Foreword: Reef Fishes I

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A Short History of Reef Fish Chasers

By Dr. John E. Randall

“You are standing on a metal ladder in water up to your neck. Something round and heavy is slipped gently over your head, and a metal helmet rests upon your shoulders. Thus were the knights of old helmed by their squires for the grim business of war. Instead of a slotted visor, however, you find two large frames of glass before your eyes . . . .

“You wave good-by and slowly descend . . . for a brief space of time the palms and the beach show intermittently through waves which are now breaking over your very face. Then the world changes. There is no more harsh sunlight, but delicate blue-greens with a fluttering of shadows everywhere. Huge pink and orange growths rise on all sides—you know they are living corals . . . a quartet of swimming rainbows—four gorgeously tinted fish who rush up and peer at you. You reach out for them, and they vanish.”

—William Beebe Beneath Tropic Seas (1928)

"One day in 1947, I went to an Army-Navy surplus store in Los Angeles to buy anchor line for a small sloop I was rebuilding. There I saw a steel cylinder wrapped in wire and painted green with zinc chromate; there was a rubber hose coming off one end to what was the regulator, and another hose to a mouthpiece. I asked the salesman what it was, and he said you could put compressed air in the tank and go underwater and breathe. The price was twenty-five dollars.

Instead of the anchor line, I bought the tank. I made a simple backpack and mounted the regulator on the shoulder strap. Then I decided I would be very clever and put oxygen in the tank instead of air. Why waste four-fifths of the volume on worthless nitrogen? Besides, it was easy to get oxygen from a welding shop. Fortunately, I confined my diving with this gear to the shallows, or I would not be relating this tale.

As a teenager, I had avidly read the books by William Beebe on his explorations of the marine realm—especially Beneath Tropic Seas, about diving with helmet and hose on Haitian coral reefs. It was a major inspiration for my becoming a marine biologist and spending my adult life studying reef fishes.

The first functional hard-hat diving helmet, such as that worn by Beebe, was invented in 1820. Its early use was mainly for various commercial operations such as salvaging wrecks, not for viewing marine life. Before that, man’s knowledge of the wealth of life below the surface of the sea was limited to what he could catch by hook and line, trap, seine, trawl, or dredge.

Early Reef Explorers

The early European naturalists who explored the tropical world in their wooden sailing ships brought back preserved specimens of reef fishes and other forms of marine life to museums where they were described, often without documentation of their life color. They could never have appreciated the lovely colors and beauty of tropical reefs as Beebe and his successors have.

After World War II, skindiving became a popular sport with the use of rubber swim fins and face mask. My own first mask was a far cry from today’s equipment, perfectly round and made of narrow, hard, black rubber that had to be carved and sanded to fit one’s face. I was skindiving then in southern California before the advent of the wet suit, and I always emerged from the sea shivering with cold. This led to my making a wet suit of sorts. I dipped the long-john underwear from my military service into a washtub of latex rubber and hung it up to dry. However, I did not have sense enough to add a closing collar, and the icy water kept coming in the large opening at my neck. Still, it helped.

The year after purchasing my rudimentary scuba apparatus, I took the first course in ichthyology offered at UCLA, where Professor Boyd Walker had an Aqua-Lung for fish collecting. From these crude and somewhat risky beginnings half a century ago, the modern era of marine biology was born. With this gear, scientists were finally able to move freely in the realm of the coral reef, to make observations and selectively collect new species of fishes to depths of about 200 feet.

A Multitude of Discoveries

And now with the current use of mixed-gas rebreathing devices, divers are beginning to explore the next 200 feet or more. The development of underwater cameras with strobes and of video cameras has also been very important to our documentation of marine life and its behavior. Not only have we been able to discover, describe, and illustrate a multitude of new species of fishes, but we have been able to learn much more of the ecology and habits of fishes by diving in their environment.

How long might it have taken for us to determine, for example, the sexual dichromatism of so many wrasses and parrotfishes, without scuba? Early naturalists, even great ones like Pieter Bleeker, described the very differently colored males and females of these fishes as separate species. So would any of us today, were we not able to see them in courtship or spawning.

I remember being bewildered when I was studying the aggregate spawning of the Redfin Parrotfish (Sparisoma rubripinne) off St. John, Virgin Islands. On one occasion, I observed what was then regarded as another species, the green Sparisoma axillare, wildly chasing various drab individuals of the spawning aggregation.

Why, I wondered, would one species of fish try to disrupt the spawning of another? Later I saw a parrotfish intermediate in coloration to the drab form and the green, and I realized I had been observing only one species.

Ultimately my wife, Helen, and I wrote our 1963 paper in Zoologica on the two different spawning patterns of this and other parrotfishes and of the wrasse Thalassoma bifasciatum: group spawning by like-colored fish and pair spawning by a drab female fish with a more colorful terminal male who maintains a sexual territory and fights with other males at the periphery. We might envy the experiences of such fish, who first get to experience life as females and end up as males with a harem of female partners.

