So Many Fishes, So Little Time: A Report from the 1998 NANFA Annual Meeting in Chattanooga

Christopher Scharpf

Reprinted from American Currents fall 1998 issue.

To paraphrase Charles Dickens, "It was the best of times, it was the best of times."

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In every way possible, the 1998 NANFA Annual Meeting, June 5-7 in Chattanooga, Tennessee--dubbed Fish Heads '98 by organizer Casper Cox--was the best annual meeting NANFA has ever had. It was also the biggest. Twenty-two NANFA members were in attendance (including two from as far away as Arizona), as well as a half-dozen spouses, guests and special invitees. It was a fun-filled, educational weekend of fish, fellowship, fish, food, and more fish.

The only negative comment to be heard was that there wasn't enough time to see and do everything to its fullest. We could have spent more time touring the awesome Tennessee Aquarium. We could have given more time to our speakers. We could have enjoyed more time getting to know our fellow NANFA members. And, of course, we could have spent more time in our waders, observing, collecting, and awing over Tennessee's abundance of colorful shiners and darters. But there are only 72 hours in a three-day weekend, and we made the most of them.

For NANFA members who did not attend, I hope this report will allow you to enjoy the meeting vicariously, learning what we learned, seeing what we saw. I also hope it will encourage you to visit Tennessee, tour its creeks and Aquarium, and to attend the 1999 Annual Meeting in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois.

Six Terrific Speakers, Six Terrific Talks

Day one began at 8:00 am in the Board Room of the Tennessee Aquarium's IMAX Theater building. We mingled over coffee and breakfast, most of us meeting for the first time fellow NANFA members we knew only from over the phone or E-mail. I finally got to meet Maurice (Scott) Mettee, with whom I collaborated (via E-mail) on an article on pygmy sunfishes (American Currents, Feb. 1998). He autographed my copy of his wonderful book, Fishes of Alabama and the Mobile Basin. David Etnier autographed his book, the definitive Fishes of Tennessee.

Chris Coco, the Tennessee Aquarium's Curator of Fishes (and NANFA member), formally welcomed us. He spoke briefly about the Aquarium's history and conservation efforts. Three weeks earlier, the Aquarium had hosted a symposium on paddlefish and sturgeons; it's currently involved in a pilot project to propagate the lake sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens). The Aquarium also is rearing the federally endangered barrens topminnow (Fundulus julisae) and the locally endangered spotfin chub (Cyprinella monacha). In fact, the Aquarium has already released 2,500 captive-bred spotfin chub into the wild.

The day's first talk, "The Conasauga River," was given by George Ivey, the Conasauga's field representative for the Tennessee and Georgia chapters of the Nature Conservancy. Stretching like a giant upside-down letter "J," the Conasauga flows northwest from the mountains of northern Georgia into southern Tennessee. It then meanders east along the state line for 10 miles before it turns south and re-enters Georgia. The Conasauga's water quality and habitat is threatened by accelerated erosion, toxic chemicals and excessive nutrients. Cattle farming, forestry, development, chicken farming, and industry are the biggest culprits. Three of its 77 native fish species are listed (and more should be, Mr. Ivey says), and only 20 or so of its 42 species of mussels are believed to be extant. Fortunately, many conservation and restoration efforts are underway, and the bulk of Mr. Ivey's slide presentation was given to them. Low-growing trees which do not interfere with power lines are being planted to slow or stop erosion. Farmers are being encouraged to keep their cattle out of streams. Dump-truck loads of trash are being removed. And in one project, logs with saw-cut grooves are being sunk into portions of the river to provide spawning habitat for federally threatened blue shiners (Cyprinella caerulea), which like to lay their eggs in the cracks of submerged logs. Mr. Ivey's talk was an excellent introduction to a river we would collect in the next day.

Scott Mettee gave the second talk, "Alabama Fishes." Alabama's 75,000 miles of rivers and streams are inhabited by over 425 species of native freshwater and marine fishes--more than any other state or province in America. (Tennessee comes in second, with 305-319 exclusively freshwater fish species. The fact that many Atlantic species enter Alabama's freshwaters gives Alabama the statistical edge.) Dr. Mettee, an ichthyologist with the Geological Survey of Alabama, showed slides of 55 of these species, offering brief commentary on each of them. Among the most interesting fishes he discussed were:

  • gulf sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrinchus desotoi): What "a grand opportunity and privilege [it is] to put your hands on these creatures," Dr. Mettee said. They migrate 100-150 miles in two days. The 8-foot, 175-pound specimen shown in his slide was caught in a river you could walk across.

