J. R. Shute interview

J. R. Shute 

To date, all of the interviews I’ve conducted for the blog have been with aquarists who are involved with cichlids in some capacity. Today’s interviewee is different. Because I am a real proponent of fish conservation, I’ve been looking for someone to interview who is heavily engaged in the practice. Many of the core values of fish conservationists span all types of fish, cichlids included.

J. R. Shute is co-director of Conservation Fisheries Incorporated (CFI), founded in 1992 by he and co-director Patrick Rakes.

Over the past 25+ years, CFI has worked with more than 60 species of rare and imperiled fishes of the southeast United States, some of which are considered the rarest in the country. Recently, J. R. and Patrick were awarded the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Regional Director’s Conservation Partner Honor Award in recognition of “Outstanding Performance”.

A few weeks ago I asked J.R. if he would be willing to do an interview for the blog about CFI and the organization’s efforts. He happily agreed and, after giving me a personal tour of CFI’s facility a few weeks ago, we completed the interview.

Let’s get started!


Back side of a tank aisle at CFI. Photo by the author.

The Cichlid Stage: For readers unfamiliar with species preservation, and conservation efforts in general, what would you want to tell them in 500 words or less?

Our aquatic ecosystems (and this includes worldwide systems!) are under constant threat. Overpopulation resulting in extensive development and agriculture all contribute to the decline in freshwater habitats. Climate change results in a warming of many of our streams, and rising sea levels contribute to saltwater intrusion into coastal freshwater habitats. Where CFI works, primarily in the southeastern U.S., habitat loss from poor agricultural and construction practices results in heavily silted streams. Impoundments, as well as coal and gas extraction, have impacted many of our larger waterways, resulting in extensive “big river” habitat loss.

People have to understand that we ALL depend on clean water! The loss of one little darter or madtom may not impact people’s lives, but these losses add up! And as more and more of these sensitive species disappear, we have to ask ourselves why? What’s wrong with this water? At some point, these issues WILL impact their lives. If for no other reason at all, nasty water costs far more to treat so it is drinkable by us! But, to me, these creatures all form part of the web of life. If they start disappearing, something is very wrong, and entire ecosystems can eventually crash.

TCS: What were your motivations to start CFI?

Honestly, it was being in the right place at the right time! Ever since childhood, I have been interested in “Nature”. I was lucky enough to have great parents that encouraged this interest. When my wife and I were undergraduates at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, we became interested in learning more about the fishes and mussels that were endemic to Lake Waccamaw in southeastern NC. It was here that we first began snorkeling as a survey for rare fishes.

After graduating from Wilmington, we took temporary jobs in Raleigh, NC. I worked as a technician on an ambitious project to publish a complete Atlas of North American Freshwater Fishes. It was there that I was introduced to essentially everyone working with freshwater fishes in North America. We learned of Dr. David Etnier and the work he was doing with fishes in Tennessee. That inspired us to move to Knoxville to pursue our master’s degrees at the University of Tennessee. It was here that we began working more with rare freshwater fishes. This work eventually led to my involvement with my fellow grad student, Patrick Rakes. Together, we began an organization that eventually led to the incorporation of Conservation Fisheries, Inc. in 1992.

TCS: The species CFI work with are mostly confined to darters with some madtoms, chubs, logperches and a few others. If you could, what are some other types of endangered fish you would like to work with and why?

We have worked with most of the different breeding guilds of darters….some scatter eggs in plants, some bury eggs in the substrate, some attach eggs under rocks, etc… Some darter larvae are benthic (fall right to the bottom and develop there) and some are pelagic and drift or school up in the water column. So different darters are mostly going to fall under some category we have already worked with. However, a number of these have very challenging larvae, and one or two species have proven to be nearly impossible to rear (so far!). There are many species of shiners where almost nothing is known about their reproductive life history. We have found that even with closely related species, the eggs and larvae, and even the spawning sites, can be very different from one another! We enjoy the challenge and more than that, knowing more about their life history can lead to more informed management decisions. It would be really cool to work with some of the Cavefishes! But this would require a special room and some fairly sophisticated equipment!

Ashy Darter (male). Photo from CFI.

TCS: Unlike most cichlids kept by hobbyists, the species you work with are all endangered to some degree and for a variety of reasons. What are your most challenging species to work with and why?

There are different challenges for different species. Some are so rare that obtaining breeders presents its own problems. Some are just plain difficult to collect in numbers needed to form a breeding group. One darter we are working with now falls under this category. Others are not that difficult to spawn, but have larvae that are VERY difficult to raise! We have a couple of those currently.

With another darter, we have never been able to get the larvae to feed on anything! And believe me, we have tried offering a very wide variety of foods. We’ve cultured everything from Rotifers, to various Cladocerans (Daphnia, etc) to a wide variety of aquatic and semi-aquatic worms…along with powders of all kinds. Nothing! Some species are just plain difficult to spawn (some of the Madtoms for instance). And some have eggs that are very prone to disease. So, as to your question of what is our most challenging fish….I’d have to say the Diamond Darter, Crystallaria cincotta, from the Elk River in West Virginia. This is one of the ones from above. We can spawn them, produce viable eggs, hatch them, but they never feed!

