Sight of rare species is sign North Carolina river is cleaner
The Associated Press
GATESVILLE, N.C. (AP) — Standing within a thick patch of lily pads, and deep in tea-colored water, North Carolina biologist Tyler Black spotted a silvery minnow flopping among the other fish in his seine net.
His heart leaped.
“Whoa, what is that?” he asked fisheries technician Michael Young. “I’ve never seen this before.”
The little fish had a black stripe down its side like a bridle shiner, a species not seen in the Chowan River system since the late 1960s.
Black and Young found eight more of the fish July 5 in the same place, a small tributary of the Chowan River in Hertford County called Deep Swamp Branch.
Later, Black studied his books, looking at drawings, comparing similar species. This had to be a bridle shiner, he determined.
The find was made public after scientists verified that the fish was a bridle shiner. Slow-moving and about 2 inches long, bridle shiners thrive in unpolluted waters thick with natural vegetation from Canada to South Carolina.
Their numbers are in decline, and most states list them as a vulnerable, threatened or endangered species, Black said.
Black and Young were searching for the Chowanoke crayfish as part of another project, but finding a bridle shiner was bigger news for the conservation community. If a fish this rare can turn up, then so could other rare animals — fish, mammals or birds.
It also means the habitat is recovering.
In 1979, after suffering severe algal blooms, the Chowan River became the first body of water in North Carolina listed as nutrient-sensitive, a condition caused by farm runoff and sewer discharge.
What had once been one of the best bass fishing rivers in the state and a haven for commercial species was in decline.
The state of North Carolina and various agencies required farmers to control agricultural runoff and clamped down on dumping hog waste directly into the river. More controls were placed on municipal wastewater-treatment plants.
A 2011 report shows that, since the 1990s, the Chowan and many of its tributaries have been improving and now carry a greater variety and larger numbers of the insects crucial to supporting large fish.
“The bridle shiner is an indicator of good water quality,” said Greg Garman, director of the Center for Environmental Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.
The discovery is also a testament to the skills of the biologist who spotted it among all the other plentiful silvery minnows, Garman said. Black described it as tougher than finding a needle in a haystack — more like “finding a specific needle in a stack of needles.”
Concerns remain about the Chowan’s quality, said Susan Massengale, a spokeswoman for the North Carolina Division of Water Quality.
“Like much of the state, pollution carried by stormwater and other non-point pollution sources remain as a primary threat to water quality,” Massengale said.
If good bass fishing is an indicator, then the Chowan is doing well, said Doug Hewitt, president of the Albemarle Bass Masters. The club regularly holds fishing tournaments on the river. In a March tournament, Hewitt caught more than 19 pounds of bass.
“There’s plenty of fish out there,” he said.
On Monday, Black and Young returned to work on the banks of the Chowan River in Gates County. Crayfish, bridle shiners and other small creatures hide in the shadows of cypress trees, thistles and wild blueberries growing along the shore.
The men used a battery pack and long metal probes to send electrical currents through the water, temporarily immobilizing the animals.
Black was able to net a few species, including Chowanoke crayfish, his original quarry. Afterward, they put aside the electrical-shock equipment to try the seine-net technique, a dragnet-like method that yielded the bridle shiners on July 5.
Over a couple of hours and along about 100 meters of shoreline, the biologists found species such as largemouth bass and bluegill. They found six Chowanoke crayfish, a sign that the species was healthy there.
But not one bridle shiner appeared.
“You’ll put in a lot of effort and not get anything sometimes,” Black said.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.