Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, September 9, 2015

Contact: Tierra Curry, (928) 522-3681,

Seven Freshwater Species From Nine Southeastern States Slated for
Decisions on Endangered Species Act Protection

WASHINGTON— The Center for Biological Diversity and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reached an agreement today on timelines for determining whether seven aquatic animals from the Southeast will be protected under the Endangered Species Act. The animals, six fish and a freshwater mussel, are at risk of extinction due primarily to water pollution and dams. The Center petitioned the agency to protect them in 2010. The animals are found in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.

Ashy darter
Ashy darter photo by Noel Burkhead, USGS. Photos are available for media use.

“We’re losing freshwater animals to extinction at 1,000 times the natural rate and that’s really scary when you consider that the health of humans is directly linked to the health of our rivers,” said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center. “Endangered Species Act protection will protect not only these special southeastern freshwater species, but also the healthy water quality that people need.”

According to today’s agreement, protection decisions for three of the species will be made in 2017. The other decisions will be made between 2018 and 2020.

Five of the species are found in Tennessee — the ashy darter, frecklebelly madtom, longhead darter, sickle darter and trispot darter. Virginia is home to the ashy darter, candy darter, sickle darter and yellow lance mussel. Alabama and Georgia are home to the frecklebelly madtom and trispot darter. Kentucky hosts the ashy darter and longhead darter. North Carolina is home to the sickle darter and yellow lance. Louisiana and Mississippi are home to one of the species, the frecklebelly madtom. Two of the species’ ranges include West Virginia, the candy and longhead darters.

“The abundance of colorful fish and mussels just under the surface of our rivers is just as cool as coral reefs, but people don’t really know about it or appreciate it,” said Curry, a Kentucky native. “Endangered Species Act protection with adequate recovery funding will help ensure that the Southeast’s fascinating freshwater animals are still around for generations to come.”

The Southeast is a global “hotspot” of both biodiversity and extinction. The region boasts more kinds of freshwater animals than anywhere else in the world, but has already seen more than 50 freshwater animals go extinct in recent years. The Center is working to save more than 400 southeastern freshwater species.

Species Backgrounds
The ashy darter was first identified as being in need of federal protection in 1994, and it has now lost more than half its range. It lives in the Cumberland, Tennessee and Duck river watersheds in Tennessee and Kentucky and is at high risk of extinction due to dams and pollution from agriculture and urbanization. It has already been lost from Alabama and Georgia. The fish was thought to have been extirpated in Virginia, but a population was recently rediscovered in the state. Its separate populations are genetically distinct from each other and can be distinguished by different color patterns. The ashy darter is an ancient fish and is considered to be a primitive member of its scientific genus. It is 5 inches long and eats mayflies and midges. A decision on the ashy darter’s protection is due by September 2018.

The candy darter, also known as the finescale saddled darter, was first identified as being in need of federal protection in 1982. It has a small range in the Kanawha and New rivers in Virginia and West Virginia. It is threatened by pollution, stocked trout and introduced darters. A population is found in the Monongahela National Forest. The candy darter is very brightly colored and is 3 inches long. The decision on the candy darter’s protection must be issued by September 2017.

The frecklebelly madtom is a small catfish that was first identified as needing federal protection in 1982. It lives in the Pearl River in Louisiana and Mississippi, the Tombigbee River in Mississippi and Alabama, the Cahaba and Alabama rivers in Alabama, the Etowah River in Georgia, and the Conasauga River in Georgia and Tennessee. It is threatened by dams, gravel mining, and pollution from logging, agriculture and development. The frecklebelly madtom will receive a decision on federal protection by September 2020.

The longhead darter was first identified as being in need of federal protection in 1982. It has been wiped out from much of its former range and is now very spottily distributed in the Ohio and Tennessee river watersheds in Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York. It is threatened by pollution from coal mining, agriculture, livestock and urbanization, as well as by population isolation caused by dams. The longhead darter is 5 inches long, with a slender body, dark stripes and a long, pointed head and snout. The Fish and Wildlife Service must issue a decision on whether to protect the longhead darter by September 2019.

The sickle darter is large by darter standards, growing to be 3.5 inches long, and it has larger scales than other darters and a prominent black stripe on its side. It is known to have been in need of protection since it was discovered as a species in 2007, but the Service has lacked the funding to conduct surveys and enact protection. It has a large mouth and long snout and feeds on small crayfish and mayflies. It historically occurred in the upper Tennessee River of Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina, including the French Broad, Emory, Holston and Clinch rivers. The species has been wiped out from streams where it was once found and is extirpated in North Carolina. The sickle darter is threatened by water pollution from agriculture, industry and sprawl. The Service must decide by September 2020 whether to protect the sickle darter.

The trispot darter is a beautiful, colorful fish that is about 1.5 inches long. It was first identified as needing federal protection in 1982.  It eats midge fly larvae and is, in turn, eaten by black bass and other large fish prized by anglers. It is found in the Coosa River watershed in northern Alabama, northern Georgia and southeastern Tennessee, and in the Conasauga River watershed above the confluence with the Coosawattee River in Georgia and Tennessee. It was thought to be extinct in Alabama for more than 50 years until it was found in Little Canoe Creek in 2008. It is threatened by sprawl because stormwater runoff from urbanization degrades the high water quality it needs to survive. It is also threatened by runoff from logging roads and by dams and drought. The trispot darter will receive an up or down decision on federal protection by September 2017.

The yellow lance is a freshwater mussel that grows to be around 6 inches long, with a shell that is more than twice as long as it is tall. It was first identified as being in need of federal protection in 1991. Juveniles have bright-yellow shells that darken to brown or black with age. The inside of the shell is salmon, white or iridescent blue. The yellow lance is native to the coastal plain of Virginia and North Carolina. The mussel is sensitive to bad water quality and has been wiped out from more than half of its range, with remaining populations teetering on the brink of extinction. It is threatened by pollution from agriculture, logging and municipal development and by dams. Mussels are also threatened by any factors that threaten the host fish that they depend on to be able to reproduce. Mussels are indicators of water quality because they filter water constantly to breathe and feed, but in doing so, they accumulate pollutants in their flesh. The decision on protection for the yellow lance is due by March 2017.

Also included in today’s settlement are binding deadlines for decisions on the Mohave shoulderband snail from California, which is threatened by an open-pit gold mine; the black-capped petrel from the Atlantic Coast, which is threatened by offshore oil drilling; and the western glacier stonefly, threatened due to the disappearance of glaciers from Glacier National Park.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 900,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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