Imperiled fish returns to the Cheoah River, marking another step in river’s restoration
Stocking a river with one of the nation’s rarest fish is a slow and gentle process.
On a late-June day, biologist Steve Fraley lowers a clear-plastic bag full of water and fifty small, threatened fish called spotfin chub into Graham County’s Cheoah River, keeping the bag closed while the water temperature in the bag approaches the river’s temperature. After a few minutes, he opens the bag and mixes in some river water, continuing the acclimation process. Finally he opens the bag, giving the fish free reign to enter the river. By the end of the day, 844 of the tiny fish were released.
“To watch us empty those bags in the river may seem a little anti-climatic, but returning this rare fish to this river is a tremendous step in restoring the river’s rich diversity and one that is the result of a lot of effort by a lot of people,” said Fraley, a biologist with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission who has directed the effort to restore the spotfin chub in the Cheoah.
This is the second year in a row the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission has stocked the rare minnow in the Cheoah, and the latest chapter in an effort to bring back the river’s biodiversity. For decades the nine-mile river reach between Lake Santeetlah and its confluence with the Little Tennessee River was largely dewatered as Alcoa Power Generating, Inc. captured the river at their Santeetlah Dam and piped the water to a powerhouse on the Little Tennessee River. Some fish and other aquatic life, including a remnant population of endangered Appalachian elktoe mussels, were able to hold on in the Cheoah River thanks to a trickle of water seeping through the dam and water coming from tributaries below the dam.
When APGI needed a new federal license to operate its hydropower facilities straddling the North Carolina-Tennessee state line, they agreed to return flow to this stretch of river, the result of discussions with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), and numerous stakeholders. On September 1, 2005 water began flowing, following a flow regime that mimics the natural patterns of the Cheoah watershed, including seasonal variability and periodic high flows which are attractive to boaters. The timing of this spotfin chub release coincides with the natural low flows of summer and fall which provide stable, productive habitats for incubation and development of larval fishes.
“Beginning with the hydropower relicensing effort, we’re seeing the rebirth of the Cheoah, thanks to the efforts of a broad group of partners, including APGI and the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, both of whom are playing key roles,” said Mark Cantrell, a biologist with the Service who was heavily involved in the relicensing process that began in 1999.
The spotfin chub, a fish on the federal endangered species list, is the latest in a series of reintroductions aimed at restoring aquatic life to this stretch of river. Wavy-rayed lampmussels and the wounded darter, a small, bottom-dwelling fish, are also being reintroduced. Other native species on the horizon for stocking in the Cheoah include the rainbow and Appalachian elktoe mussels.
Along with returning flow to the Cheoah River, APGI funds projects that address impacts to fish and wildlife from their power-generating operations. This, along with funding from the Service, and the North Carolina Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Fund, helped the Commission develop their Conservation Aquaculture Center in Marion - a facility devoted to the propagation and rearing of rare and imperiled aquatic species for restoration projects. This facility, along with one operated by Conservation Fisheries, Inc., a Knoxville-based non-profit that has become a leader in rare fish propagation, have been key to the reintroduction efforts. Between the two, they have propagated and reared all the rare animals that have been stocked in the river since flow was restored.
Historically the spotfin chub was found from Virginia to Alabama, including the French Broad River in Buncombe County. Today only a handful of scattered populations remain -the result of dams, pollution, and other factors. Aside from the Cheoah River reintroduction, the current North Carolina range of the fish was limited to the Little Tennessee River. This stocking is the latest in a series of spotfin chub reintroductions across its former range, with the ultimate goal of establishing at least two more healthy populations, which would bring it a large step closer to being removed from the federal endangered species list. Through the work of the Service, state wildlife agencies, Conservation Fisheries, Inc., and other partners, projects are underway to return the fish to Shoal Creek in Alabama and Tennessee; the Tellico River in East Tennessee; and the lower French Broad and Holston Rivers in Tennessee.
- Steve Fraley, N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission - (828) 627-8414, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Mark Cantrell, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - (828) 258-3939, ext. 227, email@example.com
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