CLYDE, N.C. (Nov. 18, 2011) – Encouraged by the success of experimental stockings over the last three years, biologists with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission are continuing their efforts to restore fish and mussels in the Cheoah and Pigeon rivers, using animals propagated in hatcheries as well some moved from other streams.
The restoration work, guided by the N.C. Wildlife Action Plan, reintroduces aquatic animals into waters where they were once found in abundance. So far this year, biologists have placed several thousand fish and mussels in both rivers.
While most of these reintroductions were accomplished by collecting large numbers of relatively common fishes from places where they were abundant and releasing them into the Pigeon, some species were not plentiful enough to make collecting and releasing feasible. In those cases, the Commission worked with conservation partners to hatch and raise species to release in these restoration projects.
The releases of wavy-rayed lampmussels in the Pigeon and Cheoah rivers, and rainbow mussels and the spotfin chub, a federally threatened fish, into the Cheoah River in early June, mark the third consecutive year that Commission biologists, in collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Conservation Fisheries, Inc., have propagated and grown out animals.
“The goals of these restoration efforts are to restore native fauna into rivers where they were found historically, and to improve the overall ecological health of the rivers,” said Steve Fraley, the Commission’s western aquatic wildlife diversity coordinator. “In the case of the spotfin chub, we are helping to meet one of the targets for removing that species from the federal threatened species list by reintroducing and establishing a new population into its former range.
“For the wavy-rayed lampmussel and rainbow mussel, these are priority species in the Wildlife Action Plan and were propagated at the Commission’s fish hatchery in Marion and reintroduced to keep them from further decline and help prevent them from being listed.”
In addition to being priority species in the N.C. Wildlife Action Plan, the mussel species are state-listed as species of special concern, which means their numbers are low enough to require management guidelines that ensure they remain at viable population levels.
This year, Commission biologists released 588 spotfin chub, a fish that once was found in abundance in tributaries of the Tennessee River but whose populations had disappeared from the Cheoah River because of water diversion for hydroelectric power production.
Conservation Fisheries, Inc., a non-profit company that specializes in restoring fish populations that have been eliminated because of pollution or habitat destruction, propagated the spotfin chub at its facility in Knoxville, Tenn., using parent fish from North Carolina. When the young fish were about three months old, they were transferred to the Commission’s Marion State Fish Hatchery and grown for nine months until they reached a size suitable for releasing.
Biologists release the fish the same time every year, late June to early July, to coincide with the end of the high-flow events from scheduled releases of water from Santeetlah Dam. This time frame also mimics the flow of a natural river, which is higher in the spring because of heavy seasonal rains.
Previous releases in 2009 and 2010 were considered successful because biologists captured and released multiple individuals that not only survived, but thrived in the river.
“We conduct annual surveys to monitor the status of reintroduced species in the Cheoah and Pigeon rivers and have been pleased with the results,” Fraley said. “We can now claim that three fish species we’ve been working on in the Pigeon have been successfully re-established, and we’ve seen good indications of survival of other reintroduced species there, and also in the Cheoah.”
Commission biologists this year documented that reintroduced spotfin chubs have reproduced in the Cheoah.
On the horizon is another restoration project and one that could have bigger implications for the very existence of the Appalachian elktoe, a federally endangered freshwater mussel found only in relict populations in the mountain rivers of western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee.
Since 2009, Commission staff, along with N.C. State University and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has worked to perfect successful propagation techniques for Appalachian elktoe, a federal and state-listed endangered freshwater mussel, for eventual release into the Cheoah River to augment a small existing population there.
It will be at least two years before any hatchery-raised Appalachian elktoe are ready for release. Commission biologists expect to conduct these releases as part of joint efforts to help recover species that are listed as federally endangered or threatened.
“The ultimate goal is to establish populations in numbers great enough so that the animal can be removed from the Endangered Species List,” Fraley said.
Restoration efforts began on the Pigeon River in 2004, where water quality has been recovering following decades of severe industrial pollution. The Commission partnered with the University of Tennessee, Evergreen Paper, the N.C. Division of Water Quality and others to conduct the restoration work. In the Cheoah River, biologists began work in 2008 after changes in operation at Santeetlah Dam restored water flow in the river sufficient to support the chub and other native species. Restoration efforts were funded through Alcoa Power’s Cheoah Restoration Fund, a mitigation measure brought about through the relicensing process for the Santeetlah hydroproject.
“There’s no recovery of species without first addressing the degraded habitat and water quality conditions that lead to the decline of those populations,” said Fraley. “We’ve had great opportunities in both the Pigeon and Cheoah rivers where significant habitat improvements have been made. But reintroductions and captive propagation aren’t cure-alls.”
The task had numerous challenges because the biologists had to re-establish not only the fish and mussel species, but also water quality and spawning habitat.
“It’s not like annual trout stocking to ensure a recreational experience for North Carolina anglers,” Fraley said. “These re-established populations have to be self-sustaining.”
Funding for the Commission’s fish and mussel restoration efforts came from the State Wildlife Grants program, USFWS’s Section 6 Endangered Species funds, and the Commission’s Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Fund, which supports wildlife research, conservation and management for animals that are not hunted and fished.
North Carolinians can support this effort, as well as other nongame species research and management projects in North Carolina, by: