Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to correct Steve Fraley’s employer.
By David Pendered
A coalition of state and federal agencies, power companies and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians have joined an effort to protect a freshwater fish that’s being considered for the federal endangered species list.
“For some time now we’ve had a core group of people working with this fish,” Steve Fraley, an aquatic biologist for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, said in a statement released by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
“This agreement brings in some new partners and helps ensure not only our continued work, but should provide opportunities to expand our efforts,” Fraley said.
The sicklefin redhorse fish is found in only six Appalachian counties worldwide, according to DNR’s statement. One of them is Towns County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of northeast Georgia.
The fish wasn’t recognized as a distinct species until 1992. In 2005, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the sicklefin redhorse as a candidate for the federal endangered species list. The fish can grow to 25 inches long and live up to 22 years.
The challenges the fish faces are typical: Power dams that fragment the river systems; erosion that covers stream bottoms with silt; pollution runoff and discharge from various sources; river management, such as dredging and straightening; and attacks by non-native animals, according to a page on the FWS website.
Sicklefin redhorse used to swim in the majority, if not all, of the rivers and large creeks in the Blue Ridge portion of the Hiwassee and Little Tennessee River systems, according to the page on the website of the FWS.
Now their population has been reduced to the six counties – Jackson, Macon, Swain, Clay, and Cherokee counties, in North Carolina; and Towns County.
To help the fish survive, and in hopes of avoiding the need to name it to the endangered species list, the coalition partners signed a Candidate Conservation Agreement on Feb. 23.
Signatories include the Georgia DNR, North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, Duke Energy Carolinas, the Tennessee Valley Authority, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and the U.S. Fish and WildLife Service.
According to the FWS, the agreement provides a host of conservation measures for the next year that include:
- “Collecting and fertilizing sicklefin redhorse eggs from the Little Tennessee, Oconaluftee, Tuckasegee, and Hiwassee rivers.
- “Hatching and rearing the animals at the Service’s Warm Springs National Fish Hatchery in Warm Springs, Georgia and the Conservation Fisheries, Inc. facility in Knoxville, Tennessee.
- “Using these captive-reared fish to stock North Carolina and Georgia streams.
The partners also have agreed to several broader initiatives that could benefit the sicklefin redhorse and other critters:
- “Opportunities will be sought to expand stocking into areas currently inaccessible to the fish due to dams.
- “Duke Energy will manage the company’s reservoir levels and dam releases to decrease negative impacts to sicklefin redhorse, including minimizing downstream impacts when reservoirs have to be drawn down or sediment and debris removed.
- “TVA will continue to implement commitments in TVA’s Reservoir Release Improvement Plan and River Operations Study that facilitate multiple uses of the reservoir system in a manner that ensures protection of all aquatic life and enhances their populations.
- “Technical support will be offered to local governments, the U.S.D.A. Natural Resources Conservation Service, and citizen-based watershed groups to conserve and improve stream habitat.
- “The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission will manage Needmore Gamelands, a 4,400-acre state-managed site along the Little Tennessee River, to conserve sicklefin habitat.
- “The partnership’s efforts will be evaluated by periodically surveying and assessing the sicklefin redhorse’s distribution, abundance, and status.”