Southeastern Fishes Council
Dedicated to the Conservation of Southeastern Fishes

Rare Fish Released Into Oconaluftee River
July 18, 2007

Release from:
Jon Ostendorff
Citizen-Times (Asheville, North Carolina)

CHEROKEE Biologists are trying a new experiment in Cherokee with a rare fish that science is just now starting to study.

Wildlife and environmental officials with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the federal government released 800 young sicklefin redhorse fish into the Oconaluftee River on the Qualla Boundary with the hopes that they will grow and spawn in river's rocky bottom.

The fish was once a mainstay in the diet of the Cherokees. They caught the fish with stone weirs and baskets. It was typically smoked and dried and used in soups.

The fish is named for its sickle-shaped dorsal fin and because it was once believed to be a redhorse sucker. It grows to about 3-feet long and can weight up to seven pounds.

The sicklefin lives only in the Little Tennessee and Hiawasse River basins. Dr. Robert Jenkins, professor of biology at Roanoke College in Virginia, discovered the fish in 1992. He is in the process of formally describing it.

Last year, biologist with N.C. State University started studying the sicklefin's movement and mating habits with a radio tracking program.

For the Eastern Band, the release this week is both scientific and cultural.

"Historically and culturally, it is a very significant species for us," said Forrest Parker, Forrest Parker, manager of the tribe's environmental program. "For years and years and years, the sucker, especially the white sucker and all the three redhorse species were all very significant to the mainstay and subsistence of the Cherokee people."

Scientists aren't sure why the fish is so rare. It is not yet considered a federal endangered species.

Some reasons for its decline could be sedimentation in Western North Carolina's rivers from development and dams constructed to control flooding and generate electricity. The sicklefin needs silt-free water to survive. It often mates in groups one or two females to several males and can travel miles upstream to spawn like salmon.

Patrick Rakes, co-director of the Knoxville-based Conservation Fishers, which works to propagate threatened and endangered fish, said studying and reintroducing the sicklefin is important to the overall health of the environment.

"All fish are important as far as I am concerned," he said. "It is like the old analogy of the parts of the world being like the parts of a motor. When you start throwing away parts, at some point you are going to throw away a critical one."