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Courthouse News Service, July 31, 2013

'Desperate' Fish Gets Protection
By Ramona Young-Grindle

WASHINGTON (CN) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has finalized the listing of the diamond darter, one of the most imperiled fish in the southeastern U.S., as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, according to a new regulation.

Already listed by the Southeastern Fishes Council as one of the southeast's 12 most imperiled fishes, or "desperate dozen," the 3 inch long diamond darter is now found in only one segment of the lower Elk River in West Virginia.

"Despite...extensive and targeted survey efforts within the species' known range and preferred habitat in the Elk River, fewer than 50 individuals have been collected over the last 30 years," the 2012 listing proposal said. The historic range of these tiny perch family members included 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.

The species was "rediscovered" in the Elk River in 1980 during a survey, when one individual was collected. It was believed to be "extirpated," or extinct throughout its range before the rediscovery, the proposed rule said.

The USFWS's action to protect the fish was "spurred by a landmark agreement with the Center for Biological Diversity to speed protection decisions for 757 species," according to the CBD's press release in response to the final rule.

"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," while "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 CBD said.

The darter lacks a swim bladder, which helps it remain near the bottom of its warm freshwater river and stream habitats. Researchers believe the fish bury themselves under the sand then dart out at prey. Embryos develop in the tiny spaces within the coarse sand or gravel bottom. Darters are found in riffles and pools where swift currents sweep the stream beds clean and keep them free from siltation.

The darters' small population size and limited range add to threats such as siltation, sedimentation and pollution from coal mining, oil and gas development, timber harvesting, all-terrain vehicle use, sewage treatment, damming, and erosion. In addition, the species faces potential threats from climate change, global warming and invasive species such as Japanese knotweed and Didymosphenia geminate, an alga known as "rock snot," which grows in suffocating mats that can be eight inches thick covering the entire stream bed for over a half mile, according to the final rule.

"Darters play an important role in waterway systems as indicators of good water quality and diversity. The presence of a healthy darter population indicates that a river is healthy and would sustain other populations of fish, such as musky or bass," the USFWS noted in its statement.

The USFWS is preparing a recovery plan for the fish, and will finalize the proposed 123 river miles of critical habitat designation in a separate rule, the agency says. The darter's protected endangered status is effective Aug. 26. 

This article originally appeared here.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton