Friday, September 13, 2019

(Finally) Collecting fishes in Haiti

In August (of 2019) my PhD student Diego Elias and I traveled to Haiti; a place I’ve been trying to collect from since my first fish expedition trip 15 years ago. Back in 2004 I was a PhD student, and I was in the Dominican Republic, the country on the other side of the island of Hispaniola. Back then I was greener than a Louisiana lawn in Spring, I learned a lot the hard way that first trip. Never-the-less it was a fruitful trip that taught me that there is no substitute for studying your research animals in the field. What I was studying then was a supposedly endemic Dominican cichlid species that was supposedly different from the one on the Haitian side. I would end up synonymizing those two species into one based on some additional Haitian samples that I was loaned, but I always regretted not having gone over the Central mountain range to the Haitian side. Haiti seemed close, but still very far, if not physically than culturally. The biggest barrier would be safety, I was told by my Dominican colleagues that we would need to rent a helicopter and have armed guards to collect on the other side. I didn’t know it would take me 15 years to get to the western side of Hispaniola and that very little of what I heard about this country would turn out to be true.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
-T.S. Eliot
This trip was part of the last leg of my National Science Foundation grant ‘Not So Fast: Historical biogeography of freshwater fishes in Central America and the Greater Antilles.” The freshwater fishes of Haiti are special; this country has one of the largest freshwater lakes in the Caribbean and some of the most unique fauna in the Neotropics. That largest freshwater lake, Lake Miragoâne, is said to have an endemic radiation of fishes in the genus Limia, a group of poecilids (also called mollies or livebearers because they have live young). Some have called this endemic radiation of Limia a miniature version of the famous cichlid radiation in the Rift Lakes of East Africa. For a country that is only 10,000 square miles, it has almost a dozen endemics; in contrast the entire island of Puerto Rico has zero endemic freshwater fishes. Another reason it is special is that Hispaniola is a composite island made up of several other islands smooshed together, we would spend much of our time on the “south Paleo island” around the capital Port-au-Prince which appears to have remained somewhat isolated from the other geological portions of the island.
Limia from Lake Miragoâne
            Unfortunately, despite all their freshwater, Haiti has no practicing ichthyologists. There are plenty of people working in agriculture and business and many people are living off their land. We are often presented with the narrative of how this country is the poorest in the West, but that is only if you measure wealth in GDP; many people here are far from poverty, they have nice homes, many goats, some farmland – they lack debt and many would be better off than most of us if we suddenly lost our jobs. Whenever Haiti is mentioned in the news of a Western website we are fed images of a downtrodden country with open sewers and earthquake- and hurricane-ravaged people. Civil unrest did thwart our attempts to travel there several times, as Haiti was under a Level 4: “Do Not Travel” State Department advisory for much of 2019. Finally heading over there in August (at a manageable Level 3: “Reconsider Travel”) I was expecting to be documenting extinction and counting all the introduced tilapia I would collect instead of natives. Instead what we found is a vibrant country with many pristine natural areas with remarkable, resilient and industrious people.
            We were hosted by Martin Reith a botanist working as the curator of the Jardin Botanique des Cayes. Martin is a German who grew up with a strong interest in aquarium fishes and was eager to help us. Dr. Debra Baker from Kansas put us in contact with her student, Wilnise Louise, who is doing her Master’s in agriculture in the north “Le Cap” part of the island. I did not want to collect in another country without locals so I insisted we bring a local student along, and I’m very glad we did – Wilnise was a wonderful contributor to our efforts. We also needed a driver and someone who knew the roads. Martin is relatively new to Haiti, having lived there for less than a year, although you wouldn’t know it from his impeccable Creole. He lived in the Dominican Republic in the five years previous to his move, so he did know the island, but he did not yet feel comfortable driving around Haiti. We hired a truck and a driver, Simain Dimmension, and he would also be an integral part of the “L’Equippe Poisson.”
L’Equippe Poisson
            Our trip did not start out well, we turned out of the airport and picked up some bottled waters that had the strong taste of salt. As we would be relying on bottled water during the trip, this saltiness was not a good sign. In most countries I visit I take my chances and drink the water from the tap if the locals do that – the locals in Haiti were all drinking bottled or bagged water. After getting our first taste of cold salt water, we turned right from the airport and were excited to be headed towards our first field site when we got stuck in traffic – for three hours!!! Apparently, the major road we needed to take was flooded; we were not moving at all and ultimately had to turn around and find a place in Port-au-Prince to stay. After a long day of travel (we had left Baton Rouge at 5am), the ‘Prestige’ beers and even the fried tilapia tasted great, although I grew concerned that we would see no other species of fish during our trip.
            Mercifully we were able to leave Port-au-Prince without incident the next morning. Our first destination was Lake Miragoâne, where I had dreamed of collecting for so long. After some minor sampling along the way we ended up at a little bathing area where people were drinking and partying around the huge lake. It appeared to be the only easily accessible entry for some distance. We were a curiosity to the crowd at first, and I am used to that, foreigners coming in with big fancy fishing nets often draw a crowd, but I noticed the space between the revelers and our crew was shrinking. We were doing our best to explain what we were doing to the people closest to us, but there were lots of people and not everyone got the full story. Most of the people around us were men and they were, let’s say - not at all sober.
