NANFA-- boulder darter press release

Christopher Scharpf (
Tue, 20 Nov 2001 22:16:51 -0400

November 13, 2001 Ken Burton


The tiny boulder darter, a shy, 3-inch long perch-like fish, was once
plentiful along most of the 200 miles of Tennessee's Elk River. But by
1988, dams, agricultural runoff, erosion and silt deposits moved the fish to
the list of endangered species. Today, thanks to a lot of friends, the
little fish is making its first hesitant steps on the road to recovery.

"This represents a new approach for working in watersheds with partners, to
concentrate on the bigger picture, rather than individual species," said
Andrew Currie of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "A few years ago, what
we've done for the boulder darter would have been viewed as too
'out-of-the-box' or non-traditional," said Currie, who manages a national
fish hatchery complex that includes Wolf Creek near Jamestown, Kentucky, and
Dale Hollow near Celina, Tennessee.

Currie's hatcheries are just part of the mix that includes field offices
that manage, among other things, the Endangered Species Act; four National
Wildlife Refuges; a private corporation, Conservation Fisheries, Inc.; the
Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and a state chapter of The Nature

The boulder darter's biggest problem was the disappearance of flat rocks,
which provided two essentials for the fish: a place for their food to grow,
and the essential hiding places they favor, both for cover and for spawning.
Years of fluctuating tailwater releases from dams and agricultural runoff
left much of the river's banks eroded and the bottom heavily silted. As the
darter's historic habitat began to disappear, the darter itself started down
the same path.

The answer, Currie said, was to try to put some flat rocks back in the
river. The first try employed concrete blocks, but they didn't work. A
second try involved placing flat limestone rocks in the river -- a
physically demanding and labor-intensive effort -- and it worked.

"This is not only turning into a very effective effort for the boulder
darter," Currie said, "but this is something that can eventually benefit
sport fish. Crayfish like to get under those same rocks, and that's a meal
for sport fish. Freshwater mussels will benefit. We've got multiple

When Pat Rakes and JR Shute were graduate students at the University of
Tennessee, (UT) they did a lot of work with imperiled fish. They took their
interest and expertise with them when left UT and eventually founded
Conservation Fisheries, Inc., (CFI) one of the few private non-profit
corporations in the United States that exists to help recover troubled fish
species, and operates its own hatchery.

Half the boulder darters restocked in Tennessee have come from CFI, and the
other half, from the Chattahoochee Forest National Fish Hatchery near
Suches, Ga. The CFI fish were stocked in Tennessee near Fayetteville, and
the national hatchery fish, near Hamilton Mill. Rakes is encouraged by what
he has seen happen to the boulder darter at the Fayetteville site, the only
location where the work with slab rock has been completed. He is the first
to caution that the numbers are small; still, when an imperiled species
shows any increase ? from seeing 5 or 6 two years ago, to seeing a couple of
dozen in the same place today ? biologists consider the upswing significant.

"We've seen more darters in the area where we've stocked the fish, and
those increases have been where we placed slab rock," said Rakes.

Both Rakes and Currie note that the boulder darter, a fish native to the
Elk River, is one of those indicator species ? one whose diminished presence
can become Mother Nature's 9-1-1 call, telling scientists that something is
amiss. "We help the darter, we help ourselves," said Currie. "These fish
are in trouble for a reason. When they are thriving, we know that the
river is thriving. Among other things, it also means clean water, and
that's important for all of us."

For Currie, work with the boulder darter started in 1999. He is clearly
proud of what the Service and all the agency's partners have accomplished so
far. "It can take a long time in this line of work to see results.
Sometimes you can work just as hard and see nothing. But when you can begin
to see a payoff, it feels good. Conservation has real rewards. But it's
not work for the short-winded," Currie said.

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