Southeastern Fishes Council
Dedicated to the Conservation of Southeastern Fishes

Teamwork Helps Keep Rare Tiny Fish Alive
May 10, 2008

Release from:
Anne Paine

The rare Barrens Topminnow, a tiny fish unique to Middle Tennessee, is getting a shot at survival without going on the Endangered Species list.

Instead, the fish, which tops out at only four inches in length, is part of a pilot restoration project based on cooperation rather than severe legal restrictions.

"We looked at ways to save the fish without having 'big government' come in,'" said Matt Hamilton, senior aquarist at the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga. The minnows were in streams crossing the land of less than a half dozen property owners, Hamilton said, which made it easier to devise a cooperative project with state and federal and private agencies.

Several landowners have been willing to fence cattle out of the creeks or make other accommodations to protect the water. Margaret and Steve Cunningham of Manchester are among about two dozen landowners who have allowed release of the minnows in a creek on their property.

"It's an interesting experiment in science," Margaret Cunningham said.

Since 75 percent of the costs for fencing around part of the creek on their farm was paid by government money, she said, it raises questions about "why help a dying fish?"

"The flip side is that this fish is somewhere in the food chain," she said. "If you can keep a healthy food chain, then the quality of your environment's running pretty good."

About 500 of the species raised at the Tennessee Aquarium were put into streams on May 1 at locations in Franklin, Coffee and Cannon counties, bringing the total to 19,000 that have been released. "We're probably halfway to the goal of having 15 sites with viable populations," Hamilton said.

The project has turned out to be "a good option," in this case but wouldn't work for many endangered species, said Lee Barclay with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, one of the partners in the effort.

Most species have too wide a range, he said. Hurdles remain for fish

The Barrens Topminnow faces more hurdles.

"It's getting to be a more stable situation, but it's still precarious because we have a new threat that wasn't there ten years ago," Barclay said.

One of the fish's nemeses is the Western Mosquito Fish, which have been introduced largely for pest control, even though native fish do a good job of eating mosquito larvae.

The outsiders, which eat the minnows' young, can quickly take over a creek and crowd out the Topminnows.