Diamond Darter (unsexed). Photo from CFI.

TCS: CFI’s fishroom is quite large. For someone wanting to set up their own fishroom, what are some of your top do’s and don’ts?

Well, our fish room is mostly utilitarian….not for display. So we tend to go with whatever works for us at the time. We would “kill” for floor drains! But retrofitting them into an existing room is not easy or cheap. Having easy access to water is, of course, a biggie! It isn’t too difficult to hard plumb-in water delivery to your tanks. In our hatchery, we are using city water. This is filtered through activated carbon and a couple of reverse osmosis (R/O) filters. The filtered water is collected in large containers (325 gal tanks in our case). At this point, we can make any chemical adjustments depending on needs of the species we are working with.

From these tanks (and we use large storage tanks from farm co-op suppliers), we have fitted water pumps that can deliver water anywhere in the building. Most of the systems are hard plumbed, with plumbing running along the ceiling. Alternatively, we have hoses that can reach any tanks not on the main plumbed system. We have steered clear of having all tanks/systems tied together. Most of our systems, in whatever configurations, are around 300 gallons. By not having them all connected, if we do encounter disease issues in one system, the others are not contaminated.

Our lighting is all hooked to an astronomic timer that mimics local day length. This is not a big issue for tropical, but at least having lighting on a timer is a good idea.

TCS: Like most long running fish operations, I’m sure you have acquired an affinity for certain equipment. Cichlid hobbyists are no different. What are some of the brands/manufacturers that you favor and why?

Over the years we have used many different brands of various equipment. Our favorites are those that work and ones we can afford! I will say that over the past couple years we have been replacing a lot of our pumps with a recently available Italian brand, Sicce. For years we used shaft drive “spa” pumps of various makes to run our systems. After having several of these fail from shafts corroding or impellers failing etc. we tried the Sicce. They are much smaller, but pack a powerful punch, are quiet, energy efficient and, so far, very dependable! Where we had to constantly tweak the flow into our tanks (our systems are typically three rows high, so the top row might be nearly 10 ft. off the ground) just to maintain flow to all of the tanks, this has not been an issue at all with the new pumps. They handle the head pressure better than any other pumps we have tried. And, I love their powerhead/wave makers! So many others we have used have eventually been thrown away because of “swelling” impeller magnets! This causes them to lock up and often makes replacement difficult to impossible. These little Sicces do not seem prone to that. And, for such a small pump, they move a ton of water!

Front side of a tank aisle at CFI. Photo by the author.

The only other piece of equipment that comes to mind are our air pumps. We use large capacity pumps that typically run several hundred outlets each. We love the Medo linear piston pumps. They are rather pricy, but we have never had one go out and several have been running nearly 15 years. All of the large diaphragm pumps have eventually needed diaphragms replaced and these are not cheap! Again, we are looking for reliability, and these linear piston pumps are very reliable!

TCS: Some of the more serious cichlidophiles employ egg tumblers in their breeding efforts. While you use a similar method for egg layers, I don’t believe you use conventional tumblers. Can you describe your method (i.e., how it works, how it’s different from a standard tumbler)?

We use “tumblers,” or McDonald Jars on only one species…the large Sicklefin Redhorses. Hatching methods for other species vary greatly and depends on the life history of the fish and resulting larvae. For eggs that are attached to something solid (tiles, slates or rocks), we typically remove the object the eggs are attached to and incubate the eggs in a plastic shoebox. These shoeboxes are nested in 20 gallon long tanks. The boxes have a cutout that is covered with a fine mesh. Water is sprayed into the box creating a flow-through system. The eggs/larvae have the advantage of water from the whole system while being concentrated in a relatively small area for feeding.


Custom “shoebox” breeding system. Photo by the author.


Juvenile Sicklefin Redhorses (unsexed). Photo from CFI.

Other species that bury eggs in the substrate are handled differently and it is a relatively involved description.

Smoky Madtom (unsexed). Photo from CFI.

TCS: I am a big proponent of Citizen Science – non-scientists aiding in the scientific research process. How, if at all, does CFI engage with the lay public in scientifically participatory ways (e.g., data collection or observation)?

Hobbyists are often very helpful in passing along observations made either in their aquaria or in the wild. Some of these can lead to breakthroughs in our work.

TCS: With respect to all of CFI’s accomplishments since it was founded, what are you most proud of and why?

Well, the very first project we undertook, restoring several endangered fishes to Abram Creek in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, has also been one of our most successful! Working in Abrams Creek and Citico Creek (the source population) has always been a treat! These are such nice streams. We have so few streams of this quality left in the Southeastern U.S. and nearly all of them are on public lands. We need to protect what we have left for future generations to enjoy!

2 thoughts on “J. R. Shute interview

    • Thank you, Ralph. J.R. gets all of the credit. He did the work and did a really nice job. Thanks for visiting the blog!

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