Colorful north Georgia fish could get federal protection

The trispot darter. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

ATLANTA — A shiny orange fish living in a north Georgia river is being considered for federal protection as a rare species.

The trispot darter is already classified as endangered by state officials. Now, the U.S. government is looking to protect it as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The trispot darter lives in Georgia’s Conasauga River, but that’s not where it lays its eggs. The turquoise-spotted fish swims up into small streams to spawn. WABE reports it often finds man-made structures such dams or culverts under roads block its way, obstructing its effort to spawn and stopping it from reproducing.

That’s the reason the fish is in trouble, said Jeff Powell, an assistant field supervisor at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“It’s kind of an amazing trek it has to make to get up to its headwaters, so anything that obstructs its path is going to prevent it from spawning,” Powell said.

The Conasauga River is one of the most diverse rivers in North America. It has more than three times the number of native fish as the Colorado River, which is significantly larger.

But Brett Albanese, a biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, said he rarely sees the trispot darter.

“I’ve only collected it a handful of times,” he said. “I’ve been a fish biologist for DNR since 2003, and done a lot of sampling in these areas where they could occur.”

State and federal wildlife agencies have been working with private landowners to rebuild culverts so that they don’t hinder the fish’s spawning and with farmers to minimize effects on water quality.

Runoff from farms is known to wash pesticides, herbicides and other chemical pollutants into waters where the trispot darter lives, damaging its habitat, Albanese said.

“It is a beautiful little fish, and it has a unique life history and it’s really interesting,” said Powell. “If we can keep this species alive in the Conasauga River, the way we’re going to do that is protecting water quality, and that benefits everybody.”

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