Alabama is blessed with a natural diversity of freshwater fish, with more than 300 species of native freshwater fish living in state waters. Fourteen species of fish are only known to have lived within the borders of the State of Alabama. Some of the fish found in Alabama are so rare that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) classifies them as threatened or endangered; other fish have specialized habitats that require federal or state protection. Five species of fish have recently been the subject of special studies by the Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries. The studied fish are the watercress darter, Alabama sturgeon, spring pygmy sunfish, pygmy sculpin, and slackwater darter.
Federally listed as endangered, the watercress darter was first known only at one limestone spring in Jefferson County’s portion of the Black Warrior drainage. At one time, the range of the watercress darter probably extended into adjacent Black Warrior tributaries, but urban growth, water-use conflicts, industrial development, highway construction and water pollution likely have adversely impacted their population. Researchers have transplanted watercress darters to additional areas with some success. Watercress darters are now restricted to four small, cool-water springs with dense growths of aquatic vegetation that provide shelter from predators. Each separate habitat is less than a quarter acre. These areas are susceptible to alteration such as drought, vegetation removal, water removal, chemical spills, and siltation. Monitoring indicates that watercress darter populations have disappeared from two transplant sites and are declining at two sites, but they are doing well at two other sites.
Alabama sturgeon were once found in the Cahaba, Alabama, Black Warrior, and Tombigbee river systems. Construction of multi-purpose dams has reduced the historical range of this species by approximately 85 percent. The federal register currently lists the Alabama sturgeon as a "poorly known species;" however, the USFWS has proposed "endangered" status for this rare sturgeon. Several years ago the Alabama Sturgeon Conservation Plan was implemented with the support of private organizations and various state and federal agencies. The Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries has taken the lead role in this recovery effort which includes the collecting, holding and spawning of adult sturgeon to produce young that can be stocked in areas of the state where they were historically found. Intense efforts of Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries personnel have led to the capture of four Alabama sturgeon in the past three years.
The spring pygmy sunfish was known from only heavily vegetated springs and spring pools within the Beaverdam Creek and Pryor Creek watersheds in Limestone County and Cave Spring Creek in Lauderdale County. When the Tennessee River was impounded, this species was feared extinct. Investigators recaptured it in 1973 during routine sampling of Beaverdam Creek. Spring pygmy sunfish require habitat with clear, cool spring water with little or no current. Heavily vegetated static spring pools are the most preferred habitat. Because this species is abundant where found, it is only afforded state protection.
The pygmy sculpin is another rare species only found in Alabama. This fish has federal protection as a threatened species because its habitat is limited only to spring runs and pools of Coldwater Spring in Calhoun County. The City of Anniston uses water from Coldwater Spring, thereby providing a measure of protection for the threatened sculpin through a cooperative agreement between the Anniston Water Works Department and the USFWS. The agreement prohibits any action that would be detrimental to the pygmy sculpin. Recent sampling by Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries personnel indicated pygmy sculpin populations are stable and even flourishing. Groundwater contamination from Anniston Army Depot and proposed highway construction projects present the greatest threats to this species. The Forever Wild program recently provided funding for the acquisition of the groundwater recharge area for this spring.
The slackwater darter is currently classified as threatened by the USFWS. Distribution is limited to the western portion of the Tennessee River drainage system in northern Alabama and western Tennessee. The slackwater darter prefers slow-moving sections of small- to medium-size creeks, particularly in areas where leaf litter and other organic debris accumulate. This darter is usually found in eddy or slow-moving sections of small creeks or streams, but it spawns in spring seepage areas. The Cypress Creek population in Lauderdale County is the most successful and widespread. Habitat for the slackwater darter is limited. Threats that adversely affect and decrease slackwater darter habitat include urban development, groundwater conflicts, small impoundment construction, road building and beaver dam proliferation. Scientists at the Geological Survey of Alabama monitored slackwater darter populations in northern Alabama to document population status and possible environmental threats to this species.
Alabama’s threatened and endangered fish require special protection to preserve their limited populations and fragile habitats. Without such protection these unique fish could face extinction and disappear from our planet forever.