See the Tidewater Goby: The Little Fish That Could

Our Santa Monica Pier Aquarium this month has unveiled a very special exhibit:  the endangered tidewater goby. We are only one of two aquaria where the public can see this special local species. Aquarium Operations Manager Jose Bacallao writes about his relationship with this unique little fish — and a friend dedicating his life’s work to its survival. 

About 10 years ago a young man applied for an  aquarist internship position at the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium. This guy spent his teenage years playing baseball and racing, wrecking cars and trucks. He had recently enrolled in a local college, knowing that he wanted to work in the ocean, within the ecology of our Bay, but unsure where to start.

He started working for me at the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium feeding animals, cleaning tanks and learning about local sea life. I took him on and quickly learned that this kid was great – really hard working, funny and hungry, really hungry, for knowledge.

He quickly became a special part of our Aquarium family so we hired him to help with our programs and made him part of the staff. Before long he was off to San Diego to finish his bachelor degree and then he started working as professional aquarist at the Birch Aquarium. From there he went on to work and receive his graduate degree from Cal State Northridge and today he has begun working on his doctorate at UCLA.

This story was supposed to be about the tidewater goby – and it is, but it’s more because the story of the new tidewater goby exhibit is tied to Brenton Spies. Brenton is very lucky to be one of the few people on this planet to work with the tidewater goby. I am very proud of this man and the work he is doing. Long gone are the days of wrecking racecars. Now he spends his time mucking through the marshes and lagoons of California, studying and protecting the tidewater goby.

The tidewater goby, Eucyclogobius newberryi, is a federally endangered species. It is a tiny bottom-dwelling fish that lives in marshes and lagoons, in the creeks and estuaries of California.  It feeds mainly on super tiny animals, like mysid shrimp, amphipods and aquatic insect larvae — baby bugs. This goby is an important source of food to many shore birds, the southern steelhead and the ever important California halibut. It is an important player in the complex food web of our estuaries and it is endangered. They are pretty cute, measuring about two inches long. But they are pretty tough.

Tidewater gobies have been found in extreme water salinities ranging from 0-42 ppt. They can also deal with huge temperature changes from the “burrrr…. I’m turning blue” 46F to the “meet me at the poolside lounge” of 87F. They even survive in natural pools with super low oxygen levels! Yet, as mighty as these tiny fish are, they cannot survive the intense pressures and impacts of the human species. The tidewater goby has been severely impacted as a result of coastal development, the degradation of its habitat and the alteration of naturally occurring water flows. 

As for Brenton Spies, I am thrilled to be working with him again. With the support of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium has the pleasure of exhibiting the tidewater goby. I hope that over the next few years this partnership will flourish, and that the work of Brenton and Heal the Bay will support public education about this special little fish and increased restoration for its habitats. I invite you to all come visit and be sure to see the gobies in the Dorothy Green Room.