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Fishing for Gold in the North Carolina Piedmont

May 31

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5/31/2012 8:36 AM  RssIcon

“How will I recognize it?”  I asked.

We were starting a series of surveys for the federally endangered Cape Fear shiner in 2007.  This unique, golden fish is found only in the Cape Fear river basin of North Carolina, and we were on a mission to ascertain its current status in the state.

“Oh, you’ll know it when you see it,” they assured me.

So I dutifully picked up my end of the seine and proceeded to stare intently at the endless piles of shiners we collected, humming, “Which one of these is not like the other…?”

The Cape Fear shiner is a member of the Notropis genus, approximately 18 of which live in North Carolina. Just within the Cape Fear basin, there are four or five Notropis species that are extremely difficult to distinguish from our target species.

“Look for a slender silver fish with a dark lateral stripe,” they said.

They are ALL slender silver fish with dark lateral stripes!

Just then, I see one that stands out from the crowd.  There is something almost indescribably unique about him. His body has a bright golden shine to it.  I know immediately that I have found our elusive target and the Cape Fear shiner is alive in this particular stream.

This little shiner was first listed as endangered in 1987, not a good development since the species was only officially described in 1971.  It once likely inhabited the length of the Rocky, Deep, Haw and Cape Fear rivers in the Piedmont region of North Carolina and the lower ends of larger tributaries.   These moderately sized, rocky rivers that progress through run and riffle sequences provided the ideal habitat for these quick fish. Eddies behind rocks are their preferred hangout, from whence they can dart into the edges of riffles to snag passing food items.

In the spring, these fish turn a bright, golden yellow with a bold black stripe, showing off for prospective mates and making my life significantly easier in the identification department. The rest of the year finds them faded back to silver and black, blending in with their many Notropis cousins who inhabit the Cape Fear system.

Four decades ago, this species found its usable habitat shrinking. Waters became polluted by a now-defunct textile mill and industrial effluent. Dams were constructed, blocking fish passage along rivers. The Cape Fear shiner had nowhere else to go.

Today, though, water quality has improved. The federal Clean Water Act was passed in 1977. Carbonton Dam, along Hwy. 42 in the Deep River, was removed in 2005, opening up new reaches of habitat, which the fish readily moved into. The species was thought to be gone from the mainstem of the Cape Fear River, but new specimens were found below Buckhorn Dam in 2010 and 2011. Things are looking up for North Carolina’s fluid gold.

But it’s not just about a fish. It’s also about you. These positive trends also mean the quality of the water our communities depend on is improving and our rivers and their corridors are returning to cleaner, more beautiful places to recreate. It all boils down to a future that is looking brighter for both.

- Brena Jones, aquatic wildlife diversity biologist

Division of Inland Fisheries

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