  • Alabama shad (Alosa alabamae): His specimens were the first ones collected in 104 years. "They're not gone; you just gotta know where to look, with a little luck."

  • bay anchovy (Anchoa mitchilli): Now recorded 270 miles inland having crossed two locks and dams.

  • rainbow shiner (Notropis chrosomus): They spawn the first or second week of May on the mounds of chubs and stonerollers. They're a metallic blue, but instantly lose that color when pulled from the water.

  • blue sucker (Cycleptus elongatus): "One of the sexiest fish in Alabama."

  • striped bass (Morone saxatilis): A "concrete block with fins."

  • And, of course, darters: "the Rodney Dangerfield of fishes because they don't get a lot of respect" from fisheries professionals and the public-at-large.

Dr. Mettee then shared a secret he asked us not to reveal: He loves his job surveying fishes. "It's a hoot!" But he's afraid that if his boss got wind of this fact, he'd stop getting paid. (Fortunately, his boss is not a reader of American Currents. Or so we hope.)

Next up was Pat Rakes, speaking on the "Captive Propagation and Reintroduction of Rare Nongame Native Freshwater Species." Mr. Rakes, along with J.R. Shute, is the Director of Conservation Fisheries, Inc. (CFI), a non-profit conservation company in Knoxville, Tennessee. Their goal is to use captive breeding to reestablish fishes in their native habitats so they may be downlisted or removed from protected status altogether. Mr. Rakes showed slides of CFI's facilities, and spoke of their success (and sometimes failure) with the following species:

  • blackside dace (Phoxinus cumberlandensis): CFI collected this fish from heavily silted streams in Kentucky. Since it spawns over stoneroller nests in the wild, stoneroller milt was added to its tank, upon which it colored up quickly, spawned, and then died, as if "burned up" from its intense spawning activity.

  • blue shiner (Cyprinella caerulea): Taking a clue from the fish's preference for wood cracks in the wild, CFI's specimens spawned in the ridges in a stack of tiles. These fish were propagated not to be reintroduced to the wild, but to be killed in water toxicity studies.

  • spotfin chub (Cyprinella monacha): As with blue shiners, CFI provides this fish with stacks of tiles; the fish deposits its eggs in the crevices between the tiles, usually only the bottom crevice. This habit and CFI's observation that spotfin chub larvae are strongly benthic (living near the bottom) for about the first 30 days, partially explains why the species is so rare (larval habitat and spawning sites must be silt-free).

  • Cape Fear shiner (Notropis mekistocholas): The larvae of this fish have no mouth, digestive tract, or pigment; they're basically a "muscle mass connected to a yolk sac."

  • smoky madtom (Noturus baileyi) and yellowfin madtom (N. flavipinnis): Since these fishes like to hide under slab rocks and PVC cover, the only way to view their behavior is to elevate the aquarium and look up from underneath. Although these catfishes colored up and defended territory in CFI's tanks, they have yet to spawn. However, CFI has propagated hundreds of each from nests collected from Citico Creek (a Little Tennessee River tributary), reintroducing those specimens into nearby Abrams Creek, where the madtoms were poisoned out in 1957 by state and federal agencies seeking to enhance the trout fishery.

  • duskytail darter (Etheostoma percnurum): Like all darters in the subgenus Catonotus, it lays its eggs in a single layer on the underside of slab rocks or other structures that provide a cavity with a flat "ceiling."

  • boulder darter (Etheostoma wapiti): Like other members of the subgenus Nothonotus (and the genus Percina), the larvae of this darter feed in the water column for the first 2-4 weeks, not along the bottom. The males develop gorgeous, emerald green fins and a green throat. The females deposit their eggs on an angled wedge.

  • channel darter (Percina copelandi): The larvae are too small to eat brine shrimp nauplii; they have to be fed rotifers, which must be continually dipped into the tank through an IV. Only a few individuals have been reared to a juvenile size.

Mr. Rakes closed his talk with a "wish list" of fishes CFI would like to propagate, or are beginning to work on right now. Topping the list is the endangered pygmy madtom (Noturus stanauli); its numbers are so small in the wild that it's almost impossible to collect.

