First Fish Headed off Endangered Species List

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.

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

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

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.

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