Candy darter, Virginia's most beautiful fish, near threatened status

Beautiful fish now found only in four Virginia streams

By John Carlin - Anchor

Although it looks like an exotic fish from the tropics, the candy darter lives in Virginia’s cold, fast-flowing streams.

Once widespread, now, only four streams in the Commonwealth and a few in West Virginia still hold the candy darter.  

That’s why research biologists have shortlisted the fish for some kind of protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Research is ongoing. But it is time-consuming since the fish occurs in so few places and even in those places, can be difficult to find.

A team of researchers assembles on the bank of a stream in Giles County. They represent all of the stakeholders in the preservation of the candy darter. There are representatives from U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, and fisheries biologists from Virginia Tech’s Department of Fish & Wildlife Conservation.

Among this candy darter "who's who of researchers," is Katie McBaine, a graduate student in Virginia Tech's Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation. She is the point person for the day’s activities.

“So part of what I'm trying to get at is survival estimates for these fish. I'm also trying to get is the population growing. Is it just stable? Or is it decreasing?” she said as she stood in the stream holding one end of a long net, used to capture the fish.

Paul Angermeier, Ph.D., also from Tech, oversees Katie's research.  

“So Katie's work is doing some more detailed study find out exactly where they occur. What they like or don't like in terms of habitat. Also, looking at how much they move from one place to another within the stream, which we don't know anything about,” he said.

After about an hour of rolling over rocks and kicking downstream to push fish into the net, the group captures its first male candy darter. This was added to a waiting bucket along with a few of the more drab females.

McBaine measures and weighs each fish as Dawn Kirk, a biologist from U.S. Fish and Wildlife records the data. Then, a portion of the tail is clipped from each fish for DNA testing. The group wants to know if fish from this stream might do well if transplanted into a stream where the darters no longer exist.

“It's very sensitive to warming water. And fine settlement loading, so those are things that occurred over the past century or so that have resulted in a lot of streams becoming unsuitable. Which is why it's disappeared from so many places,” Angermeier said.

Once the seining was done, the group donned snorkeling masks and wetsuits to guard against the cold water -- and the rocks -- to try to observe the darters.  
It's not much easier than netting them. 

“It's very difficult because these fish are adapted for fast water. And we are not. We are clumsy oafs. And they must laugh at us when they see us,” said Mike Pinder from the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, smiling.

Pinder admitted that the fish is always about three feet ahead of its human pursuers.

Even for humans, the scene was a bit comical: six people wearing full body wetsuits and snorkeling, sometimes in only six inches of water.  

“There's a lot of little spaces in those areas, where fish can live, fish can lay eggs. There's a lot of room in between those for crayfish and aquatic insects. So we want to nice healthy stream for these types of fish species,” Pinder said.

Pinder explained that siltation is one of the biggest threats to candy darters and other fish since the fine mud fills in those gaps the fish require.

Jordan Richard with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has spent a lot of time swimming in streams looking for candy darters. “They are not particularly abundant,” he said of the stream in which he was sitting. “And this is one of the best streams that we have.”

Richard believes protecting the candy darter is part of maintaining the entire ecosystem.

“Darters are bug eaters so a lot of the bugs that swim around and annoy us throughout the summer, they start their lives in streams. It's the candy darter's job in life to eat those bugs,” he said.

If there is one factor working in favor of the candy darter, it’s that it’s universally regarded as one of the most beautiful freshwater fish on North America.  

“It is an incredible fish. It is one of the prettiest freshwater fish in North America, said Pinder. I would say when the males are in their breeding condition in the spring, it rivals anything you find in the tropics or in the Caribbean.

It’s true. The aptly named candy darter seems out of place against the drab colors of mountain streams, like say a scarlet macaw, a brightly colored from the South American rainforest, sitting in a northern birch tree.  And yet, if you know where to loo,k there it is swimming among its brown brethren in a few select streams in the Blue Ridge Mountains. 

The group’s ambition is to learn as much about the fish as possible and return it to much of its historic range.  And it may take federal protections to accomplish that. But everyone in the group warns that protections, are not the end goal – but a means to an end.

“What we would like to do is have enough streams that have this fish, that used to have this fish, take off so we can remove some of the levels of protection for the species,” Pinder said.

But time may not be on their side.

“For a long time, we’ve known that the candy darters have been on the decline in Virginia and West Virginia as well. But with the increasing warming of water and increasing siltation we see, there was increasing concern that it might warrant federal status, said Angermeier.

So, two years ago the group convened in Blacksburg with their counterparts in West Virginia.
“We put everything we knew about the Candy Darter on the table,” said Richard. “All distribution, historic records, population data, genetics, everything we could get our hands on.  We wanted to make sure we understood all the data we have on the species,” he said.

“My job is to go through the data and determine trends … and see if the species warrants listing as threatened or endangered under the endangered species act,” Richard said.

Based on research by the members of this group and their colleagues in West Virginia, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed a rule that the darter be listed as threatened -- a step away from endangered.  The announcement will be made on October 4, 2018.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has performed extensive research on the Candy Darter, along with Katie McBaine and Paul Angermeier of Virginia Tech. 

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