|For Immediate Release, July 12, 2021
517 River Miles of Lifesaving Habitat in Mississippi Proposed to Protect Threatened Pearl Darter
BILOXI, Miss.— Following nearly two decades of advocacy by the Center for Biological Diversity, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today proposed to protect 517 river miles of critical habitat for the pearl darter, a threatened fish from Mississippi.
“To save animals from extinction we have to protect their habitat,” said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Protecting rivers and streams for the Pearl darter will save this special little fish from extinction and also improve water quality for the people who live near the Pearl and Pascagoula rivers.”
The fish historically swam in about 775 river miles in Mississippi and Louisiana, but it has been extirpated from all 440 river miles where it was once found in the Pearl River watershed. Overall the species has been lost from at least 64% of its historic range.
Today’s critical habitat proposal includes a unit in the Pearl River basin where the fish can be reintroduced to help it stave off extinction and ultimately recover multiple healthy populations.
The habitat proposed for protection is found in 13 Mississippi counties: Clarke, Covington, Forrest, George, Greene, Lauderdale, Jackson, Jones, Newton, Perry, Simpson, Stone and Wayne.
The darter was first placed on the candidate waiting list for federal protection in 1991. In 2004 the Center petitioned for its protection and filed a lawsuit over delay in 2010. In 2017 the fish was finally protected as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
While it’s already illegal to harm the fish, critical habitat designation adds an additional layer of protection, requiring any federally funded or permitted project to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service to make sure its habitat is not harmed by a proposed activity.
The darter’s habitat has been harmed by water pollution from oil and gas development, sand and gravel mining, urbanization and agriculture. Darters live on river bottoms and use the spaces between rocks for hiding and breeding. But habitat destruction causes erosion that fills these spaces with silt and harms the insects the darters need for food.
The Pearl darter is about 2.5 inches long, and males develop showy patterns during the breeding season. It has a blunt snout, large eyes located high on its head and a black spot at the base of its tail fin. The Southeastern Fishes Council has named the Pearl darter as one of the 12 most endangered fish in the southeastern United States.
“The fact that the Pearl darter can’t be found in its namesake river shows the global extinction crisis is unfolding right here, in the rivers of the southeastern United States,” said Curry. “Freshwater animals are at the leading edge of this crisis across the planet. By protecting the little-known fish, mussels and other critters that live in our streams and rivers, we’re creating a safer future for humans, too.”