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Small Colorful Fish Gets Endangered Species Protection

A trispot darter fish. USFWS

A small, bright fish found in Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama will start the new year on the Endangered Species list, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) reported Thursday.

The trispot darter fish was thought to be entirely extinct in Alabama for more than 50 years until it was discovered in 2008 in Little Canoe Creek. Now, 10 years later, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has finalized protections for the 1.5 inch fish, earmarking more than 180 miles of river as "critical habitat."


"Protecting the trispot darter under the Endangered Species Act will safeguard this colorful little fish for future generations and help protect water quality for nearby communities," CBD senior scientist Tierra Curry said in the CBD press release.

The trispot darter has lost 80 percent of its historic range. It now lives in the Coosa River watershed in northern Alabama, northern Georgia and southeast Tennessee and the Conasauga River watershed in Georgia and Tennessee. Of the four individual rivers it calls home, only one, the Little Canoe Creek, is considered healthy.

The trispot darter's habitat is threatened by runoff from urban development, agriculture and logging. Because it lays eggs and seeks shelter between rocks, it cannot survive when those spaces fill up with sediment.

Unlike most darters, the trispot behaves like a salmon, spending most of its life in larger rivers and then swimming upstream to smaller tributaries to spawn once a year. Because of its migration pattern, it is also at risk from dams and any other constructions that block its way.

The fish is also threatened by climate change, which is projected to increase both hurricanes and drought in the Southeast. Hurricanes can wash out eggs and larvae and put stress on adult fish, while droughts lead to habitat loss and reduced water quality, according to the final FWS rule.

In 2010, CBD, the Alabama Rivers Alliance and other groups petitioned the government to grant the fish Endangered Species Act protections. CBD sued in 2015 to get a date for the FWS decision.

The FWS listed it as threatened, and its new status will go into effect Jan. 28, 30 days after its posting to the Federal Register. The designation of critical habitat for the fish will mean that any federal project along the rivers it calls home will have to consult with FWS to make sure it does not disturb the fish, CBD explained. Further, it will now be illegal to catch or sell the fish, the Associated Press reported.
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