurs homologues internationaux.

The AZA or American Zoo & Aquarium Association is comprised of over 185 accredited zoos and aquariums in North America. Under the auspices of the AZA, member institutions can belong to and participate in many conservation committees and their programs. Those committees focus the efforts and resources of many institutions towards a set of shared goals. Of interest to this Congress are several committees including the Coral Reef Conservation Action Partnership (CRCAP), the Aquatic Invertebrate Taxon Advisory Group (AITAG), the Marine Fish Taxon Advisory Group (MFTAG), and the Freshwater Fish Taxon Advsiory Group (FFTAG).
The FFTAG currently supports several global conservation initiatives including the Lake Victoria Species Survival Plan (SSP), the desert fish of the Southwestern United States and Northern Mexico, endemic fish of Madagascar, Project Piaba in Brazil, and the endemic fauna of Lake Barombi M’bo, Cameroon. The Lake Victoria SSP continues to be the signature program of FFTAG and also serves as an example of a growing range of collaboration between international aquarium conservation groups. The Lake Victoria SSP, as well as, the other initiatives, operates in partnership with the European Union of Aquarium Curator’s Fish and Invertebrate Taxon Advisory Group (FAITAG). Collectively, FFTAG and FAITAG recognize those international collaborations as vital and absolutely essential to the future of our shared role in conserving aquatic wildlife.
FFTAG also strongly encourages its members to adopt locally based initiatives so that equal focus is levied upon the conservation of our native aquatic life. The efforts of the Tennessee Aquarium exemplify this objective. The Southeastern United States is home to one of the riches aquatic faunas in the world that is imperiled by a myriad of threats including loss of habitat, introduction of exotic species, acid rain, and urban development. The Tennessee Aquarium has served as a catalyst to bring together various shareholders in the region and work together on projects ranging from organizing a regional conference of shareholders from universities, federal agencies, state agencies, private companies, aquariums, zoo, nature centers, and conservation organization to identify threats and solutions resulting in this excellent publication, to a multifaceted recovery program for the Barrens topminnow (Fundulus julisia) which is close to extirpation in the remaining areas of its historical range in middle Tennessee.
A recent AITAG initiative at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium involves native mussels. North America has the world’s most diverse freshwater mussel fauna and is among the most rapidly declining animal groups on the continent. The Nature Conservancy recognizes 55% of North America's mussel species as extinct or imperiled compared to only 7% of the continent's mammal and bird species. The US Fish and Wildlife Service lists 61 endangered species.
The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium has built upon previous successful partnerships to create a new collaborative initiative to help conserve the imperiled native mussel fauna of Ohio and the Ohio River Basin. The partnership includes the zoo, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, The Division of Wildlife – Ohio Department of Natural Resources, The Ohio State University, the Ohio River Valley Ecosystem Research Team, The Nature Conservancy – Ohio Chapter, and the Mussel Mitigation Trust. This unique partnership through pooling of resources and expertise is in the process of creating a mussel conservation & research facility on zoo grounds for propagation and refugee of targeted imperiled species. It also includes a public education outreach component to help educate the zoo’s 1.3 million annual visitors about the plight and conservation efforts for native species in their own backyard.
The project will concentrate on understanding the basic biology of imperiled mussels with the ultimate goal of restoration or bolstering of existing mussel populations. This research would include host identifications, captive husbandry requirements, reproductive biology, and nutrition. For instance, the recent identification of the hosts for the federally endangered Clubshell could enable us to culture these mussels and return them to their historic range. Furthermore, holding facilities associated with this project could be used as temporary refugee for large numbers of mussels. This may be important to mitigating unforeseen disasters. In addition, a public exhibit component highlighting the plight of native mussels and the efforts of the partnership will be developed as part of the initiative. Additional information about the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium and its conservation programs can be accessed at
Currently, the FFTAG and MFTAG are working towards the completion of their respective regional collection plans. This involves researching and compiling information on imperiled species worldwide and assembling it into workable databases. This information can then be used to match conservation priorities with available institutional space taking into account institutional expertise and interests. Institutions can then use these documents when developing their individual collection master plans.
FFTAG and MFTAG can also concentrate the resources and expertise of its membership to address shared problems. An example is determining the significance of Mycobacterium presence some of our breeding colonies and collections. Sea World of Ohio held an initial meeting in 1999, which helped to identify issues and establish objects. This will be followed by an in-depth workshop planned for the spring of 2001 at the Tennessee Aquarium that will bring together veterinarians, curators, aquarists, researchers, and technicians to find solutions.

