Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Happy 40th Birthday National Marine Sanctuaries Act!

True or False? The oceans are vast and inexhaustible in resources.  While not too long ago scientists believed this to be true, it is resoundingly false.  While the oceans are vast, the resources they provide the planet must be managed effectively to ensure a healthy planet and healthy people.  No matter where we live, whether it is on the coast or hundreds of miles inland, the ocean affects our everyday life.  The ocean provides much of the oxygen for planet Earth through the photosynthesis of phytoplankton, algae, and other aquatic plants;  the ocean regulates the planet’s weather and climate; we rely on the ocean for transportation of goods; the ocean provides us with food; the ocean floor provides us with natural resources including oil and natural gas; the ocean provides other resources that are used in medicine.  If the ocean is not healthy, we are not healthy.

Over the last two centuries, the human population has exploded and technology has advanced at breakneck speed.  This made areas once remote and inaccessible to people within reach.  Coastal development contributed to pollution of estuaries and near shore areas.  The need for food caused a gold rush of sorts to the coast where fishers exhausted fisheries to the point of collapse.  Something needed to change, and proactive measures needed to be taken to ensure that our ocean resources could endure for generations.

1972 was a good year for environmental legislation.  The Clean Water Act (CWA) and the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) are two well known pieces of legislation that passed into law in 1972.  They were landmarks for conservation, giving agencies the obligation to regulate clean water and punish individuals or organizations that harm marine mammals, many of which are threatened or endangered.  However, another act was also passed that same year.  It is just as important as the CWA or MMPA.  It addresses some of the challenges described above and the goal of this act is to ensure that future generations can enjoy the cultural, economic, and ecological benefits of the marine environment:  The National Marine Sanctuaries Act (NMSA).

The NMSA gives authority to the Secretary of Commerce to designate areas of the marine environment as national marine sanctuaries.  These areas may be selected based on conservation needs, economic or ecological benefits they provide, or their cultural archaeological or educational qualities they possess.  Currently, there are 14 National Marine Sanctuaries in U.S. waters, and each protects a precious resource for us and for future generations.  Sanctuaries may protect a significant archaeological site from degradation, nursery areas for commercially important fish, breeding grounds for fish and marine mammals, or may have a high diversity of organisms in that area.

Currently the NMSA is under reauthorization.  This means that the Act may be updated so that it can adapt to current management regimes for marine resources,  In addition, it may also allow for more sanctuaries to be added to the national system.  More sanctuaries means more areas where fish and other marine animals can escape from intense pressures from people.  More marine sanctuaries means healthier oceans:  future harvest for fishers, scenic places for divers and snorkelers to enjoy, and refuges for marine animals.  

Friday, October 19, 2012

Critical Habitat Designated for Five Endangered Southeastern Fishes

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has designated 229 miles of rivers and creeks and 29 acres of springs and wetlands as critical habitat for five endangered fishes in the southeastern U.S.  Critical habitat is the area important to the survival of an imperiled species at the time of its listing. Some of these critical habitats may need special management or protection to ensure the survival of the endangered fish.  Most of the habitat for these fishes has been degraded due to fragmentation, channel modification, sedimentation, and altered flows of these river and creek systems.


Critical habitat for the Rush Darter (Etheostoma phytophilum) is three isolated area in north-central Alabama including tributaries and spring systems of the Turkey Creek (Jefferson County), Clear Creek (Winston County), and Little Cove- Bristow Creek watersheds (Etowah County). The Rush Darter relies on aquatic vegetation associated with groundwater to feed, hide, and reproduce.
Endangered Rush Darters (Etheostoma phytophilum) from a spring in north-central Alabama. Photo by Bernie Kuhajda.
Unnamed spring along a state highway in north-central Alabama, critical habitat for the endangered Rush Darter (Etheostoma phytophilum). Photo by Bernie Kuhajda.
The Laurel Dace (Chrosomus saylori) is right in our backyard.  It is a colorful minnow found only on the top of Walden Ridge outside of Chattanooga, Tennessee.  Its critical habitat is only six small creeks in Bledsoe, Rhea, and Sequatchie counties!

