Nearly half of the known species of vertebrates are fish, which, as such, represent an exceptional heritage of biological diversity. They are excellent bioindicators of the aquatic environment’s good health in terms of both water quality (pollution) and physical habitat (problem of the impact of dams on the ecology of migratory species), as well as the fact that fish are a very important natural renewable resource exploited by fishing and pisciculture-aquaculture. Finally, they present a number of advantages to fundamental research as biological models because they can be relatively easily maintained in experimental breeding conditions, the possibilities offered by in vitro reproduction, and the fact that certain species have particular features in terms of their reproduction genetics (polyploidization, gynogenesis, hybridization).

Even though research at the University of Liège on fish and the aquatic environment date from the middle of the 19th century, creating the public Aquarium (under the initiative of Director of Education, M. Dubuisson) at the beginning of the 1960s followed by establishing the STARESO Marine Research Station (Corsica) served to launch fundamental and applied research in many domains belonging to ichthyology and marine biology. Very quickly, fish studies developed and centers of interest multiplied, involving disciplines as varied as eco-ethology, morphology, biochemistry, physiology, embryology, as well as eco-toxicology. The enthusiasm for the fish model grew in the 1970s, resulting in the creation of two departments that made it their main research topic. Functional morphology, systematics, and phylogenesis were at the center of the research activities of the team directed by Prof. M. Chardon and then Prof. P. Vandewalle and Prof. E. Parmentier (bioacoustics laboratory). Behavioral biology was studied in the department headed by Prof. J.C. Ruwet (followed by Prof. P. Poncin), where several laboratories were created, developing research on the following topics:

  • the Tilapias, for which the Tihange aquaculture research station was created in the 1980s (J.C. Philippart and C. Mélard);
  • river fish, the domain of the Fish Demography and Hydrobiology Laboratory (J.C. Philippart, P. Poncin, followed by M. Ovidio);
  • ethology of sea fish, in Calvi, Corsica (J. Voss followed by C. Michel);
  • ethology of aquarium fish and amphibians (P. Poncin and M. Denoël).

During the 1980s and 1990s, research and application actions in Europe as well as in developing countries continued to multiply. Most notably, they led to the creation of an Aquaculture Research and Training Center in 1998 (President Prof. F. Coignoul, Director C. Mélard), which took advantage of the scientific and technological results of the past as well as the Tihange aquaculture station’s infrastructures to provide specialist instruction. Because Tihange must leave CEFRA at the latest early in 2014, a project aiming to create a new, larger comprehensive experimental platform including the needs of other laboratories is currently under study.
(For more information on the history of fish research at ULg, see: J.C. Ruwet, 1990. Le Musée de Zoologie et l’Aquarium de Liège : trente ans d’une triple mission, recherche, enseignement et vulgarisation, 1960-1990. Cahiers d’Ethologie appliquée, 10 (3-4), 253-400).

Attracted by the scientifically and economically advantageous “fish model,” several other teams have more recently oriented their research to this zoological group. Consequently, the research on genetics and embryogenesis has developed within the Molecular Biology and Genetic Engineering Laboratory (Prof. Martial, Dr. M. Muller, Dr. B. Peers, Dr. M. Voz) with the logistical support of the Giga-Zebrafish facility and transgenics (Dr. M. Winandy). In the field of veterinary virology, immunology, and vaccinology, fish are used as a model which has produced highly original discoveries valuable in both fundamental and applied domains (Prof. A. Vanderplaaschen). Others have contributed innovative technological tools, applicable to the comprehension of fish school behavior (Prof. N. Vandewalle) or taking an interest in the physical environment, whether or not it has been disturbed, in which wild populations evolve (Prof. F. Petit). Different toxicological studies involving selachians and teleosteans have been developed and are on-going at the Oceanology Laboratory (Prof. J.M. Bouquegneau; Dr. K. Das, Dr. S. Gobert, etc.). Finally, the study of artisan fishing in the Mediterranean, its impact on fauna, fishing efficiency, fishery assessments, and the effect of protective measures (nature reserves) are the preferred research topics based at STARESO (Dr. P. Lejeune).

In an attempt to increasingly federate their expertise around the internationally recognized Tihange research and educational station (that will be relocating early in 2014) and one of the most representative showcases – the Zoology Institute’s Aquarium-Museum – the above-cited laboratories* have joined in a single official operational structure. Within this perspective, in its December 2012 session, the University of Liège’s board of governors ratified the creation of a fundamental and applied research thematic entity on fish. In addition to providing a multiplying effect on research, this center will reap benefits of increased visibility and dissemination of the scientific production of the laboratories associated around the same model (currently, the teams total 300 publications over the past 5 years, including more than 150 on fish, one spin-off, and five “fish” patents), which, in a context of international evaluation, can only reinforce the image of our institution in one of its activity domains that have enjoyed such federation.

The research teams comprising the entity participate in close relations notably with the ichthyology section of the Central African Royal Museum (Musée royal d’Afrique centrale) (Dr. Jos Snoeks), the Vertebrate Evolutionary Morphology Laboratory at the University of Ghent (Prof. D. Adriaens), FUNDP’s  Biology of Organisms Research Unit (Prof. P. Kestemont), the UCL’s Genetics Unit (Prof. P. Baret), and the Study of the Natural and Agricultural Environment Department of Wallonia’s public service.