Fish species, thought extinct, found hanging on by a thread
Officials work against time to save the robust redhorse
April 16, 1997
Web posted at: 7:06 p.m. EDT (2306 GMT)
An expanded Web version of segments seen on CNN
(CNN) -- Georgia officials have launched a dramatic rescue
mission that could save a river-dwelling fish from
extinction. But the efforts to reintroduce the robust
redhorse to its native habitat have hit a snag, with the rare
fish's offspring often dying.
Officials had hoped to release thousands of fingerlings in
northeastern Georgia as part of an ongoing project. But when
biologists drained hatchery ponds this spring, they found
that all the young robust redhorse had perished. More common
fish in the ponds were healthy.
(451K/9 sec. QuickTime movie)
"Temperatures may have not been exactly right. The food
source may not have been at its peak," explained Jimmy Evans,
a biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
The setback means there will be no robust redhorses to
release in the fall, unlike last November, when about 15,000
fingerlings were released into northeast Georgia's Broad
River. Each was tagged with a microwire that lets biologists
track the fish's whereabouts.
It also means officials are frantically working against time
to save the dying species.
"We just got a few years to learn what we can about these
fish," Evans said.
A rare catch
The robust redhorse was thought extinct
for more than 100 years until Evans discovered the fish in
Georgia's Oconee River in 1991.
"I had no idea at the time exactly what it was, except I knew
it should not be there," Evans said. "There's no question it
was discovered in the nick of time.
What he found was about 1,000 to 3,000 fish that were last
seen 122 years ago. The fish is a species of redhorse sucker
and has teeth in its throat used to grind up the shells
of mussels, its primary food.
The robust redhorse population dwindled in the 19th century
apparently due to deforestation and farm-clearing efforts
that poured tons of silt into southern U.S. rivers, covering
gravel river bottoms. The rocky bottoms were necessary for
the fish to reproduce,because fertilized eggs were placed in
the spaces of the gravel.
Unique union to save fish
After his discovery, Evans worked to find a way to save the
fish, most of which were 15 years of age -- so old their
reproduction systems were not functioning properly. He
formed the Robust Redhorse Conservation Committee, a unique
compilation of government agencies, power companies and
conservation groups determined to save the fish.
The group decided not to put the fish on the federal
endangered species list, because they believed red tape would
slow down efforts to save the species.
As part of the reintroduction efforts, biologists inject the
elderly fish with hormones to encourage them to produce eggs.
Thousands of fish have been born and moved to protected ponds
to ensure survival of the species.
Despite several setbacks, researchers remain determined. The
breeding program is expected to continue for several years,
and the fish in the protected ponds are doing well.
"We have a lot more questions than we have answers, and the
answers are coming very slowly," said Jay Shelton of the
University of Georgia.
From Medical Correspondent Al Hinman
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