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Biologists work to clear the way for fish and other aquatic life

In an effort to help recover North Carolina’s only population of the spotfin chub, a threatened fish, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is leading a project to help open up new habitat for the fish in the Little Tennessee River basin.

The spotfin chub was once thought to inhabit only the main stem of the Little Tennessee River, however a mass migration was documented in 1999, two miles up one of the river’s tributaries. Biologists discovered that the spotfin chub spawns in these tributary streams, which means their ability to swim up and down the small streams is the key to their recovery. Poorly installed or maintained culverts or other stream obstructions at road crossings can prevent fish and other animals from moving up‑ or downstream, effectively partitioning the stream and fragmenting populations of aquatic wildlife.

This fall, the Service led a team of biologists in an inventory of stream crossings on Little Tennessee River tributaries between Franklin and the Fontana Reservoir, identifying which ones block the movement of fish, including the spotfin chub, and other aquatic life.

“Unfortunately, when people talk about the health of a stream, one thing that often gets overlooked is if aquatic wildlife can actually move up and down the stream, taking advantage of all the possible habitat,” said Bill Bouthillier, a biologist with the Service’s fish technology center in Warm Springs, Georgia. “We may think little about the culvert that sits perched above the stream, with the water forming a little waterfall as it flows out, but that little waterfall can be an impossible leap for a fish.”

This past fall, private biologists and biologists with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, North Carolina State University, the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and the Service surveyed streams that feed the Little Tennessee River, searching for road crossings. At the crossings, they collected information on stream width and depth, the design of the stream crossings, what the crossings were made of, condition of the crossings and made a host of other observations. With this data, biologists will create a prioritized list of stream crossings that need to be restored to allow up‑ and downstream movement for aquatic wildlife, thus opening up habitat that previously may have been closed off.

“Once we get a list of where the worst stream crossings are, we can set to work correcting the problems and opening up habitat for the spotfin chub and other aquatic animals,” said Anita Goetz, a biologist in the Service’s Asheville Field Office.

Two endangered mussels — the Appalachian elktoe and littlewing pearlymussel — also live in the same stretch of the Little Tennessee River. Native freshwater mussels require a fish host during part of their life cycle, and biologists hope that by correcting stream‑crossing problems, the fish these mussels depend on will also take full advantage of the river’s tributaries.

Contacts

  • Anita Goetz, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, (828) 258‑3939, Ext. 228
  • Bill Bouthillier, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, (706) 665‑3382, Ext. 243
  • Gary Peeples, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, (828) 258‑3939, Ext. 234

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. For more information on our work and the people who can make it happen, visit fws.gov. Connect with the Service on Facebook, follow our tweets, watch the YouTube Channel and download photos from Flickr.

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