The sickle-fin redhorse dwells primarily in the Little Tennessee and Valley River between Murphy and Andrews. The sickle-fin redhorse has a unique sickle-shaped fin that helps it live in swifter water. It likely evolved into its own species over time here in WNC and only spread to a handful of rivers. Already limited in its range, the fish suffered setbacks by the historic damming of rivers in the region that curtailed spawning upstream and isolated their populations. Today, their biggest threat comes from sediment and storm-water runoff.
Since it is newly discovered as its own distinct species, little is know about the fish. It is not federally protected but is a conservation priority. The hope is that supporting these fish now will help preclude the need for listing them as endangered or threatened in the future.
The grant was given to Conservation Fisheries, a Knoxville-based environmental firm that specializes in rare fish conservation. The grant includes two other species: the stonecat and the wounded darter.
The money will help develop propagation technology for these species, augmenting existing populations, and reintroducing them into suitable areas of historical distribution.
“CFI is a leader in rare fish conservation in the nation. They’ve got a strong track record of on-the-ground accomplishments that are helping recover some of our rarest fishes in the Southeast. When you want to recover a rare fish in this area, they’re the people you turn to,” said Mark Cantrell, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
CFI received a second grant of $200,000 to propagate and reintroduce seven threatened and endangered fish species in the Southern Appalachians—the slender chub, pygmy madtom, duskytail darter, spotfin chub, smoky madtom, yellowfin madtom, and boulder darter.
“Unfortunately many of our nongame fish and other aquatic life, that could be considered our region’s ‘rainforest,’ are in danger of disappearing forever,” said Pat Rakes, co-director of Conservation Fisheries. “This money will enable us to strengthen our efforts and make some significant strides in the recovery of some of the rarest fish in the area.”
Conservation Fisheries has made a name for themselves through their captive propagation of imperiled fish that are then reintroduced into the wild, where suitable habitat is available. They’ve led a 20-year effort to reintroduce four federally protected species — the smoky madtom, yellowfin madtom, spotfin chub, and duskytail darter — into Abrams Creek in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and have recently begun a similar reintroduction project in the Tellico River on the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee.