By Rick Steelhammer
The candy darter, a colorful 3-inch fish known to exist in only five relatively healthy populations scattered through West Virginia’s Gauley, Greenbrier and lower New rivers, has been listed as an endangered species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The tiny fish, a member of the perch family, gets its name from a series of nine to 10 bright red, candy-cane-like, vertical bars across its vivid teal body. It was first collected and identified as a unique species in 1931 from Stoney Creek in Pocahontas County.
Once found in 35 populations in the New, Gauley, Greenbrier and Bluestone rivers and their tributaries and considered fairly common, their former range has been reduced by more than 75 percent, due mainly to cross-breeding with the variegate darter. The variegate darter, believed introduced to the area in the 1980s by anglers using it as a bait minnow, has since spread through much of the candy darter’s range, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Pollution and sedimentation have also contributed to the candy darter’s demise.
Critical candy darter habitat to be protected through the Endangered Species Act has been identified at five sites in the middle and upper New River, the upper and lower Gauley River, and the Greenbrier River watersheds. The sites are found in Greenbrier, Nicholas, Pocahontas and Webster counties in West Virginia, and in Bland, Giles and Wythe counties in Virginia.
Endangered species status also authorizes human intervention to help the fish recover, such as hatchery propagation and the stocking of young fish.
Candy darters’ role in nature includes eating caddisfly and mayfly larvae and then being eaten in turn by larger fish. The small fish also serve as hosts for freshwater mussel reproduction.
In October of last year, the Fish and Wildlife Service announced it planned to recommend threatened, rather than endangered, status for the candy darter. But research since that time turned up data indicating the fish’s survival prospects in part of its Gauley River range had deteriorated markedly, prompting the decision to seek protection as an endangered species.
The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Clinch Coalition and other conservation groups petitioned for federal protection of the candy darter in 2010. In 2015, the Center for Biological Diversity sued the Fish and Wildlife Service to get a court-binding date for a decision on whether the fish would be protected.
The candy darter is the 15th West Virginia animal to be protected as an endangered species, joining 10 freshwater mussel species, the Guyandote crayfish, Virginia big-eared bat, Indiana bat, and the diamond darter.
Note: This article previously appeared in the Charleston Gazette Mail.