Tiny Tennessee Fish in Jeopardy as Federal Protections Remain Unclear

by Amy Myers
Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Wildlife researchers scoured the streams of a Tennessee cow pasture just to find and rescue a handful of teeny, orange fish. Strange as it seems, this environment was one of the last places where Barrens topminnows thrived naturally. Now safely at the Tennessee Aquarium, these fish are perhaps the last hope for a population that wavers incredibly close to extinction.

As it turns out, the Barrens topminnows are actually a protected species under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as of 2019, which should help maintain the scaly creatures’ natural habitats. But there’s just one problem – the Service hasn’t defined what its habitat is or where to find it. Without this clear indication, there is no real action Tennessee conservationists can take in order to preserve the natural population. Instead, they’ve had to watch the Barrens topminnows disappear from streams and springs, particularly around Manchester, which hosts the annual Bonnaroo music festival.

Thanks to biologists like Bernie Kuhajda, though, there is a glimmer of hope left for the species, and they found it among a herd of grazing cows.

“If we hadn’t rescued these 64, this entire genetic population of Barrens topminnows would have disappeared,” Kuhajda said, according to AP. “This species would have been one step closer to extinction, and it’s not many steps away now.”

Barrens topminnows tend to grow to a mere four inches in length and live only three years. Their diet consists of plants and other small marine animals, working at one of the lowest tiers of the food chain.

Fellow biologist Pat Rakes, who researched the Barrens topminnow for his master’s degree thesis at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, stated that while small, these fish play a crucial role in keeping a healthy ecosystem.

“You don’t throw away any parts if you are tinkering with the machine, or you might not be able to put it back together,” Rakes explained metaphorically.

The Tennessee-native fish are a sight to behold, too. With iridescent bodies and bright, colorful spots, they catch the light like an underwater jewel.

“They’re absolutely gorgeous,” said Margaret Townsend, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “They look like jewelry, like they are covered in gemstones.”

Recently, Townsend has filed a lawsuit against the USFWS over the lapse in habitat definition. On September 7, they wrote back to the attorney, stating that they are “working diligently” on the proposed habitat description by the end of the year. Until then, they asked Townsend (and other concerned conservationists) for their patience.

Meanwhile, biologists will have to continue protecting what little remains of the current wild population and hope for restoration in the future.

“It’s part of our natural heritage here in the Southeast and most folks don’t know about it,” Rakes said. “Most of these animals you find nowhere else except right here. It’s something to be proud of.”