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The Freshwater Fishes of British Columbia

By J. D. McPhail

Review By Tony Pitcher

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 158 Summer 2008  | p. 115-6

have good reason to be eternally grateful to the author of this book on BC’s freshwater fishes. Many years ago in my first university post, when desperately seeking interesting material with which to enliven the teaching of the first ecology classes ever in what was then Britain’s newest university (built in the middle of rather bleak, flat, and uninspiring Irish bog), I came across some exciting papers on three-spined sticklebacks in the Pacific Northwest by Don McPhail. Our inspiring, peaky mountains proved to be pivotal to the issue. It was elegant ecological science, beautifully written up, and it truly grabbed my attention and that of my neophyte ecology students. So the ecology teaching went well and helped ensure my academic tenure! Thirty-five years later, this latest work by the same scientist, written in retirement from his academic position at UBC, proves equally appealing and valuable. 

The inland waters of BC host eighty-five fish species in seventeen families. Don McPhail makes clear what is known and what is not known about each and every one of these species – many readers will find it surprising how little has been established for sure about many of these freshwater fishes. Each species is described in sections covering Distinguishing Characters, Sexual Dimorphism, Hybrids, Taxonomy, Distribution (in and beyond BC), Life History, Reproduction, Growth, Maturity, Diet, Habitats (both adults and juveniles), and Conservation Comments. McPhail’s book brings together all this information for the first time, but it is far more than a useful compendium. 

At the core of the book’s utility are the identification keys, illustrated with many diagrams. Identification is an important first step in the conservation of biodiversity – many in the general public scarcely realize how critical this step is and how difficult it can be without expert guides such as this one. With this careful work, Don McPhail has left a really powerful legacy for future fish ecologists in BC.

But this book is way, way more than an identification guide. In particular, the sections on conservation include material vital to present management and the establishment of rational, science-based strategies for conservation. There is information on DNA, extirpated populations, range fragmentation by dams, urbanization, transportation corridors, recreation, and COSEWIC status. Moreover, the text in each case explains reasons behind all this. We find important details and references to past stocking programs (clandestine and otherwise), and assessments of the current status of both endemic and introduced fish. The book also includes fossils, fascinating examples of neoteny, and more. For example, I enjoyed the delightful account of the “murky taxonomy” behind the aptly named Cottus confusus (shorthead sculpin, or is that the baffled sculpin?). At the end of the book, a glossary defines a very complete set of fish biology terms (“plicate” and “nubbles” were new to me!), and names (such as that Fish Biology 101 trick question on the difference between salmonids and salmonines). Sixty-five pages of references ensure that the sources for all this information are fully explicit.

I see on my desk a fat book of over six hundred pages that is very well produced, with many maps and line drawings, while the remarkably few typos testify to effective proofreading. There are nonetheless one or two oddities of production. For example, the book has seventy-one pages of introductory material numbered in the roman numerals that signal what publishers call “front matter” and that readers are wont to skip (page 1, the start of the taxonomic section, is about half an inch into the book!). But please don’t skip the front matter in this book, as from page 37 (er, that’s xxxvii), readers will find a first-rate and informative essay on the origins of BC’s freshwater fish fauna. There is also a plangent foreword by Joe Nelson (Alberta) that outlines Don McPhail’s significant research contributions to knowledge of the ecology of related sympatric morphs of fish species such as sticklebacks and pikeminnows. However, pages from the six sponsors of the book are less inspiring: their valuable contributions to the costs of production might have been equally well appreciated had their logos sufficed to alert us to their philanthropy.

In conclusion, not only should Don McPhail’s book be placed on all reference shelves in Canada, but also many workers in the field will find it completely invaluable. An even larger audience will benefit from the thoughtful and informative discussion of conservation issues therein. It’s a bargain at ninety dollars. I thoroughly recommend it!