ATLANTA— In response to a 2010 petition and 2015 agreement with the Center for Biological Diversity, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today proposed to protect a population of the frecklebelly madtom in the upper Coosa River of Georgia and Tennessee as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The agency also proposed to designate 134 miles of the Etowah and Conasauga Rivers as protected critical habitat.
The frecklebelly madtom is a stout, boldly patterned catfish that reaches 4 inches in length and occurs in medium to large rivers with clean gravels in both the Pearl River and Mobile Basins of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee.
“Recognition of the unique frecklebelly madtom as threatened shows we need to do more to care for our rivers and streams,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Decades of damming, channelization and pollution have taken a toll on these catfish. Protecting the madtom under the Endangered Species Act will help not just the fish, but rivers we all need to live.”
The madtom has declined across its range, but the Fish and Wildlife Service found it is likely to remain stable everywhere but the upper Coosa, where pollution related to agriculture and urban sprawl are driving the species towards extinction. The madtom is also threatened by climate change, which is expected to increase the frequency and severity of droughts in the Southeast.
Madtoms are known for their parental care. Both male and female frecklebelly madtoms construct nest cavities under rocks, logs, mussel shells or even bottles, cans or boards by moving substrate with their heads or mouths. They feed on caddisflies and other aquatic insects and need stream vegetation or other cover to avoid predators.
“These cool little catfish need our help,” said Greenwald. “We have to pull together and stop polluting rivers and streams not just where the frecklebelly madtom lives, but everywhere.”
The Southeast’s rivers and streams are a hotspot of biological diversity, harboring 493 fishes (62% of U.S fish species) and at least 269 mussels (91% of all U.S. mussel species). The Coosa River is the site of the greatest modern extinction event in North America: 36 species were eliminated following construction of a series of dams. Overall, the Mobile Basin is home to half of all North American species that have gone extinct since European settlement.