Dedicated to the Conservation of Southeastern Fishes
2002 Report of Region 2 - Southeast
Clearly the most significant news in the Southeast is the tentative, "unanimous agreement" to the Tri-State Water Compact, which delineates water allocation and interbasin transfer between the Apalachicola and Mobile river drainages, affecting Alabama, Florida, and Georgia. The sometimes-contentious compact, finally signed on 15 January, is (at this writing) open to the public for comment for 60 days, after which it must be signed by the governors of the three states. It will then undergo a final, thorough review by the Federal Commissioner before becoming a binding agreement.
Population growth and future water supply for Atlanta was a primal force driving the compact. Obviously, the states had specific concerns relative to water availability for commerce, industry, recreation, and natural resources. Florida's principal concern seemed centered on maintaining sufficient water in Apalachicola Bay to support the profitable oyster and shrimp fisheries, whereas Alabama's primary concern appears to be equability of water allocation with Georgia. The latter concern is valid: thirsty Atlanta plans to construct a "ring of reservoirs" to supply the megalopolis with water. In terms of wielding influence, Atlanta is very much a city-state, an irony given the predisposition of Georgians to naming their cities in honor of Greco-Roman civilization.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service bears the onerous task of devising a plan to protect the high number of listed aquatic species in the taxa in these watersheds. It is hoped that these plans will indirectly protection to the large number of aquatic endemics). Protection of listed species is based on the caveat of creating opportunities for recovery, as mandated by the Endangered Species Act. In summary, manipulation of complicated plumbing is supposed to offset the negative effects of increased impoundment and system fragmentation, and increased degradation of lotic systems from the cascading effects of growth and landscape transfiguration. Obviously, the "C" in compact doesn't stand for conservation.
While the Fish and Wildlife Service is often criticized, maligned, and even sued by conservation groups, the small, understaffed federal agency tackled this complex problem with tenacity and conviction. Actually, the Fish and Wildlife Service was hamstrung by insufficient time and funding to conduct the background studies needed to understand the basic problems created by the compact. While "doing the best they could" is as unsatisfying as kissing your sister, the FWS represented the resource responsibly. Kudos.
The reality is that no biologist understands the array of habitat requirements of all the listed aquatic taxa in these basins. While variability of river discharges over time is intuitively recognized as an important model criterion, it is difficult to translate into engineering models. When rivers become regulated by dams, the question "How much water do species-communities-processes need?" seems to be a perfectly logical approach to managing a regulated systems for biodiversity. In the absence of information, the fall back position tends to argue for as much water as possible relative to the base flows of regulated rivers. Based on her work in the Tallapoosa River system, Mary Freeman observed that extraordinarily low flows during droughts might be important to the dispersal of little fishes. Perhaps such periods are important to maintaining intraspecific heterogeneity among tributary species. Yet, in developing compacts for water allocation, do "we" really want to say that 7Q10 flows are occasionally desirable?
It is difficult to think of successively impounded river reaches as the long-term state of those systems, yet planners appear to assume long-term maintenance of these dams is a given. Is it realistic, however, to assume that society will maintain these edifices 100, 200, and especially 500 years from now? Therein lies the rub between the biologist thinking about what is needed to maintain diversity and an engineer thinking about projected water demands. While the example is simple, its application is not. An engineering concept that throttles biological mindsets is that of "excess water," i.e., the flowing water that is not being put to "work." That is analogous to stating that the earth has excess atmosphere, i.e., any that is not used for respiration or to provide a thermal buffer is excess. In facing the intense pressure to "give up" water, the Fish and Wildlife Service had to adopt the position that protecting listed species will also protect most diversity, and the simplest and best way to accomplish this was to get as much water as possible.
A different, but potentially insidious threat is the rapidly expanding population of the red shiner (Cyprinella lutrensis) in the upper Coosa River. Fish surveys made during 1989 to 1993 only found the red shiner in the lower Etowah River. While spread of the aggressive red shiner was a point of concern, no evidence of its spread was detected until Summer 2000. At that time it was discovered to have spread throughout the Oostanaula River and to have entered the lower reaches of the Conasauga and Coosawattee rivers, and to be causing a massive hybrid swarm with the "Mobile" blacktail shiner C. stigmatura. The red shiner is spreading in river mainstems at an estimated rate of 30.4 rkm/yr. At this rate, it will contact the lowermost populations of the threatened blue shiner C. caerulea in three years or less. This spring and summer, it will be determined if the red shiner will hybridize with the blue shiner in large current tanks.
Mary Freeman spent the last two summers sampling fishes in streams on the lower Georgia Piedmont that are affected by water withdrawals or water-supply reservoirs, as part of a USGS-State Partnership Program with the GA DNR - Wildlife Resources Division. Our objectives are to relate fish community composition and integrity to potential for low-flow depletion. I'm still engrossed in data analysis, but we can say that all sites below water supply reservoirs scored fair to poor in terms of IBI, a finding of some concern given the proliferation of proposals for new reservoirs in response to the continuing drought. These sights can also be sources of nonindigenous species introductions.
Mary's compatriot, Bud, is a CO-PI with Laurie Fowler (UGA Institute of Ecology and Law School) on an effort to develop habitat community profiles for imperiled fishes in the Etowah basin. They have received the first funding of a 3-year project, motivated by the astronomic urban growth occurring in the basin, near areas of persisting species diversity. This type of study is likely needed in aquatic basins throughout the southeast, in streams representing the array of landform (geologic and physiographic) diversity.
Steve Walsh, USGS, Florida Caribbean Science Center, Gainesville, has been contracted by the Florida Park system to survey the magnitude 1 springs in the state for fishes. It is not often that one gets to sample these startlingly beautiful springs; consequently, his trips are popular and well supported by laboratory personnel. In contrast, Leo Nico's fieldwork in South Florida canals, for nonindigenous fishes, remains the least popular trips among lab personnel.
Welcome: Walt Courtenay, retired Professor Emeritus et seq., has taken a position as a Biological Technician at the USGS lab, Gainesville (yet another ichthyologist). Walt has become a regular fixture at the lab. Yet, he can be easily recognized as an "emeritus scientist" by virtue of color coordination and the cell phone belt holster. Needless to say, Carter Gilbert is jealous of both. Walt, Pam Fuller, Leo Nico, and Jim Williams are the organizers for the nonindigenous species symposium at the forthcoming ASIH meetings in Kansas. Other Gainesvillians: Howard Jelks, with ex-gator cum Jesuit (Loyola University of New Orleans) Frank Jordan, are continuing work on Okaloosa darters, entering their seventh year of monitoring darter populations. Research by N. Burkhead is focusing on the "axis of evil" red shiner and its misbehavior with congeners in the upper Coosa River system.
Apology: Due to the late preparation, and somewhat sparse response by Region II contacts, the regional report is atypically short and concise.