Endangered Laurel Dace (Chrosomus saylori) found in creeks on Walden Ridge near Chattanooga. Photo by Dave Neely.
The Chucky Madtom (Noturus crypticus) is a small catfish only known from Little Chucky Creek, a small tributary to the Nolichucky River in east-central Tennessee, Greene County.   Such a small range makes the protection of the critical habitat extremely important, especially since this is an extremely rare and endangered fish.  Only a couple of specimens have been collected in the last 20 years!

Endangered Chucky Madtom (Noturus crypticus) only found in a single small creek in east-central Tennessee. Illustration by Joe Tomelleri.

The Cumberland Darter (Etheostoma susanae) is restricted to the upper Cumberland River system in Tennessee and Kentucky.  Critical habitat includes 15 creeks systems.  Coal mining is one of the main human actions that has threatened this fish and its habitat.

Endangered Cumberland Darter (Etheostoma susanae) found in creeks of the upper Cumberland River system in Tennessee and Kentucky. Photo from http://conservationfisheries.org/index.php/species/all-species/etheostoma-susanae-cumberland-darter/.

The Yellowcheek Darter (Etheostoma moorei) is a found in the Ozark Highlands in north-central Arkansas. Critical Habitat includes the Devil’s, Middle, South, and Archey forks of the Little Red River in Cleburne, Searcy, Stone, and Van Buren counties.

Endangered Yellowcheek Darter (Etheostoma moorei) found in the Little Red River drainage in north-central Arkansas. Photo from http://conservationfisheries.org/index.php/species/all-species/etheostoma-moorei-yellowcheek-darter/.

Hopefully now that the critical habitat has been designated for these endangered fishes, active conservation plans can be made or implemented to prevent these animals from going extinct.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Happy 40th Birthday Clean Water Act!

We all live downstream.  No matter where our home is, from the highest mountains in the Appalachians to the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, we are dependent on our community for a healthy water supply.  In the Southeast, water is a relatively abundant resource.  Not only do we have a network of rivers that have stimulated the growth of the region, we also have more species of fishes, turtles, crayfishes, salamanders, and other aquatic animals than any other part of the United States.  These species give us many benefits, from providing popular sport fishing to filtering and cleaning our water.  Whether we are conscious of it or not, the rich aquatic biodiversity and water resources of the Southeast enhance our quality of life.

We haven’t always been good stewards of these rivers that provide for our economy and our environment.  Before we began to grapple with regulating water quality, some rivers were so polluted that their waters could burn from containing oil and other contaminants.  The Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire more than a dozen times from the 1860s to the 1960s.  Something was wrong—water was not providing life—it was killing it.

The Cuyohoga River on fire in 1969.  From http://www.ohiohistorycentral.org/images/11-3-52.jpg
Pollution in our waters comes in many forms and from many sources.  Discharge from industrial plants, as well as runoff from our streets and backyards can have a negative impact on our water.  Pollution in the U.S. is comprehensive.  It ranges from very simple substances, like dirt, to very complex molecules, like estrogen-mimicking compounds that aren't currently removed from wastewater treatment processes.  Siltation is also major pollutant in many southeastern streams and springs. 

Siltation in the Conasauga River.  Photo by Todd Crail.
In order to regulate water pollution, Congress passed the Clean Water Act 40 years ago today.  It has dramatically transformed how we prevent and regulate water pollution in our country, and many of our rivers are recovering as a result.  Under the Clean Water Act, the Environmental Protection Agency sets standards for industries and how, when, and how much pollution they discharge into the water.  

