Searching for Rare Fish

ElectrofishingWithSeine_EtowahRiver2_PaulaMarcinek_DNR
Electrofishing on the Etowah River (Paula Marcinek/DNR)

By Melissa Keneely

As a seasonal field tech working with DNR’s nongame aquatic biologists, my work is seldom the same week to week. One week I might be in a creek in a south Georgia swamp, sifting sand through my fingers to find mussels. The next, I could be in a cool mountain stream in north Georgia looking for endangered fish species. It’s exciting to work that offers a full experience with aquatic animals across the state!

This last month I spent a lot of time in northwest Georgia with fish biologists searching for two rare darter species – Etheostoma brevirostrum, or holiday darter, and Percina kusha (bridled darter).

If you saw my last blog post (“Job Opens Eyes to Mussels”), you might note that some methods of fish sampling are similar to mussel sampling, including measuring water quality and snorkeling to search for targeted species. However, a couple of other methods are unique, such as seining and electrofishing.

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Snorkeling for imperiled fishes in the Etowah (Paula Marcinek/DNR)

Seining involves using a large, mesh net that two people either pull through the stream or hold in place while others, starting from a set distance upstream, herd and flush fish toward the net. The net is then pulled up quickly to catch the fish before they escape. Electrofishing in streams depends on a backpack generator with an extended anode and cathode that, when submerged, produce a low electrical current that temporarily stuns the fish. Dip nets or a seine net are used to collect the fish before they recover.

We were conducting these surveys because the holiday and bridled darter are vulnerable species threatened by human activities that degrade their habitat. Both have been petitioned for listing under the nation’s Endangered Species Act. Both are already state-listed in Georgia as endangered. However, more information is needed on the status of populations to help guide conservation efforts.

BridledDarterEtowahRiverAlanCressler
Bridled darter (Alan Cressler)

As evidence of how rare the species are, we only found four bridled darters and 28 holiday darters in 10 sampling efforts involving nine sites in six rivers or streams in the Etowah and Coosawattee River basins. During our first trip, four sites yielded a total of four bridled and 20 holiday darters (at some sites, we caught none). We visited three sites on our second trip and caught eight holiday darters but no bridled darters. Our most recent outing was even less successful: two sites sampled, neither fish found.

Darters are unique species that require our help to conserve them. Every animal plays an important role in the ecosystem, even tiny (but gorgeous) fish such as holiday and bridled darters. Conserving these species is important to maintain the integrity of the entire aquatic ecosystem!

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A breeding male holiday darter (Brett Albanese/DNR)

In Georgia’s blazing summer heat, it can be difficult wading upstream in a creek, dressed in waders that makes it seem 10 times hotter and carrying several pounds of equipment. At each site, I’m always hopeful we’ll find the rare species we’re looking for. It’s disappointing when you spend hours in a stream you’re sure is great habitat but you don’t find the fish you’re seeking.

The hard work is worth it, though, when you finally do net the tiny darters you’ve been searching for! And even when we don’t get quite the results we want, every day it’s still amazing getting to work outdoors in beautiful streams and seeing the unique animals these river systems have living in them!

Melissa Keneely is a recent graduate of UGA’s Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources. She is working as a seasonal field technician with aquatic biologists in DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section.

See the amazing array of native species in the Fishes of Georgia Photo Gallery.

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