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Partnerships help a Miniature Catfish Swim Back into Southeastern Waters
Photo Credit: Mike Pinder, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries
A small, minnow-sized catfish tinged with yellow has made an encouraging comeback, taking again to creeks and small rivers in southwestern Virginia and eastern Tennessee where it was once common.
The yellowfin madtom (Noturus flavipinnis) once thrived in the Powell River and Copper Creek, a tributary to the Clinch River. These bodies of water are among the most biologically diverse aquatic ecosystems in the nation. By 1969, biologists thought the fish was extinct, lost to sedimentation and water pollution from agriculture and coal processing. But then the fish was discovered at two locations in Virginia and Tennessee, and the Service listed the species as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1977.
The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) and a number of non-profit organizations support the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in efforts to recover the species. The VDGIF has used ESA funding to conserve the threatened fish. A state grant awarded in 2006 helped purchase conservation easements on two properties totaling 184 acres along the Clinch River—a project that reduced sedimentation and improve water quality to benefit the yellowfin madtom and seven federally endangered freshwater mussel species.
Conservation Fisheries, Inc., a non-profit organization in Knoxville, Tennessee, has also helped restore the species by raising the species in captivity, reintroducing it into its historic range, and monitoring its status.
In 1986, Conservation Fisheries, Inc., began its captive propagation program for the yellowfin madtom. Fourteen years of raising and releasing fish paid off when snorkeling biologists discovered the yellowfin madtom at three new sites in the Powell River from 2000 to 2003. They even found non-tagged fish, documenting successful breeding in the wild.
"Conservation Fisheries has been releasing the yellowfin madtom upstream in Copper Creek to places where the species was historically known," said Mike Pinder, a VDGIF biologist. "Now we're starting to see 'recaptures' in upper sections and finding nests there, so the fish is establishing itself in new places."
In 1996, the madtom's habitat in the Powell River was seriously degraded when 6 million gallons of coal slurry spilled into the watershed. The spill covered over 20 miles, killing fish, mussels, and other organisms. A settlement agreement through the Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration Program secured $2.5 million from the coal processing plant.
These funds have helped improve water quality by controlling runoff through streamside buffers and by preventing siltation that smothers fish and their eggs through stream bank stabilization. Funds also supported Conservation Fisheries in the release of 800 yellowfin madtoms over five years—and the protection of 500 acres along the river by The Nature Conservancy.
"During the past 10 years, the range of the species has expanded greatly in the main-stem of the Clinch and Powell Rivers," said Brian Evans, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist in the Service's Southwestern Virginia Field Office.
In the Clinch River, the fish's range may even extend more than 60 miles. Thanks to many partners, the madtom moves toward recovery in Virginia and Tennessee.
Ann Haas, a program specialist of the Ecological Services Program in the Service's headquarter's office in Arlington, VA, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 703-358-2360.
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