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For Immediate Release, July 25, 2013

Contact: Tierra Curry, (928) 522-3681

West Virginia Fish Protected Under Endangered Species Act

Protecting Diamond Darter Will Safeguard Water Quality of Elk River

CHARLESTON, W.V.— Spurred by a landmark agreement with the Center for Biological Diversity to speed protection decisions for 757 species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today protected the diamond darter as an endangered species. The diamond darter is a small fish that is so rare it was thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered in the Elk River in West Virginia in 1980. Fewer than 125 of the sparkly fish have been seen over the past 30 years.

Diamond darter
Photo courtesy Conservation Fisheries, Inc. This photo is available for media use.

“This decision will not only protect one of the most endangered fish in the world, but also water quality for people and for other species. The Elk River is one the most biologically diverse rivers in the country,” said Center biologist Tierra Curry. 

Once found in five states, the diamond darter today survives only in West Virginia’s Elk River; damming and water pollution have eliminated it from the majority of its range.

Water pollution, small population size, and population isolation are ongoing threats to the imperiled fish. The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has identified coal mining, oil and gas development, erosion, timber harvesting and poor wastewater treatment as threats to water quality in the Elk’s watershed.

“The Elk River supports more than 100 species of fish and 30 species of mussels. Protecting diamond darters will help ensure that this river is still a treasure for future generations of people, as well as freshwater animals,” said Curry.

The diamond darter became a candidate for Endangered Species Act protection in 2009. In 2011 the Center and the Fish and Wildlife Service reached a settlement to speed protections for all the species on the candidate waiting list as of 2010. The Center and a coalition of 16 other conservation groups submitted comments in support of the fish’s protection. More than 4,800 Center supporters submitted comments to the Service in favor of protecting the darter.

The West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association, West Virginia Coal Association, West Virginia Forestry Association and West Virginia Chamber of Commerce all submitted comments opposing the fish’s protection. The industry groups claim that the fish is threatened by inbreeding and not by water-quality degradation, stating that existing laws are adequate to safeguard water quality. In 2011 a law firm representing the National Mining Association made similar claims when a peer-reviewed scientific study revealed that pollution associated with mountaintop removal coal mining is linked to increased incidence of birth defects in humans. The firm alleged that the higher incidence of birth defects could be attributed to “consanguinity.”

The diamond darter once occurred in the Muskingum River in Ohio; the Ohio River in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana; the Green River in Kentucky; and the Cumberland River Drainage in Kentucky and Tennessee. It has not been seen in Ohio since 1899, in Kentucky since 1929, and in Tennessee since 1939. The Southeastern Fishes Council named the diamond darter as one of the “Desperate Dozen” — the 12 most imperiled fish in the southeastern United States.

Diamond darters feed on insects on the stream bottom by burying themselves in the sand and then darting out to ambush prey. They are dependent on clean water to survive because silt fills in the spaces between rocks that they need for egg laying and harms the insects on which they feed. They live from 2 to 7 years.

The Southeast is home to more kinds of freshwater animals than anywhere in the world, but the region has lost more than 50 freshwater animals to extinction. The Center is working to save more than 400 vanishing southeastern aquatic species.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 500,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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