Candy darters are a brightly colored fish, approximately two to three inches long, found in West Virginia and Virginia rivers. Although small, darters in general are an important part of freshwater stream habitats and the aquatic food chain. Nearly 20% of all freshwater fish species in North America are darters.
In 1932, there were 35 candy darter populations in the Gauley, Greenbrier, and New River watersheds. Fewer than half of the historic populations can be found today due to habitat degradation, geographic isolation and hybridization with the variegate darter. In response, we protected the species as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in November 2018.
In 2019, the White Sulphur Springs National Fish Hatchery began working to recover candy darters though a selective breeding and stocking program. The Service has been working closely with West Virginia University, the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources and the Service’s West Virginia Field Office to better understand the genetics of both candy darters and variegate darters and the impacts of hybridization. Thanks to this partnership, candy darters were first successfully reared in captivity in 2021 and hatchery-raised fish were released into the wild for the first time in fall of 2022.
In an effort to restore wild populations, mature male and female candy darters are selectively collected and brought into the hatchery as. In partnership with the West Virginia University, the hatchery developed innovative techniques to propagate candy darters—ensuring eggs hatch successfully and juvenile fish grow to a size they can be safely stocked into the wild. The stocking locations are carefully selected so candy darters remain geographically isolated from variegate darters, increasing their reproductive potential and the resilience of local populations.
The hatchery is also working with West Virginia Department of Natural Resources in the Greenbrier and Gauley watersheds to relocate candy darters to areas isolated from variegate darters. Approximately 500 candy darters have been moved since 2018. Successful reproduction was documented in one of these relocated populations in 2021.