Prior to the Clean Water Act, only one third of the nation’s rivers, lakes, and estuaries were safe for fishing and recreation.  In 40 years, we have doubled that number, and now 60% of our waters are safe.  This is not only beneficial to human health, but to wildlife as well.  Aquatic organisms have recolonized areas that were severely degraded prior to the passing of the Clean Water Act.  This piece of legislation is one of the many reasons TNACI is able to reintroduce Lake Sturgeon into the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers.  In addition, we can now easily catch fishes in the Cahaba River in Alabama that we rarely saw twenty years ago—like Coal Darters and Goldline Darters

Goldline Darters (Percina aurolineata).  Photo by Dr. Bernard Kuhajda
While the Clean Water Act has significantly improved water quality in rivers, lakes, and streams of the U.S., 40% of our waters are considered unsafe and are still facing challenges.  Treatment of industry discharge can fail or lapse, almost instantly increasing pollution in rivers exponentially.  Non-point-source pollution in the form of siltation from erosion and nutrients from yards and agriculture can degrade water quality to the point where aquatic organisms cannot survive.  While the Clean Water Act has the authority to regulate non-point source pollution, it is much more difficult to control.  The construction industry must provide silt barriers when completing projects near any water body or ditch leading to water, but these are ineffective if improperly installed or not maintained.  Much of the non-point source pollution affecting our rivers comes from individual practices, and it is changes in our daily actions that can make a difference.

Even in areas with abundant water supply, like the Southeastern U.S., we all need to think about decreasing our individual consumption to sustain the supply because droughts are unpredictable and widespread.  What long-term strategies can ensure that we will continue to have water for our personal use and that we will have an environment our children can enjoy through fishing, swimming, and boating?
  • Regulate development.   With effective land-use planning we can continue to grow while not threatening the availability of water for humans and animals. 
  •  Increase the amount of permeable surfaces and retention ponds in our cities and suburbs so that rain does not run-off gutters and streets directly into our rivers but instead recharges groundwater storage.
  • Protect forested banks along rivers, called riparian zones, which keep sediments and pollutants from directly entering our streams and degrading water quality.
  • Protect imperiled animals, such as mussels, which not only filter and clean our water for free, but also are pillars of some fishing industries. 
  • Reduce use of nutrients on yards and agricultural fields.  In addition, we affect the quantity and quality of water available to our downstream neighbors.  Out of the 31 states that make up the Mississippi River drainage, Tennessee is one of nine that are contributing 75% of the nutrient pollution that is creating a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

As Alexandra Cousteau said when she visited the Tennessee Aquarium last month, we are our watershed.  I am part of the Tennessee River.  The Clean Water Act is a major player in keeping my river clean, but there are things that I, and that we all must do to keep it that way.  Keeping the Tennessee River healthy is part of keeping myself healthy. 

Co-Authors: Anna L. George and Ashford S. Rosenberg

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Proposed Listing of the Spring Pygmy Sunfish as Threatened

The Spring Pygmy Sunfish Elassoma alabamae

The imperiled Spring Pygmy Sunfish (Elassoma alabamae), which is restricted to springs and spring-fed creeks along a five-mile length of Beaverdam Creek in northern Alabama, was proposed for federal listing as threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on 2 October 2012. Critical habitat for the species is also designated. This species was historically known from two other spring systems in the Tennessee River drainage in Alabama, but habitat destruction from dams, reservoirs, and herbicides caused these populations to disappear.

Beaverdam Spring, ideal habitat for the Spring Pygmy Sunfish
The Spring Pygmy Sunfish only reaches 1 inch, only lives for a year, and needs clear spring water and dense submerged vegetation.  They are reliant on their vision to find food and mates, so clear water is essential.  The dense submerged vegetation is needed for the eggs to be successfully laid, hatch, and for juveniles and adults to hide from predators. These life history traits make the species vulnerable to habitat disturbances that muddy the water, herbicides that reduce or kill aquatic vegetation, and groundwater withdrawals that lower water levels and together with drought conditions have caused springs in the system to go completely dry.

Spring Pygmy Sunfish habitat in the Beaverdam Creek system is highly imperiled due to the rapid growth of nearby Huntsville and an increase in agricultural and municipal groundwater pumping in the aquifer that feeds these springs. Construction projects with no or improperly installed silt fences and an increase in impervious surfaces that produces heavy stormwater runoff threaten water quality.

Ineffective silt fences along Beaverdam Creek that contribute to the siltation of critical habitat
Impervious surfaces also threaten water quantity by deflecting water that would normally recharge the underlying aquifer. These are just some of the escalating threats that Beaverdam Creek and the Spring Pygmy Sunfish are facing.