Now that it’s (finally) starting to feel like spring, it’s time to dig out the old fishing pole. While you’re on the water, take a minute to think about the fish that aren’t doing as well as the trout chasing your lure.
Centuries of industry have really done a number on our rivers, in turn hurting the fish that were once thriving. Explorers of old would write about discovering waterways teeming with fish. These days, many fish species are suffering as culverts and dams impede their passage through America’s rivers.
In the Northeast, we have 10 species of fish protected by the Endangered Species Act, such as the endangered Atlantic salmon, Atlantic sturgeon and short-nosed sturgeon, which still face problems like overharvest and bycatch — when one catches the wrong fish.
The Atlantic sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrinchus oxyrinchus) is a long-lived, estuarine dependent, anadromous fish that can grow to 14 feet long and weigh up to 800 pounds. Similar in appearance to shortnose sturgeon, they are bluish-black or olive brown with white bellies and rows of scutes (horny plates). Overharvest historically led to widespread declines in their abundance, but current threats include bycatch of sturgeon in fisheries targeting other species, habitat degradation and loss from human activities, inability to access habitat from locks and dams, and ship strikes. In the Gulf of Maine, this fish is protected as threatened. via: USFWS
The slender chub (Erimystax cahni) has one of the smallest ranges among North American riverine fishes. This exceedingly rare species inhabits the clear, warm, moderate to fast flowing shallow water of the Clinch and Powell rivers in Tennessee and Virginia. A primary reason for the decline of the slender chub is its affinity for fine-gravel shoals, many which have been degraded or destroyed by waterway impoundments, pollution, and excessive sedimentation (including coal fines). via USFWS
The spotfin chub (Erimonax monachus) is found only in the Tennessee River drainage system in Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina. Adults are green on top with a silver underbelly. Spotfin chub inhabit clear and warm medium to large streams with swift currents, feeding primarily on immature aquatic insects. Threats include sedimentation (including coal fines), pollution, chemical dumping and releases of cold water from reservoirs. via Ken Taylor / CWRC
In Virginia, the blackside dace (Phoxinus cumberlandensis, also known as Chrosomus cumberlandensis) is known to occur only in tributaries of the North Fork Powell River in Lee County. Attaining brilliant black, red, and gold spawning coloration in the late spring and early summer, blackside dace reach up to three inches in length and have a three-year life span. Found in small upland streams with moderate flow and large rocks, threats include logging, water withdrawals, pollution and agricultural runoff. via USFWS
Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar), once the royalty of Maine sport fish, are now an endangered species and represent the last wild populations in the U.S. Their numbers declined because dams and culverts block access to their spawning areas and their ocean survival has been greatly reduced for unknown reasons. Other threats include predation and competition from non-native fish, degraded water quality, and pollution. They still occur in small numbers in most of the state’s major river systems. The Service works with many groups to replace culverts and improve fish ladders to give salmon access to spawning areas. The Penobscot Restoration Trust is removing dams on the Penobscot River to restore passage for salmon and other anadromous fish. via USFWS
The Roanoke logperch (Percina rex) is a small fish growing to 5 inches in length that feeds on invertebrates by flipping stones on the stream bottom with its snout. It occurs in 13 populations in widely separated segments of the upper Roanoke, Pigg, Nottoway and Upper Dan rivers. The logperch has strongly patterned fins, a prominent bar below the eye and 8 to 11 vertical bands on its sides. Massive loss of Roanoke logperch habitat has occurred due to construction of the large impoundments of the Roanoke River Basin in the 1950s and 1960s, which resulted in major disruptions in the ability of this species to move throughout its historic range. Biologists are working to protect its habitat by reducing upland runoff into rivers. via USFWS
The yellowfin madtom (Noturus flavipinnis) is a small catfish native to parts of the Upper Tennessee River Basin in Tennessee and Virginia. In Virginia, it occurs in the mainstem Powell River, the Clinch River and one of its major tributaries, Copper Creek. The yellowfin madtom is found in medium to large streams in gently flowing pools, hiding under leaf litter, rocks and stones during the day. Major threats to this species are impoundments, chemical spills, mining, and pollution. via USFWS
Fortunately, we just announced the first fish saved by the ESA in the nation. Today, we’re going cross-country to talk about a little fish that could: the Oregon chub. This fish, native to the Willamette River in Oregon, is heading for delisting, turning the tide on endangerment.
Since it was first protected under the Endangered Species Act in 1993, it has seen a tremendous and inspiring recovery. Way back then (even before the internet), there were only eight populations of these little guys. Now there are over 50.
Here are two Oregon chubs hanging out, being friends. via USFWS Pacific
Sure, you say, any species that’s recovering so well in such a short time is great, but why the cause for celebration? Well, imaginary critic, I’m getting to that. This is historic news. The Oregon chub’s delisting would make it the first fish removed from the Endangered Species Act. And with no small degree of luck and perseverance, the first of many.
This fish’s meteoric recovery was precipitated by collaborations between our agency, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Army Corps of Engineers and private landowners, who managed habitats on their lands, and in some cases, created habitat to support introductions on their property. Ponds were constructed along the minnow’s historic range — these simulate the Oregon chub’s preferred habitat of heavy-vegetation bogs and sloughs for the fish to hide and spawn in. Chub were introduced into new locations within their range, and biologists discovered new, undocumented populations.
From a net (ha!) population of fewer than 1,000 in 1993, the number of these minnows has surged to more than 150,000 today, biologists estimate.
Contributing to their initial decline was the construction of dams that dried up the many bogs and sloughs where they made their home. The introduction of non-native game fish like bass also decimated the Oregon chub’s numbers. With nowhere to hide from these new predators, their numbers dried up like their former pond homes.
Fish friendly culverts like this newly-constructed one at Little Sucker Brook can help restore endangered fish populations! via USFWS
But things are looking up for this tiny fish — and others like it. With the recovery of the Oregon chub and the improvement of its river basin, we can expect to see populations of other fish and species in its ecosystem to improve. This sort of success is inspiring — it’s why we do what we do.
There’s still hope for our Atlantic and short-nosed sturgeon and Atlantic salmon, as long we continue to restore the waterways vital to the character of the Northeast.