Mississippi Fish Proposed for Endangered Species Act Protection After 25 Years On Waiting List

Jackson, Miss.-(ENEWSPF)- In response to a settlement with the Center for Biological Diversity to speed protections for 757 species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed today to protect the Pearl darter as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The small fish has been wiped out of its namesake watershed, the Pearl River, and now survives only in the Pascagoula River basin in the southeast portion of the state.

“Endangered Species Act protection is the best hope for saving this beautiful little fish from the very big threats it’s facing,” said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center. “Spending 25 years on a waiting list allowed the fish to be wiped out from nearly two-thirds of its range, so it’s a relief that it has finally been proposed for the protection it needs to survive.”

The darter’s future is threatened by water pollution from oil and gas development, sand and gravel mining, urbanization and agriculture. Darters live on the river bottom and use the spaces between rocks for hiding and breeding. But habitat destruction causes erosion that fills these spaces with silt, and pollution and silt harm the insects the darters need for food. Other threats include the proposed damming of Little and Big Cedar creeks, tributaries to the Pascagoula River — which would cause downstream water-quality degradation — as well as climate change, hurricanes and other catastrophic events.

The species’ historical range was approximately 775 river miles in Mississippi and Louisiana. It has been extirpated from all 440 river miles where it was once found in the Pearl River watershed. Of the 335 river miles where it was once found in the Pascagoula watershed, it is now thought to survive in scattered populations along 279 river miles in the Pascagoula, Chickasawhay, Chunky, Leaf and Bouie rivers, though it hasn’t been confirmed in the Bouie or Chunky rivers in 15 years. Overall the species has been lost from at least 64 percent of its historic range. The Southeastern Fishes Council names the Pearl darter as one of the 12 most endangered fish in the southeastern United States.

The darter was first placed on the candidate waiting list for federal protection in 1991; the Center petitioned for its protection in 2004. In 2011 the Center and the Service reached a landmark agreement requiring the agency to make decisions on all of the plants and animals on the candidate waiting list by the end of this fiscal year. Under the agreement, 148 species have gained protection and 40 have been proposed for protection.

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.

Following today’s proposed protection, the Service will accept public comment before finalizing protection for the fish in one year.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.1 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.