“What's an umbrella fish?” a young student asked me. Stumped, I replied “Never heard of one.” The question bugged me until a library search confirmed there was no “umbrella fish.” However, in conservation biology the term ‘umbrella’ species is one of several buzzwords used for surrogate species. Surrogate species may indicate biological diversity or environmental change or simply connect in the public’s imagination regarding habitat protection. Surrogate buzzwords include focal species, indicator species, keystone species, umbrella species, target species, foundation species, flagship species, and ecological engineer species (Caro 2010). Even if the terms are loosely used, the species-centered conservation approaches can promote public awareness and raise funds for conservation. If it works, use it.
Flagship species are primarily intended to promote public awareness and to raise funds for conservation. While flagship species are selected for their marketing value, umbrella species are selected based on ecological criteria and are expected to benefit a wide range of co-occurring species (Caro 2010; Kalinkat et al. 2017). Is it possible to select flagship umbrellas to describe species that explicitly integrate both functions? Perhaps. The classic giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) is a popular charismatic species used since the 1960s by World Wildlife Fund for Nature for fundraising as well as it benefits for co-occurring endemic species.
Recently, Kalinkat et al. (2017) identified over 60 potential freshwater flagship umbrella species. So, there could be an umbrella fish. The next phase must be to implement and evaluate conservation strategies based on the flagship umbrella species approach. Do the flagship umbrella species attract public attention and funding for conservation? Is the diversity of co-occurring communities protected? We don’t know.
Emmanuel Frimpong (2018) argues that our lack of knowledge perpetuates ineffectual conservation practices in tropical Afrotropical freshwater fishes. We need to understand which fishes are rare and which are common and how the species may interact in aquatic ecosystems. His experiences, studying Nocomis breeding and nest associates, confirmed that seven species of cyprinids may breed on Nocomis nests. Therefore, Nocomis may be an umbrella species, but conservation action may take time. His story emphasizes to us all that understanding the ecology and natural history of individual species is essential to adopting the language of flagship umbrella species. That is one thing holding us back in fish conservation efforts. Frimpong (2018) then asks “Can we protect these rare species without protecting the common species that function as their hosts?” Probably not!
|A Bluehead Chub Nocomis leptocephalus guards his breeding mound in Toms Creek, Virginia. Photo by Emmanuel Frimpong.|
We have yet to see if the flagship umbrella species approach develops and spurs effective conservation programs. However, the concept of an umbrella is an important one. However, the multiple individual values and motivations around fish conservation should be embraced within a large, inclusive umbrella community of conservationists. Here I review a few of these potential umbrella fish. Remember, while umbrella species may not exist for all systems, they may be effective in some. Therefore, the concept is important to consider further to promote conservation action.
The Humphead Wrasse Cheilinus undulatus (also known as the Napoleon Wrasse) shares habitat with a diverse community in coral reefs. The species has a broad geographic distribution in the Indo-Pacific Ocean, a region with tremendous coral reef biodiversity. Like most wrasses (Labridae), the Humphead Wrasse is a protogynous hermaphrodite, meaning they will start life as females and may transition to males. As a large, conspicuous coral reef fish that is severely overfished, it fits the criteria for a flagfish species. Most tropical marine protected areas (MPA) are too small to effectively protect the Humphead Wrasse and a significant scaling up of MPA is required (Weng et al 2015). Protecting the Humphead Wrasse would protect many co-occurring species with shared habitat requirements. Therefore, it may be both a flagship and an umbrella species.
|Humphead Wrasse. Photo by Paolo Macorig.|
Asian Arowana Scleropages formosus (Müller & Schlegel, 1844) is also known as the Golden Dragonfish or Golden Arowana. These fish are so highly valued by the aquarium trade that they are seldom eaten. Yet, the native swamps and sluggish rivers in southeast Asia are highly altered and the entire aquatic ecosystem and its services are at risk. This recognizable and charismatic fish may be an appropriate flagship umbrella species.
|Asian Arowana. Photo by Marcel Bulkhead.|
The largest salmonid in the world is the highly migratory Taimen or Huchen Hucho hucho. The Taiman, known to locals as the “river god’s daughter,” may reach up to six feet and weigh up to 200 pounds. Overfishing and habitat change reduced populations that once thrived throughout Mongolia and Siberia (Geist et al. 2009). Since sport anglers value the large, unique fish, the Taimen is the target species in creating a large catch-and-release fishing reserve. Read more here.
The Arapaima is one of the largest freshwater fishes and can reach 8 feet in length. However, throughout it range in Brazil and Guyana it seldom reaches that large size anymore due to overfishing. One of the most heavily exploited fishes in South America, even today, scientists are not certain how many species of Arapaima exist (Stewart 2013a, 2013b; Watson et al. 2016). While it fits some requirements for a flagship species, whether it’s an umbrella species will require more studies.
|Arapaima sp. Photo by J-subculture.com|
The Mekong river and delta regions support a highly diverse ecosystem, which is heavily dammed. Biodiversity of the Mekong basin is second only to the Amazon basin. New fish species are described from the Mekong regularly and no other river has so many species of very large fishes. These include giant freshwater stingray Himantura polylepis, several giant barbs (Catlocarpio saimensis and Probarbus spp), and giant catfishes. Two catfishes, the Mekong Giant Catfish (Pangasianodon gigas) and the Striped Catfish (Pangasianodon hypophthalmus) are candidate flagship umbrella species (So et al. 2006). Fish make up ½ to 2/3rd of the diet of rural people of the Mekong and 2/3rd of the people are engaged in wild capture fisheries so conservation of these areas is critically important.
