Tiny fish nets spot on state's protected species list
Rush darter is found in only two places
By LUKE CONNELL
A small fish that calls Turkey Creek in Pinson home has been added to the state's protected species list.
The rush darter, whose scientific name is Etheostoma phytophilum, can be found in only two places in the world, both of which are in Alabama. The fish, which usually grows to 2 or 3 inches in length, are found in an unnamed spring run of the Turkey Creek drainage off Alabama 79 in Pinson.
The second population can be found in the Wildcat Branch of the Clear Creek drainage in Winston County.
"It's an extremely rare fish," said Nick Nichols, assistant chief of fisheries with the Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
Alabama has more than 300 species of native freshwater fish, and some of those can be found only in this state.
The rush darter is the 24th fish to be added to the state's protected list, according to the conservation department's Web site, www.outdooralabama.com. Twelve of those fish species are darters.
Addition to the list means that people are prohibited from taking, capturing, killing or attempting to take the rush darter. A majority of the fish are located on privately owned land, and state protection does not prevent someone from changing the fish's habitat, Nichols said.
If the fish were listed on the federal endangered species list, someone wanting to change the fish's habitat — by building a dam, for example — would be required to meet the requirements of federal agencies such as the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, Nichols said. A spot on the federal list, therefore, offers greater protection.
Nichols said the rush darter is a candidate for federal protection.
"It's not listed federally, but it's only a matter of time," he said.
Bernie Kuhajda, collections manager of the fish collection at the University of Alabama, has captured samples of rush darters for study.
The species is so rare that scientists didn't even realize that it was a distinct species until 1999, Kuhajda said. Previously, scientists believed the fish were a northern variety of the goldstripe darter, found in waters south of Tuscaloosa.
"It's really just a nondescript little fish that a lot of people would overlook, including ichthyologists," Kuhajda said. An ichthyologist studies fish.
"It's found in so few places, and you find them in few numbers," he said.
Kuhajda said there is no good estimate on the number of rush darters because they are so hard to find and so few studies have been done on the species. For example, even when a scientist — who knows where to look for the fish — tries to find one, he may come up empty-handed on many trips. There are fewer than 100 collected samples of the fish, he said.
The rush darter lives in the reeds and rushes on the edges of small freshwater streams. It needs clear, cool water to survive.
The fish is sort of brownish, yellow in color and likely has a lifespan of about two to three years, Kuhajda said. Scientists, he said, don't really know that much about the species because of its rarity and relative youth as a classified species, although some scientists are seeking grant money to study the dart further.
"Even though it's small and most people couldn't pick it out of a fish lineup," Kuhajda said, "It is important. If the ecosystem is a brick house, then the rush darter is a tiny brick."
"If a couple of species go extinct, it's like taking a couple of bricks out of that foundation," Kuhajda said. "Eventually, if you pull enough bricks, that building's going to collapse."
Because the rush darter has a specific and limited habitat, it is very susceptible to changes in the environment, Kuhajda said.
The rush darter is considered a candidate species by the US fish and Wildlife Service.
The Southeast Aquatic Resources Partnership is using $34,000 and partnering with $35,714 in US Fish and Wildlife Service funds to restore 20 upland acres and one riparian mile in Winston County with erosion control to benefit the rush darter in the Doe/Mill/Wildcat Branch Watersheds.
Note: In Alabama, it is illegal to stock or move any fish, mussel, snail or crayfish to any public water without a permit.
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