            Despite there being bathers nearby we could see that there were lots of small fish in the water. A little secret about the cichlids and mollies is that they like dirty water, the additional nutrients from the soap and grime in the water is like junk food to them. The water wasn’t that dirty really, just with some added soapy nutrients, but we knew it would be a good site for collecting some of the endemics from this lake. We explained to a few people around us what we were doing and why, but word did not spread. We entered the water and the crowd around us closed in, the water was very muddy were we entered, which is why there were no bathers in that section. With Diego and I half submerged pulling a large seine the crowd descended and the mood changed quickly from a party atmosphere to more of a skeptical mob - people started picking out our fish and some were helping us put them into containers, others were yelling. Before I knew it four drunk guys were walking off with our seine. It was chaotic, people going in multiple directions with our gear, it turns out that some inebriated guys thought they were going to get paid for collecting fish for us. Although I’m happy to help people out there was no way I could start handing out bills in the mess that was going on. In the end we were able to get our gear back and hop back in our truck, but some of locals were not happy that we were leaving. A few of the men were demanding money ‘for their trouble’ – it was clear something had to be done. Diego passed them a bottle of rum and that did the trick. That was some quick thinking on his part, and it saved us from a rather sticky situation.
Our sampling sites in Haiti. (Created by Regina Champagne.)
            That event reminded me that we did look like an odd cast of characters, with our fancy nets and foreign faces - the locals should mistrust us. Who were we to collect their fish? Although we did explain to some of the people there, not enough of them were around us to hear. The rest were thinking we were coming in gangbusters doing some strange stuff in their water. I don’t blame anyone there for the misunderstanding, I’m just sorry that we didn’t have time to explain to everyone why we were there. We were there to document what of the local fish fauna remains so that we can help protect these freshwaters.
            We did get a nice collection of fish even from that one spot on Miragoâne. We ended up driving down the road a bit and finding a spot that seemed relatively quiet to process the fish, but even here we were quickly crowded by a group of a dozen or so people, but this time they were a curious and sober bunch, and I was able to use my limited French to explain what was happening. We also had Wilnise and Simain participating in processing the samples. What we were doing must have looked rather strange: taking parts of fish and putting them into small laboratory vials, then tagging fish with plastic labels. Diego had a photobox and was taking some really nice images, which the crowd took great interest in; these images are important because these tiny poecilids are very hard to tell apart. I took the opportunity to explain how to differentiate the introduced species from the natives to the locals. Tilapia, which has been here since the 1950s – introduced by the United Nations to increase protein availability – is not easy to distinguish from the native cichlid, Nandopsis haitiensis, and many locals did not know that tilapia was introduced from Africa. Likewise, the poecilids, which are not a food fish, was not a species most of the locals pay much attention to. It was a proud moment when I heard Wilnise explaining the scientific goals of our trip in Creole to the locals. This was the start of her training: I wanted her to become an expert on Haitian fishes in a country that lacked such an expert.
            We sampled in various parts of Lake Miragoâne over the next few days, driving around looking for areas we could conveniently, and somewhat quietly, enter. The lake is only 10 square miles but remarkably has seven endemic fish species, partly due to the variable habitat. On one memorable trip we went down to a spot where water taxi’s (wood or metal canoes) take people to different areas around the lake. The spot was actually between Lake Miragoâne proper and what was being called Petite Miragoâne, which were connected by a shallow waterway that must unite the lakes into one during periods of flooding. We went by canoe through a mass of thick reeds and water lilies, with jacanas, dragonflies and other wildlife. I was very happy; especially as the channel opened up to the bigger lake. The area was pristine and gorgeous; the big flat lake with dark green water was surrounded by lush mountains on all sides. We were catching plenty of the native Limia that we were after; unfortunately, we were also catching Asian carp that we did not expect to see. This species grows very fast and can reach 30 pounds making it easily the biggest freshwater fish in Haiti, these fish can also alter the environment by removing native vegetation.
             After Miragoâne we went west to Les Cayes where Martin lives and works as curator. Les Cayes is the world's largest supplier of vetiver, a fragrant bunch-grass from India that is used in perfumes, cosmetics and aromatherapy. You could smell the vetiver rather strongly as you entered the town. It was also interesting seeing breadfruit growing and being eaten. Having gone to Tahiti last year, where breadfruit originates, I couldn’t help to think of Captain’s Bligh whose men famously mutinied on his ship the HMS Bounty in 1789; the mission of that ship was to bring breadfruit to Haiti and other parts of the West Indies (there are five movie versions of ‘Mutiny of the Bounty’ the most famous one being with Marlon Brando).

