At the helm, sharing the role of Noah, are J. R. Shute of North Carolina and Pat Rakes of Arkansas, who met at graduate school in the mid-1980s. They've been splashing around streams and keeping aquariums since they were boys. Now they've managed to transform a boyhood passion into an unusual profession. Freshwater animals are under siege all over the planet, and the species-rich Southeast is no exception. At their Knoxville nonprofit, Conservation Fisheries, Inc. (CFI), Shute and Rakes are trying to keep some of the rarest species alive.
This is not like raising goldfish or guppies. Among the ark's passengers is the diamond darter, an imperiled sandbar dweller; it has proved so sensitive to disturbance that the biologists observe it in its aquarium only through a remote video monitor. Another darter, the Conasauga logperch, swims in a tank nearby. Its only known habitat is the Conasauga River in Georgia and Tennessee, whose waters have long been polluted and silted up by farms and factories. The Conasauga might still hold 200 of these fish, or it might not, but the three recent arrivals here are the only ones in captivity. Everyone at CFI is hoping they don't turn out to be the same sex so they can pair off. No effort will be spared to give them the arrangement of sand, gravel, or little rock shelters that might inspire intimate relations.
Capturing the fish in the first place is just as challenging. In dive masks and bulky dry suits, talking through snorkels and wearing fish-scooping nets like hats because they need both hands free to pull themselves along the bottom, Shute and Rakes are a distinctive presence in a river. They often snorkel with flashlights at night, when some fish are more active. Once, as they splashed past a dark campground, they heard somebody holler, "Dang! Looks like a bunch of big bullfrogs with headlights."
The goal is to have seed stock ready to restore the fish to a river, if and when society restores that river to its clean, free-flowing state. It hasn't happened yet to the Conasauga, but it is happening in other streams. These days Shute and Rakes find themselves not just capturing fish to bring aboard the ark but tracking the progress of fish they have already returned to the wild. "It's a big, natural experiment, and we're learning as we go," Rakes said. "I feel very lucky to be doing something I care about so much."
Lakes, swamps, and rivers make up less than 0.3 percent of fresh water and less than .01 percent of all the water on Earth. Yet these waters are home to as many as 126,000 of the world's animal species, including snails, mussels, crocodiles, turtles, amphibians, and fish. Almost half the 30,000 known species of fish live in lakes and rivers, and many aren't doing well; in North America, for instance, 39 percent of freshwater fish are imperiled, up from 20 percent only a few decades ago. Freshwater animals in general are disappearing at a rate four to six times as fast as animals on land or at sea. In the United States nearly half the 573 animals on the threatened and endangered list are freshwater species.