British zoo, Emirates foundation & Michoacan University unite to bring extinct fish back to Jalisco

I recently camped at Balneario el Rincón, a waterpark near Teuchitlán, with several friends who are into birdwatching. One of them approached me, while I was setting up my tent, with a large printed announcement. 

“Have you seen this?” nature photographer Julio Alvarez asked me.

3 5 16 14bThe announcement was an appeal for volunteers to help monitor the quality of water in the Teuchitlán River Basin, as part of a project called “Reintroduction of Zoogoneticus tequila into the springs of Teuchitlán, Jalisco.” What amazed me was that the project to bring back this Jalisco fish – which is now extinct in its natural environment – was being carried out by the University of Michoacán, the Chester Zoo in Cheshire, England and the Mohammed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund operating out of Abu Dhabi.

Curious as to what this was all about, I headed up the hill to the Guachimontones where I hoped to get a few good photos of the circular pyramids in the light of the setting sun.

3 5 16 14aStepping out of my car, I bumped right into one of the authors of the very announcement I had just seen, Rubén Hernández, a biologist in Morelia, Michoacán. I asked him to tell me about his project.

“This is a far-reaching program of the Universidad de Michoacán de San Nicolás de Hidalgo, under the direction of Dr. Omar Domínguez Domínguez,” Hernández told me.  “The aim is the reintroduction of a little fish called the Tequila Splitfin (Zoogoneticus tequila) into its natural surroundings, right here around the Teuchitlán River. In 1980, some Englishmen collected a number of these fish and took them to the Chester Zoo, where they have been reproducing in captivity, while apparently disappearing here in their native environment. The population at the Chester Zoo has grown to 1,500 individuals and now we want to bring a pilot group here to Balneario el Rincón, which will become the Colonizing Population for this area.”

Zoogoneticus tequila is one of some 40 species of fish belonging to the family of Splitfins (Goodeids, named after ichthyologist George Brown Goode). They are endemic to this area and are unusual in that they don’t produce eggs, but give birth to their young live. Another species of Goodeid, the Butterfly Splitfin (Ameca splendens) became popular all over the world thanks to British fish fanciers such as Ivan Dibble, founder of Fish Ark Mexico, which helps support the lab at San Nicolás de Hidalgo. Dibble worked for years towards bringing certain species of Splitfins back to Jalisco, right up to his death on Christmas Day in 2009.

T3 5 16 14che University of Michoacán’s plans are intricate and long-range. Said Hernández: “At El Rincón we will first put the fish into artificial pools made of basalt, where the biofilm (algae) which they eat can easily reproduce. Here they can begin to adapt to the conditions at Teuchitlán and here we will be able to see how they relate to other introduced species, to see if there will be competition for breeding areas or for food, because fish have a hierarchy. Z. tequila will have to find and achieve the place it used to occupy in this hierarchy.”

Meanwhile, the researchers are concerned about present and future water quality in the Teuchitlán Basin. They would like to see a management plan put into place to keep pesticides, weed-killers, human waste, etcetera from contaminating the springs, the river and the lake. One important part of their overall plan is the participation of local people in the study as “Water Quality Monitors.” This was the theme of the announcement I had seen at the Balneario. Backed with funding from the bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, the University of Michoacán is offering free training courses to local fishermen, ejidatarios, property owners or any interested party in the community, to learn how to participate in the water-quality monitoring project. “If they come to understand how the eco-system works,” said Hernández, “and how important it is to all of us, they will make it their own. They will discover that not only are these fish important, but that the future of Teuchitlán is also on the line. This town has already suffered from a terrible flood and worse is forecast. All this is the fruit of the bad management of this microbasin. We are hoping the local people will one day return the deforested areas to their natural state. Everything we are doing to protect Zoogoneticus tequila will also help to protect the urban development of the area.”

Fortunately, local people are now rallying to the cause of saving their unique fish and improving water quality. “The new mayor of Teuchitlán, Dr. Armando Andrade Gutiérrez, is with us all the way and even attends our meetings,” says Manfred Meiners, head of Biodiverso A. C., which is fighting to clean up Presa de la Vega and the Teuchitlán River.

This project of international and local cooperation is focused just where the need is greatest. According to the United Nations World Conservation Monitoring Centre, Mexico’s Central Mesa is considered one of the most important places in the world for the conservation of fresh-water fish. It seems the number of species in Mexico alone is almost as great as those of the United States and Canada combined. And those of us who live on that Central Mesa know that the problem of water pollution here is way beyond bad. We owe a debt of gratitude to the dedicated biologists around the world working to bring Zoogoneticus back to Teuchitlán.