After a lunch break it was time for some NANFA business. Elmer Guerri presented his regional representative program proposal to the four Board members in attendance. We discussed some fineries of the proposal and gave Elmer the go-ahead to develop it in full.

Now it was time for David Etnier and his talk, "The Snail Darter Issue in Retrospect." If there's one darter the public has heard of, it's this one: a non-descript member of the Percina genus no one knew existed until Dr. Etnier hand-cupped a specimen while snorkeling in the Little Tennessee River in 1972. Little did Dr. Etnier realize that three years later he would help wage a legal battle to save the fish from the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and its proposed Tellico Dam, and that Percina tanasi--as the professor eventually named it--would become the "poster fish" for the newly formed Endangered Species Act (ESA). Dr. Etnier's recounting of this episode kept us on the edge of our seats.

"Dr. Etnier, what is the size of this snail darter fish?" a TVA lawyer asked in U.S. District Court in Knoxville. His tone implied that such a small fish was unworthy of such a big fuss.

"It's about three times the size of the Devils Hole pupfish," Dr. Etnier replied. The Devils Hole pupfish had recently won protection against developers in Nevada.

As Dr. Etnier explained, irreconcilable differences between the ESA and federal projects like the Tellico Dam led to the formation of a special advisory group, disdainfully called "The God Committee," which had the power to decide the fate of a species when serious "progress" was at stake. Fortunately, the God Committee ruled against building the dam. But wouldn't you know, some shifty lawmakers put a rider on a bill exempting Tellico Dam from all federal law. So the dam was built anyway and the original habitat of the snail darter was wiped out--but not before TVA biologists removed 316 specimens and introduced them to the nearby Hiwassee River.

In 1980, Dr. Etnier was seining in South Chickamauga Creek in downtown Chattanooga when a familiar looking fish caught his eye. "Well, I'll be a son of a bitch," he said. A second native population of the snail darter was found. Eventually, other populations were discovered, and the fish was downlisted from endangered to threatened. Dr. Etnier said he would not be opposed to considering removing the snail darter from the protected list.

As any good raconteur would, Dr. Etnier had us hanging on every word. Transcribed, his talk would make an excellent article for American Currents. I'm still kicking myself for having left my pocket tape recorder at home.

Next up was one of Dr. Etnier's former students, Ed Scott, whose scheduled topic was "The Snail Darter: Its Status in the Lower French River," but whose actual talk was far more broad in scope. Mr. Scott spoke of his work as an aquatic biologist for the TVA, helping monitor and improve flow in the tailwaters of Tennessee's numerous dams. Much of his talk was far too technical for my slow note-taking skills to keep up with, but he did a superb job of making a complex and unfamiliar subject easy to understand. Mr. Scott also has a delightfully twisted sense of humor. One of his slides showed a number of sculpin skewered on a stick and a number of his cohorts eagerly anticipating their "sculpin kabob" feast. Mr. Scott doesn't like sculpins much. "They eat darters," he said.

The day's sixth and final talk was a pointed contrast to the previous five. Ichthyologist and Board member Peter Unmack spoke on "Threatened Fishes and Habitats of the Southwest." Western streams tend to be turbid, Mr. Unmack said, so their fishes tend to show fewer colors than those in the southeast. There is less diversity, too. Compared to Tennessee's 300+ native species, the entire Colorado River system is home to around 40. And that number is shrinking. Mr. Unmack said the razorback sucker (Xyrauchen texanus) is "for all intents and purposes, extinct--as far as able to maintain its own existence without human assistance." Since exotic fishes like bass and ictalurid catfishes eat razorback larvae, wild larvae are collected and raised in hatcheries and backwaters. The bonytail chub (Gila elegans) is even worse off. "It's the rarest fish in the West," Mr. Unmack said, "not a wild one taken in years." And every native minnow has just about disappeared due to the release and epidemic-like spread of the red shiner (Cyprinella lutrensis).

Mr. Unmack's closing remarks ended the day's talks with a sobering irony that illustrates the folly and tragedy of man's impact on native fishes: "Brook trout have replaced native rainbows in the West. Rainbows have replaced native brookies in the East."

You could almost hear everyone in the room thinking the same thought. Now where's the sense in that?