Dormitator maculatus
            Les Cayes is in one of the most southern stretches of Haiti, and almost at its Western edge. In spots near the coastline I was reminded of Tahiti, with aqua blue waters and the surrounding mountains. But there is also an awful tide of sargassam drifting in from further out in the Atlantic that is currently sullying the coastline. Luckily, we were not after Caribbean fishes, we were focusing on freshwaters. In Les Cayes, we collected some sleepers (Eleotridae) and gobies that are associated with more brackish habitat. One of my favorites is the fat sleeper Dormitator maculatus that has a large bright blue spot behind the head – they look a bit ridiculous but they’ve managed a pretty wide range. We hope to one day look at the population genetics of this beast that can be found throughout a wide part of the Neotropics and supposedly as far north as North Carolina. We sampled in the lovely Botanical Gardens where we saw lots of amazing plants and saw white necked crows and other neat fauna. Although this site was lovely I couldn’t help but notice the many fishes we would see in the ditches around town, after ignoring them for a few days – it is always best to look away from the open sewers in the city center– I decided I would go down into one.

From five feet above I could see there was a good bit of fish diversity and I kept seeing some flashes of color I didn’t recognize. Throwing on a cheap pair of plastic waders and covering my mouth I dropped into the ditch with two dipnets and scooped up all the fish I could get while trying not to smell the poop smells I was kicking up. It was gross but it was worth it – we collected some species we didn’t get elsewhere and one – Poecilia reticulata, that is introduced and not yet fully documented in the scientific literature – it is also a species that I collected from a much cleaner ditch in Tahiti. I will be sending these to a colleague who studies this species for its endoparasites and population genetics. The ones from Haiti should have a lot, as we sampled the fish we noticed their guts were full of horrible smelling black ‘crap’ – most likely literal ‘crap.’ When you eat junk food you need a lot of it to get any nutrients. After I was done sampling I threw my waders into a garbage bag and we headed up to a mountain stream that was the complete opposite of that ditch site.
            The Mountain stream ‘Riviere Glace’ was perhaps the most beautiful of the trip. It was also a relief. The water was refreshingly cool, and as the weather had been hot and humid and we were sweaty and gross it was a wonderful relief to be submerged in the cool clean water. We were not the only people who noticed how lovely the water was, there were people working on the minerals and rocks from the surrounding mountains and these men with white powder covering their faces came down like ghosts into the water, it was startling at first but also fascinating to see them transform from these pale powdered sickly forms to their natural youthful state as they washed clean in the river. As Diego cast-netted I used a trusty dipnet along the rocky banks to catch a few small fish. I was not sure what they were but they looked a little different than the poecilids we had collected at lower elevations. These had a blueish tint, but they were not very big. Diego and I tried to pull a seine across the river but the bottom was so rocky that we had trouble, at the other side of the bank I told him just to hold it up against the banks with me and I asked a man who was sitting nearby to slowly walk towards us in a shallow pool. When he approached he scarred the fish that were in the pool into our net, we didn’t notice them until we pulled up the net and we saw there were easily 300 robust sized poecilids in it. We didn’t see that coming – and that’s the magic of seining – you never know what you’re gonna get. We took a portion of them, releasing the majority as they all appeared to be the same species – albeit a potentially new one. We collected many large ones and at that size you could really see the light blue coloration, these certainly appeared to be something we had not seen and not a species we knew about from the literature. It is perhaps new to science but stay tuned. The environment can cause morphological variation in populations that can trick you into thinking you have something new but it is just variation.
            In Les Cayes we stayed where Martin lived in a wonderful historic home where he rented a room. The house was a maze of artwork, including a lovely portrait of a women with a turkey on her head at the front entrance, later on the street I would see a women with a live turkey on her head in exactly the same fashion. The house was quite a relief as the hotel rooms we had been staying in had limited water access and often no electricity, it often felt like we were staying in hot dark concrete boxes. The old home also gave us access to some privacy where we could sample our fishes at night which is a nice privilege when you can actually take your time and have a good look at what you collected. When you need to prep the samples in the field it can be a bit rushed and you don’t get the images or a chance to look over the fresh specimens before their live colors begin to fade. Diego and I sometimes stayed up past midnight so that I could help him take better quality images of some of the fish using his photobox. I also noticed that he was being quite fastidious with the preparation of the specimens. Most of the fishes we were collecting were finger sized or smaller, so we stopped our old sampling method of tagging the fish with a tagging gun (the same one used to tag your clothes with price tags), instead we were using fishing line to more gently make a loop around the mouth and gills with a tissue tag number. This took more time but made for better specimens. In my 15th year of collecting fishes I was still learning things thanks to Diego and I was proud of his efforts and diligence. I had seen it before when we met five years ago in Guatemala where he is from, but now I saw how his skill set transferred over to his PhD work and it was nice to be able to see it all come together for him.
With some students from Université Providence d'Haiti

