Joe Cutler
An overhead shot of Joe Cutler rafts on the Ogooué River, near Miélé, Gabon Author: Megan Sixt

Joe Cutler

Freshwater Ecologist

guardian of gabon’s rivers

meet joe

Joe Cutler is a self-professed “fish geek,” a freshwater ecologist, ichthyologist, and conservation biologist who studies rivers and lakes in sub-Saharan Africa. He documents freshwater biodiversity, assesses ecosystem health, and supports conservation efforts. In 2020, he led the first major expedition on Gabon’s Ogooué River in 150 years, a 1,000-kilometer raft-borne transect, providing significant insight into biogeographical patterns within the watershed and critical baseline data on proposed hydropower dam sites before construction commenced. Cutler plans to survey another 25 major river systems in Zambia, leading scientists on boat-based source-to-sea research expeditions. These include the Zambian Kafue, Lungwebungu, and Zambezi Rivers.

guardian of gabon’s rivers
Nominated by: Joe Grabowski FI'18
Class of 2023 Location California, USA
Joe's paddling team Hans Stefan rommel raft at Mengen
Joe's paddling team Hans Stefan rommel raft at Mengen Author: Megan Sixt

As a child, I followed my grandfather and parents out to streams, lakes, and the rocky coast in central California to go fishing. In those days, our catch seemed endlessly abundant, but over the past 30 years I have watched fisheries decline, and species disappear. Globally, our oceans are overexploited, and there are too few healthy streams, wetlands, and lakes. Freshwater ecosystems cover less than 0.1 percent of Earth’s surface but are home to nearly 25 percent of all vertebrate biodiversity. Alarmingly, freshwater ecosystems are among the most endangered, and nearly 33 percent of all freshwater fish are threatened with extinction.

“I dream that future generations will play by creeks, catch a fish or two, and drink straight from a healthy river.”

- Joe Cutler
Joe collecting samples at Las Toursville
Joe collecting samples at Las Toursville Author: Megan Sixt

I have collected many undescribed fish, and there is nothing more exciting than pulling a net through the shallow waters of a new habitat. I am often among the first scientists to survey a stream or lake. In 2017, my team discovered Enteromius pinnimaculatus, a small minnow with a unique polka-dot dorsal fin found only in the Louetsi River in southern Gabon. Our research resulted in dam relocation, protecting this and other species from possible extinction. By combining my research with outreach, I have been able to impact policy in Cameroon and Gabon to promote protection of freshwater ecosystems. In Gabon, there is a newly launched effort to protect 30 percent of freshwater ecosystems by 2030, and the data I collected helps to determine where new protected areas will be located. In Cameroon, volcanic crater lakes are better protected due to my research and outreach both in the local community and internationally.

My hope is that by exploring, documenting, and describing the richness of freshwater biodiversity, I can give freshwaters a voice and inspire conservation of fishes and aquatic ecosystems both in sub-Saharan Africa and around the globe. I dream that future generations will play by creeks, catch a fish or two, and drink straight from a healthy river.

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