An endangered fish with brilliant candy cane coloring has hope of rebounding from near extinction after a hatchery was able to raise and release the species for the first time.
The fish, appropriately named candy darter, had once been plentiful in the upper Kanawha River Basin, which includes the Gauley, Greenbrier, and New River watersheds. It has since died off and can only be found in a few nearby streams, but only rarely.
However, biologists at the White Sulphur Springs National Fish Hatchery in West Virginia have been working hard to keep the fish alive by breeding them in captivity. And according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a school of candy darters has been sent back into the wild.
“It was a long time and a lot of hard work by so many people. We played just one role in what was a big play,” said Andrew Phipps, a hatchery biologist. “We are honored to get to work with this animal and all the folks who care so much about it. To finally get to release these animals after watching them hatch and grow for the past six months is so rewarding.”
Nearly Half of the Candy Darter Populations Have Been Killed off By A Rival Fish
USFWS says that the candy darter has been overtaken by another, similar fish called the variegate darter. That species has been able to beat its struggling competition in habitat, food, and mating. Hybridization has also begun to diminish the candy darter’s vibrant orange and green color.
Thanks to new propagation techniques, scientists are making headway by boosting the baseline population so the fish can return to streams.
Candy darters are tiny, the largest fish only measure about three inches long, but they’re incredibly important to North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia watershed ecosystems. As minnows, they feed on macroinvertebrates and grow large enough to be perfect prey for bass and trout.
The fish also contributes to freshwater mussel reproduction. Those mussels are vital for filtering pollutants out of waterways.
The U.S. government first recorded candy darters in the 1930s. At the time, there were 35 established populations in various rivers. Over the decades, nearly half of those populations have been completely diminished.
In 2018, USFWS gave the candy darter protection under the Endangered Species Act. And biologists have been working to repopulate the fish ever since. But the task was difficult because candy darters are easily stressed.
This year, scientists had a breakthrough and were able to produce 30 healthy eggs. Out of that batch, 27 hatched and 21 are growing into healthy adults. With the new growth, the hatchery is holding onto hope that it will be successful in saving the fish for generations to come.