Partners Celebrate Return of Endangered Fish to the Clinch River
On May 3, 2001, biologists, local landowners, and government representatives will walk together to the banks of the lower Clinch River in Hancock County, Tennessee to witness the release of a highly endangered fish - the pygmy madtom. The pygmy madtom, a handsome black and white catfish, and one of the many unique aquatic species found in the state of Tennessee, is one of the rarest fishes in the nation. This bottom dwelling fish, that gets no more than 2 inches in length, is known to occur in only 2 rivers in the world, the Clinch and Duck Rivers in Tennessee.
"This release event is so exciting because of the species we are dealing with and the unique partnership effort that has gone into restoring this river system to allow the fish to survive and breed in the wild," said J.R. Shute, Co-Director of Conservation Fisheries, Inc..
Conservation Fisheries, Inc., a non-profit organization that specializes in captive breeding rare fish for release into the wild, has successfully reared 13 young pygmy madtoms from two separate egg clutches spawned by a male and female pair of pygmy madtoms, collected by Professor Rick Mayden from The University of Alabama.
"When my graduate students and I were out collecting in the Clinch River, we managed to collect two pygmy madtoms," said Professor Mayden. "We were thrilled since less than 50 specimens of this species have ever been collected. We were really lucky to catch a male and female adult fish."
About half of the 13 pygmy madtoms are planned to be released on the afternoon of May 3rd in time for their breeding season. The personnel present on the day of release are representative of a strong partnership effort that has been working together for years to restore wildlife and habitat on the Clinch River and other imperiled rivers throughout the Southeast. Led by Conservation Fisheries, Inc., the group will also include representatives from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, The University of Alabama, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund and local landowners whose restored riverfront property made the release possible.
"The Clinch River and many others in the Southeast, have an abundant wildlife diversity that we are trying to protect." said Sam Hamilton, Southeast Regional Director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "Thanks to the water quality improvement efforts of Federal, state and local organizations, and the cooperation of local landowners, the habitat along the river has been restored to provide a buffer to protect the natural integrity of the system." The Clinch River System is considered one of the richest rivers in the world. It is home to 18 federally listed mussels and four federally listed fishes, many of which are found nowhere else in the world. The Nature Conservancy lists this river as the most diverse watershed in the country. In addition, the World Wildlife Fund has southeastern rivers and streams on their Global 200 list for ecoregions that should receive highest priority world wide conservation attention.
"That is why it is crucial that habitat in the Clinch River, and the species like the pygmy madtom that depend upon it, must be protected." said Bob Butler, biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "This fish is an indicator species of the conditions of the entire river system. It is sensitive to toxic chemicals and increased sedimentation and serves as an early warning of water quality problems before other biological resources are noticeably impacted."
As a bottom dwelling catfish, the pygmy madtom depends on its olfactory system to find food. When the river has clear, cool water, this fish thrives. If sediments build up on the river bottom, it negatively impacts the ability of the fish to feed, breed, and survive.
With the original removal of two pygmy madtoms, more than double that number are being returned back to the Clinch River, with possibly more in the future. This is a great success for this small and extremely endangered fish and would not have happened without the help of many partners.
Local landowners have continually shown their commitment to protecting this important river ecosystem. Educational facilities like the University of Alabama, through the efforts of their professors and students, provide needed knowledge and information and make exciting new findings that promote and work towards the recovery of aquatic species and their habitat. Conservation Fisheries, Inc. made this release possible with their raised pygmy madtoms and remain committed to the recovery of southeastern imperiled fishes. Among Conservation Fisheries, Inc.'s many efforts, they have also helped return four federally listed fishes back to Abrams Creek, Great Smoky Mountains National Park and maintain critical populations of rare fish. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency have helped to provide funding for these efforts and technical assistance where needed. Both of these agencies recognize that many rivers in Tennessee are aquatic biodiversity hotspots and strive to protect and recover them.