|Mekong Giant Catfish (left) and striped catfish Planet Catfish (right)|
Mahseer (Tor spp; Cypriniformes: Cyprinidae) are large-bodied, migratory freshwater fishes that are endemic to the monsoonal rivers of Asia. They are flagship species because of their economic, recreational and conservation interests. Six of eighteen species of Tor are endangered, while others are threatened or data deficient (Pinder et al. 2015). Mahseers are referred to as “kings of aquatic systems” and are the primary targets of recreational anglers. Fishing guides and recreational anglers have a stake in the protection of the catchments that support populations of Mahseer (Bower et al. 2017), yet the value of Mahseers as umbrella species has not been assessed.
|Dekkan Masheer Tor khudree Photo by J. F. Helias|
In North America, sturgeons (Acipenseridae), American Eel, Pacific salmonids, and Brook Trout are potential flagship umbrella species. Brook trout Salvelinus fontinalis are well studied and a variety of conservation planning tools have been developed. Many tools designed to characterize the continuum of viability, habitat condition, and vulnerability of Brook Trout populations may also protect a wide variety of co-occurring species.
Sturgeons and Paddlefish in North America are possible flagship umbrella species. In 2012, the North American Sturgeon and Paddlefish Society formed to focus on “current declines in sturgeon and paddlefish populations across North America, NASPS is dedicated to promoting the conservation and restoration of these species by developing and advancing research pertaining to their biology, management, and utilization.” There are many threats that are specific to individual species of sturgeon. While study methods are improving, conservation efforts are playing a game of catch up. Perhaps a flagship umbrella species approach can help protect essential riverine habitats for hackelbacks.
Although the status of American Eel is unclear, but one thing is clear. American Eels may be hindered from reaching up to 84% of upstream habitats, thereby fragmenting the single, panmictic population. Efforts to restore connectivity may benefit a large number of co-occurring fishes.
|Four species of cyprinids that are nest associates with Bluehead Chub nests. Photo by Derek Wheaton.|
We have a difficult challenge in conserving the fishes and their habitats. Pluralism is the rule in conservation in general and fish conservation in particular. Many approaches, many values, and many types of people must be engaged in the process (Cooke et al. 2013). Green et al. (2015) advocated for creating a much larger community that is strengthened, rather than factionalized, by pluralistic viewpoints. Local and large-scale activities are important to our conservation efforts. If the concept of flagship umbrella species can assist in making conservation more effective, then we should pursue the idea vigorously.
Bower, S.D., A.J. Danylchuk, R. Raghavan, S. C. Danylchuk, A.C. Pinder, A.M. Alter, and S. J. Cooke. 2017. Involving recreational fisheries stakeholders in development of research and conservation priorities for mahseer (Tor spp.) of India through collaborative workshops. Fisheries Research 186:665-671.
Caro, T. 2010. Conservation by proxy: Indicator, umbrella, keystone, flagship, and other surrogate species. Island Press.
Cooke, S. J. et al. 2013. Failure to engage the public in issues related to inland fishes and fisheries: strategies for building public and political will to promote meaningful conservation. Journal of Fish Biology 83(4):997-1018.
Frimpong, E. A. 2018. A case for conserving common species. PLOS Biology 16(2): e2004261
Geist J, Kolahsa M, Gum B, Kuehn R. 2009. The importance of genetic cluster recognition for the conservation of migratory fish species: the example of the endangered European huchen Hucho hucho (L.). Journal of Fish Biology 75(5):1063-1078.
Green, S. J., J. Armstrong, M. Bogan, E. Darling, S. Kross, C.M. Rochman, A. Smyth, and D. Verissimo. 2015. Conservation needs diverse values, approaches, and practitioners. Conservation Letters doi: 10.1111/conl.12204
Hogan, Z.S. 2011. Ecology and conservation of large-bodied freshwater catfish: a global perspective. American Fisheries Society Symposium 77:39–53.
Kalinkat, G. and seventeen coauthors. 2017. Flagship umbrella species needed for the conservation of overlooked aquatic biodiversity. Conservation Biology 31:481-485.
Kalinkat, G. and seventeen coauthors. 2017. Flagship umbrella species needed for the conservation of overlooked aquatic biodiversity. Conservation Biology Supplemental file. 18 pp.
Pinder AC, Raghavan R, Britton JR. 2015. Efficacy of angler catch data as a population and conservation monitoring tool for the flagship Mahseer fishes (Tor spp.) of Southern India. Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems 25(6):829-838. 204
So, N., J.K. Van Houdt, and F.A. Volckaert. 2006. Genetic diversity and population history of the migratory catfishes Pangasianodon hypophthalmus and Pangasius bocourti in the Cambodian Mekong River. Fisheries Science 72(3):469-476. 237
Stewart, D. J. 2013a. Re-description of Arapaima agassizii (Valenciennes), a rare fish from Brazil (Osteoglossomorpha: Osteoglossidae). Copeia 2013:38–51.
Stewart, D. J. 2013b. A new species of Arapaima (Osteoglossomorpha, Osteoglossidae) from the Solimões River, Amazonas State, Brazil. Copeia 2013:470–476.
Watson, L.C., D.J. Stewart, and A.M. Kretzer. 2016. Genetic diversity and population structure of the threatened giant Arapaima in southwestern Guyana: Implications for their conservation. Copeia 104:864-872.Weng, K.C., M.W. Pedersen, G.A. Del Raye, J. E. Caselle, and A. E Gray. Umbrella species in marine systems: using the endangered humphead wrasse to conserve coral reefs. Endangered Species Research 27:251-263.