The MFTAG is currently focused on supporting two international initiatives. The first is a very ambitious project to help facilitate and produce a comprehensive international peer reviewed husbandry manual for Elasmobranches. It is an international effort both in its genesis and the range of its contributors. The manual will be broad in scope with topics including ethics, conservation, and public education, species selection, exhibit and life support system design, legislation and permitting, collection, acclimation and quarantine, nutrition and feeding, captive behavior, stock management, record keeping, reproduction, and veterinary care. The husbandry manual initiative is well underway with chairs identified for all chapters and a robust field of experienced authors developing their materials. An international symposium focusing on the husbandry of elasmobranches will be held October 3-7, 2001 in Orlando Florida to coincide with the completion of the husbandry manual materials. The purpose of the meeting is to provide a forum for the presentation, discussion and dissemination of information detailing captive maintenance and husbandry practices for Elasmobranches in public aquaria. The manuscripts presented by invited speakers and selected contributors will be published as the hardbound Elasmobranch Husbandry Manual.

The second MFTAG program involves the establishment of a pilot program for marine fish. In 1998, the John G. Shedd Aquarium in partnership with Project Seahorse hosted a three-day international Seahorse Husbandry, Management, and Conservation Workshop in Chicago to identify the role of public aquaria in seahorse conservation. From this meeting a number of initiatives were launched. One of which was the creation of an Aquarium Research Coordinator position based at the Shedd Aquarium to help coordinate the resources and efforts of public aquaria in North America and Europe.

Seahorses remain extremely popular with zoos and aquaria, and new seahorse feature exhibits are opening every year. Of the 32 known seahorse species, approximately 18 are kept in zoos and aquaria. 31 seahorses are listed as Vulnerable in the 2000 IUCN Red List, and one, Hippocampus capensis, has recently been upgraded to Endangered. From the 1998 workshop, six areas were identified as requiring action to improve population management and our effective conservation actions including; communication, taxonomy, record keeping, tagging, acquisitions / de-accession, and evaluation of current techniques. Additional international efforts are underway, mainly co-coordinated through an email list-server called the Syngnathidae Discussion Group. Over 130 members belong to the list, representing over 40 aquaria in 11 countries.

The MFTAG has taken the step to formalize some of these priority actions and have included syngnathids in its first collection plan for marine fishes. Seven seahorse species have been selected along with two sea-dragon species as the focus for initial pilot efforts. MFTAG plans to address the research, management and conservation priorities with these species through the outputs of various working groups. These working groups have been established and many are making progress on various outputs intended to assist with husbandry and management of captive syngnathid populations including: 1) Husbandry Group - to provide information to develop husbandry manuals for syngnathids in zoos and aquaria, 2) Communication Group - to maintain communications and develop guidelines, 3) Education Group - To develop education materials and standardize messages, 4) Research Group - to assist with research design, data analysis and act as a peer review for outputs, 5) Field Conservation Group - to promote links with field projects and co-ordinate programs. The work of these groups is well underway and we hope to have a first draft of the seahorse husbandry manual completed in 2001. However, we still seek greater representation from aquaria outside of North America to better reflect the interests and skills available to assist with conservation.
The aquatic conservation committees of the American Zoo & Aquarium Association welcome the participation and collaboration of its counterpart organizations worldwide. These committees meet annually to coordinate, plan, and summarize committee activities. This is usually held in conjunction with the Regional Aquatics Workshop (RAW). Interested parties can obtain additional information by contacting the primary author at

Bulletin de l’Institut océanographique, Monaco, n° spécial 20, fascicule 2 (2001)

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