Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, April 5, 2023


Will Harlan, (828) 230-6818,

Threatened Fish Receives 524 Miles of Lifesaving Habitat in Mississippi

JACKSON, Miss.— Following a decade of advocacy by the Center for Biological Diversity, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today designated 524 river miles of critical habitat for the threatened Pearl darter.

The fish have been wiped out in their namesake river and have lost 64% of their historic range in Mississippi and Louisiana because of oil and gas development, dams, mining, urbanization and agriculture. The Southeastern Fishes Council has named the Pearl darter as one of the 12 most endangered fish in the southeastern United States.

“Protecting what’s left of their habitat gives Pearl darters a fighting chance,” said Will Harlan, Southeast director at the Center. “Dams and pollution have hammered these tiny fish, but they’re still clinging to survival in these key rivers.”

Today’s critical habitat designation includes a unit in the Pearl River basin where the fish can be reintroduced and ultimately recover multiple healthy populations. Additional critical habitat is designated across 13 Mississippi counties in the Pearl River and Pascagoula River basins.

The Pearl darter is a small, snub-nosed fish with a black spot at the base of its tail fin. Darters live on river bottoms and use the spaces between rocks for hiding and breeding.

The few remaining Pearl darter populations are breeding and reproducing right now.

Male Pearl darters develop dark bands and splotches in the spring. After mating, female Pearl darters bury eggs in gravelly river substrate. Habitat destruction has clogged river bottoms with silt that inhibits the survival of adult Pearl darters and their offspring.

The darter was first placed on the candidate waiting list for federal protection in 1991. In 2004 the Center petitioned for the species’ protection and in 2010 filed a lawsuit over delays. In 2017 the fish was finally protected as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Today’s critical habitat designation adds an additional layer of protection, requiring any federally funded or permitted project to consult with the Service to make sure the Pearl darter’s habitat is not harmed by a proposed activity.

At least two other threatened species — the Gulf sturgeon and ringed map turtle — also occupy the Pearl darter’s designated critical habitat and will benefit from the protections.

The U.S. South is a global hotspot of aquatic biodiversity. Nearly 500 fish species are found in Southern rivers, which are home to 62% of all U.S. fish species. But freshwater fish like the Pearl darter are at the leading edge of the extinction crisis. More than 30% of freshwater fish are threatened with extinction.

“Southern rivers are the most biologically diverse in the temperate world,” said Harlan. “Safeguarding the Pearl darter’s rivers will also help protect mussels, crayfish and some of the most important aquatic diversity on the planet. And by protecting the river habitat of this little-known fish, we’re creating a healthier future for humans, too.”

Pearl darter. Photo available for media use with appropriate credit. Please credit Conservation Fisheries. Image is available for media use.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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