 We would end our ten-day trip staying at the Université Providence d'Haiti, a small new private college on the shores of Lake Azuéi in Ganthier. We were greeted with the loud chirping of African weaver birds and I was worried that the lake would be full of introduced fish too. This lake was notable to me because the eastern shore is in the Dominican Republic side, so you could cross the lake to get to that country. But this lake was 65 square miles so much bigger than Lake Miragoâne but the latter is strictly freshwater and this lake is considered brackish. We would get freshwater fish here but also things you would expect in the oceans like large needlefish. Fifteen years earlier I had been on the other side of the mountains in the Dominican side looking at the sister lake adjacent to this one called Lago Enriquillo. Side by side they sit with some of the most unique fauna in the Caribbean. Here there are crocodiles and flamingos, and it feels different than the rest of the areas we visited. The water is calm and flat and there is something about the white flat sands around it that always makes it seem a little hazy, a little more otherworldly. On the Dominican side I remember getting strange pupfish, and we were hoping to get some on this Haitian lake too - we did. These pupfish are resilient little things. They are members of the family Cyprinodontidae, that pop up in some odd places including Death Valley where some pupfish species are known from single localities that are smaller than your average college classroom (Devil’s Hole pupfish being the most famous), they are also known from some hypersaline locations. In Louisiana the Sheepshead minnow, Cyprinodon variegatus, is the most common pupfish we would encounter. They are called pupfish because of their tendency to wiggle like happy puppies. We would seine in the lake and surrounding region several times bringing with us local students to show them what we were doing. I also gave a lecture about our trip, and although my French is passable it was suggested that I have a student translate my talk in Creole. I had not realized until then how different the languages were, Creole is what most people spoke although much of the business and political matters were done in French. Unfortunately, that creates a bit of a class system and confusion too. I would learn a lot about Haiti from the students and profs at the school. Our understanding of this country is based on the trama of poverty, earthquakes and hurricanes but we forget that this country had a successful slave revolt 200 years ago that freed this country from the French, and even though Haiti paid the equivalent of billions to the French at the time, the French still claim this small island nation owes them debt.  That financial debt significantly handcuffs Haiti’s own independent economic success, as does the lack of support from other French speaking countries. But back to the fish.
Nandopsis haitiensis
            We would sample in and around the lake and we got massive cichlids here as well with the aid of some fisherman who were collecting in the interior portions of the lake. I had studied Nandopsis haitiensis and the other cichlids from Hispaniola and Cuba for my PhD dissertation, I even raised one of these from a thumb nailed size thing to a hand sized adult. We had been collecting smaller sized cichlids throughout our trip so getting big ones, about as big as they get even in aquariums, was amazing. Some males even had big fleshy humps on their heads when they were in a breeding phase. Upon seeing them Diego said ‘these are some proper specimens’ and they were. I was glad to see that the lake was still able to produce such healthy individuals and I told the students it was their duty to protect these waters and the fishes which they seemed keen to do. I also told them about the tilapia that we also found in large sizes in the lake and told them to eat those rather than the native Nandopsis. Diego and I are working with an undergrad now to put together a pamphlet and poster to send to the students we met there and to give to locals like Wilnise to train others. I still get messages from Wilnise showing me some fishes that she is continuing to collect - nothing could make me prouder. We plan to collaborate on a paper about our collections.
            There are so many things about Haiti that surprised and delighted me. I love the packs of kids that were roaming around and following us everywhere, even deep into the wilderness. They were growing up educated by nature as much as by books. At the same time the local knowledge of introduced versus native fishes was lower than I expected and it seemed as though tilapia was the most common fish on the plate and in the freshwaters. Marine species were given much more attention. I had expected to be documenting a freshwater disaster, with little habitat remaining for freshwater animals – instead Diego and I found a forgotten paradise that just lacks scientific infrastructure but certainly not human capacity. I can’t wait to help build that infrastructure as we send back the data and information about our collections to our new friends and colleagues.

Lake Azuéi 



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