CHARLESTON, W.V.— In response to a decade of action from conservation groups, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today finalized critical habitat protection for the candy darter, a small, brightly colored fish, under the Endangered Species Act.
“Protecting critical habitat for the candy darter will help this little fish stave off extinction and will save a beautiful piece of Appalachia’s rich natural heritage for future generations,” said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity.
Critical habitat protection will ensure that any federally funded or permitted activity will be reviewed by the Service to make sure it is not harmful to the fish’s habitat.
The candy darter has been lost from at least half its range. There are 18 surviving populations, only five of which are considered to be healthy. The fish was originally known from 35 populations and was once relatively common throughout its range.
The darter was first identified as being in need of federal protection in 1982. The Center, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, the Clinch Coalition and other groups petitioned for protection of the candy darter in 2010, and the fish finally gained Endangered Species Act protection in 2018.
The candy darter is threatened by pollution, competition and hybridization with the introduced variegate darter and by trout stocking. The darters prefer shallow, fast flowing streams with rocky bottoms. Their habitat becomes unsuitable when silt and sediment from logging, mining and other activities fill in the spaces between the rocks, burying the places they need for shelter and egg-laying.
“The plight of the candy darter is shared by fish across the region. The threat freshwater animals face from extinction has been magnified 1,000 times over by humans not taking good enough care of streams and rivers,” said Curry.
The White Sulphur Springs National Fish Hatchery, with advice from Conservation Fisheries Inc., is raising candy darters in captivity to re-establish wild populations.
“Protecting the little creatures that help keep streams healthy also helps safeguard clean water,” said Curry. “So by helping out the candy darter, we’re also making life better for present and future generations of people.”
With vivid teal, orange and red coloration during the breeding season, candy darters are considered to be one of the most vibrant fishes in North America.
Candy darters are found in the upper Kanawha River basin in Virginia and West Virginia. The critical habitat is in five units in the Middle and Upper New, Lower and Upper Gauley and Greenbrier watersheds. The habitat is in Greenbrier, Nicholas, Pocahontas and Webster counties in West Virginia and in Bland, Giles and Wythe counties in Virginia.
Darters play an important role in nature because they eat insects and are eaten in turn by larger fish and other animals. They also serve as hosts for freshwater mussel reproduction. Candy darters grow to be about 3 inches long, and males defend their territories by nipping at and chasing away competitors.