Sustained Outrage

Good news, bad news for imperiled fish species

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Although darters in general make up 20 percent of freshwater fish species in North America, candy darters are found only in a portion of West Virginia and Virginia. Measuring 2-3 inches in length, this colorful fish prefers shallow, fast flowing stream reaches with rocky bottoms. Photo T. Travis Brown via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The announcement yesterday from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Administration sounded like good news at first:

Visit the fast-flowing streams of Virginia and West Virginia’s upper Kanawha River Basin, and you might be lucky enough to witness flashes of teal, red and orange from the minnow-like candy darter. But with the latest data indicating a declining trend for the species, this vibrant freshwater fish could soon be protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Following a review of the best available scientific information, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to list the candy darter as threatened under the ESA. Nearly half of the 35 candy darter populations known when the species was first described in 1932 have now disappeared.

Paul Phifer, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regional director, said:

The candy darter has been called one of our country’s most vivid freshwater fish, and all signs suggest its future is threatened. Federal, state, and university partners are already at work to conserve the species, and we look forward to collaborating with industry and local partners to explore additional conservation opportunities.

But then came the rest of the story, from the Center for Biological Diversity:

In response to a legal victory by the Center for Biological Diversity, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today proposed protecting two colorful Southeast fish under the Endangered Species Act, but denied protection for two other fish.

The trispot darter in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee and the candy darter in Virginia and West Virginia will gain final protection one year from today’s proposal. The Service simultaneously denied protection for the holiday darter and the bridled darter, despite status reviews indicating they’re in poor condition.

Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center, said:

The Trump administration is such an enemy to the environment that we’re surprised and elated to see even two of these imperiled fish move closer to protection. The decision not to propose protection for the holiday darter and the bridled darter sure smells fishy, though, so we’ll carefully review the best available science and consider challenging those determinations in court.

There are six surviving populations of the bridled darter, all in poor condition. Of the seven surviving populations of holiday darter, six are ranked as being in poor condition.

Regarding the two species for which protections were denied, the Center explained:

The bridled darter is a small fish discovered in 2007, found only in northern Georgia and southeastern Tennessee in the Conasauga and Etowah river watersheds. It is a slender, 3-inch fish with overlapping dark, circular blotches on its sides that form undulating stripes. The darter is very sensitive to water pollution and is threatened by runoff from development, logging and agriculture.

Holiday darters are 2 inches long and are found in the Coosa River watershed in Alabama and in the upper Conasauga, upper Coosawattee and upper Etowah watersheds in Georgia and southeastern Tennessee. The tiny fish are threatened by sprawl, dams, natural gas extraction and runoff from logging. Males turn bright red, blue and green during the breeding season. Populations of the holiday darter in different areas may actually be different species, and scientists are studying the different populations and writing new species descriptions.

In 2010, the Center petitioned for protections for all four fish, as well as for hundreds of other imperiled Southeast freshwater species. The group noted:

The rivers of the southeastern United States are a global hotspot of biodiversity that supports more kinds of freshwater mussels, crayfish and fish than any other region. Freshwater species are being lost to extinction at 1,000 times the natural rate. More than 50 species have already been wiped out from the Southeast’s waterways.

Under the Fish and Wildlife Service’s work plan, and in accordance with legal victories by the Center, the Service is slated to issue decisions on Endangered Species Act protection for 53 more species this fiscal year, meaning the findings should have been sent to the federal register last week and come out in the next week.

And in fact, this morning’s Federal Register filings for public inspection include an announcement in which the administration denies protections to 25 other species.