Extreme Drought Prompts Aquarium Action To Save Endangered Fish

Friday, August 22, 2008
Saving endangered fish
Saving endangered fish

The relentless August heat has baked the ground of middle Tennessee causing water levels to drop to dangerously low levels. Once again, the extreme drought is prompting an unusual rescue scenario. Armed with fine nets and insulated transport containers hooked to oxygen cylinders, biologists wade into the shallow water of Banks Spring to recover endangered Barrens topminnows.

“The water level had dropped about four feet and we were concerned we would lose those fish,” said Matt Hamilton, senior aquarist at the Tennessee Aquarium.

Mr. Hamilton was joined by another Aquarium expert and two biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on this mission. The team was able to save 133 adult Barrens topminnows and 1000 “young of the year”, or fish born at Banks Spring this year.

The rescued fish have been transported back to Chattanooga and may stay at the Aquarium’s Animal Care Facility or be transferred to the Aquarium’s research facility in Cohutta, Ga.

Growing only to four inches in length, the Barrens topminnow is a tiny fish with a story almost as colorful as its scales. First discovered in 1983 in a handful of locations in middle Tennessee, this rare fish almost disappeared forever less than 10 years later. The Barrens topminnow was surviving in just two locations. “This fish by all means qualifies to be protected by the Endangered Species Act,” Mr. Hamilton said. But instead of federally listing the fish, officials decided to try working with area landowners to protect the habitat and begin an unprecedented restoration pilot project to save the Barrens topminnow.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials entered into cooperative agreements with local landowners rather than restricting water and land use. They helped residents identify suitable habitat for the fish and protect those areas.

Mr. Hamilton reports an overwhelming response by local residents who now embrace this conservation effort. “During last summer’s drought one landowner took a garden hose and pumped water from one spring without minnows to one with minnows that was drying up.”

The Tennessee Aquarium began raising Barrens topminnows for the restoration project in 1998 along with partners from Conservation Fisheries, Inc., Tennessee Technological University, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

While the topminnows from Banks Spring are now safe, another site in Coffee County, Tennessee is being closely monitored as water levels continue to drop. “If it doesn’t start raining soon, we’ll have to go up there and rescue those fish. That site has more water in it right now than it did at the same time last year, but it’s very dry there and we have September, October and November ahead of us,” Mr. Hamilton said.

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