Reef Watchers & Aquarists

In recent decades there has been an increasing awareness of the sea and its life—and not just as a source of food. There is today more understanding and more enjoyment of the beauty and fascinating biology of the living animals, in particular the coral reef fishes. Ever-increasing numbers of divers and snorkelers are now traveling to and exploring distant reefs. Many are avid fish watchers comparable to their terrestrial counterparts, the birders.

So too has the marine aquarium hobby enjoyed increasing popularity, partly due to the greater success saltwater aquarists are having, not only in maintaining fishes, but also in keeping invertebrates, including corals and gorgonians, and algae. Now a landlocked aquarist thousands of miles from the Tropics can be exposed to and learn to appreciate the living beauty and complexity of the coral reef.

One very bold and well-informed young man, Scott W. Michael, has realized that the time has come for a series of volumes on coral reef fishes of the world to serve not only the marine biological community, but the many divers, snorkelers, fishermen, and aquarists anxious to know more about the fishes they have encountered, collected, or maintained.

I first met Scott in 1989 at the annual meeting of the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists in San Francisco. He was an undergraduate student in biology at the time and was presenting a paper on the reproductive behavior of the round stingray. Scott cornered me on several occasions at the conference and besieged me with questions concerning the taxonomy of a variety of different reef fish groups. Since our first meeting, we have corresponded on a regular basis on matters ichthyological.

Scott is a keen aquarist, dedicated diver, skilled underwater photographer, and as I can see from this text, a gifted writer. His familiarity with the scientific literature on reef fishes and his personal experience as a diver and aquarist have provided the qualifications to embark on the writing and photographing of these volumes, which will cover 68 fish families from the moray eels (Muraenidae) to the curious species of porcupinefishes of the Family Diodontidae.

Appropriate Species

The Reef Fishes series is unique in that it has extensive information on the natural history, husbandry, dietary requirements, and compatibility for myriad fishes. One of the important consequences of Scott Michael’s work will be a much greater appreciation and understanding of the biology of reef fishes.

He has made it clear which species are appropriate for captive systems and which should be left on the reef. Examples of the latter are the many species of butterflyfishes that feed exclusively on coral polyps. If one observes such fishes in the sea, one soon realizes that they never take more than a small bite or two from any one coral head at one time. They are natural conservationists. Because their coral-grazing activity is spread over their large territories, the corals are able to regenerate. It would not be possible to maintain an aquarium in the home large enough to keep sufficient live coral for even a single adult coral-feeding butterflyfish.

Although our general knowledge of the coral reef ecosystem has progressed substantially in the past decades, there is still much to be learned. Scott’s Reef Fishes volumes will summarize much of our knowledge of reef fishes, but they will also serve to reveal the need for more research on reef fish biology and of aquariology.

With a greater appreciation of the fishes of the coral reefs, there is also growing concern over the degradation of so many reefs around the world. Pollutants are still pouring into the sea in frightening quantities. Cutting down rainforests has resulted in the destruction of coral reefs from siltation (witness the loss of the reefs of the east coast of Madagascar).

Dynamite & Cyanide

The use of dynamite and cyanide is still going on in many regions, especially the islands of Southeast Asia, where it is estimated that 3,000 species of reef and shore fishes are found. Overfishing continues unabated, and many major fisheries’ stocks are seriously depleted. Overfishing on coral reefs results in the removal of the larger fishes, many of which are predators that keep the community in balance.

Scientific studies have shown that the best way to conserve the biota of coral reefs is to set aside a minimum of 30% as complete preserves where no fishing or collecting of any kind is allowed. Fishes in these preserves can grow to full reproductive maturity, and their eggs and larvae will provide the recruits to the other 70% of local reef areas where fishing is allowed. In some places, such as the small resort island of Balicasag in the Philippines, the residents have learned that creating a reserve for the island and stopping all fishing is far more lucrative than fishing itself. It attracts divers and snorkelers who only want to observe and photograph the fishes.

All of us who want to maintain the coral reefs and their fishes for future generations should do all we can to promote the development of marine reserves. It is my hope that well-researched books such as this will enhance the awareness of aquarists, divers, snorkelers, and amateur naturalists to the biology and diversity of coral reef fishes. Wider and better-informed appreciation of these species can only serve to improve the chances that they and their habitats will be preserved for posterity.

Contributed by John E. Randall, Ph.D. Kaneohe, Hawaii

Dr. John E. Randall is Senior Ichthyologist Emeritus of the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, member of the Graduate Faculty in Zoology of the University of Hawaii, and Distinguished Fellow of the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists. He is the author of more than 500 publications, principally on the biology and classification of coral reef fishes.

Excerpt from Reef Fishes Volume 1