Ashley Watt stands in a streamAshley Watt stands in a stream with fast-flowing shallow riffles, a favoured mating site for redside dace. She has drawn on her graduate studies for a children’s book about the fish.

Fish story to inspire freshwater conservation

PhD student Ashley Watt (MSc 2019) turned her academic research into child’s play in her storybook, Rory the Redside Dace.

The independently published children’s book features lead character Rory, an endangered freshwater fish who must leave his home when it becomes too polluted with garbage.

The book’s theme stems directly from Watt’s doctoral thesis. For her research, she visited Ontario freshwater waterways and took video footage of redside dace mating in the wild.

“It is a story that is very true because when I was studying mating behaviours, I would walk these rivers and streams and I would see tons of garbage in the waterway,” she says. “I even saw them spawning in a nest built on a discarded office chair and a car tire.”

Watt studies under Trevor Pitcher, a professor of integrative biology and researcher with the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research. They are working on setting up a captive breeding program at UWindsor’s Freshwater Restoration Ecology Centre for eventual re-introduction of the species into Ontario’s waterways.

“My PhD is focused on their conservation and setting up a captive breeding program for the redside dace is a key component to their recovery in Ontario,” she says.

“We are bridging theory with application and that’s why I love it because there truly is a critical application component that will be useful and will actually help the species and that feels very rewarding.”

The freshwater ecologist says she was also inspired by her time interning with North American zoos.

“It was there that I learned that a big problem with trying to talk about conservation issues is that some species aren’t always the charismatic and beautiful species that people will love,” says Watt.

“The redside dace is becoming a poster child species for re-introduction in Ontario, and I thought maybe I could create a lovable character that could bridge the conversation about fish and re-introduction and why that’s important.”

Watt did write a happy ending with a little girl befriending Rory.

“She is taken with him and sets up a freshwater shoreline cleaning program to get the river back new,” says Watt. “I wanted to choose a female future scientist to encourage young women to take interest.”

The book will be available in 2023 at the Toronto Zoo, in November 2022 at Whiskeyjack Boutique in Windsor, or for purchase online. Half of all proceeds will be donated to freshwater conservation efforts.

“I wrote this book to get the information out there and be a motivator for people to learn about our ecosystems and hopefully together we can do something great for our own community,” Watt says.

“I want to thank the amazing community of people at UWindsor for all of their support with this book.”

—Sara Elliott