Tracking the sicklefin: Understanding rare fish’s lifestyle important for conservation

Smoky Mountain News
3 December 2014

The sicklefin redhorse is a sneaky kind of fish. It wasn’t discovered as a species until 1992, and even with its existence known, the fish is difficult to tag and track, avoiding radio detection at the bottom of deep river pools. But will the bottom-feeding suckerfish also be able to avoid getting listed as a threatened or endangered species?

Mike LaVoie, biologist for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, is hoping to answer that question with a negative. The sicklefin has been a candidate for listing since the early 2000s — candidate species are those for whom listing is recommended but funds aren’t available to follow through — but it’s likely the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will make a decision by the end of 2015.  Listing can help vulnerable species make a comeback, but it can also make things more difficult for people who use the river.

“Our goal when we began this initiative with our partners with the Fish and Wildlife Service and the [N.C.] Wildlife Resources Commission and the Conservation Fisheries was to actively work together to restore this fish without the need for it to be listed under the Endangered Species Act,” LaVoie said.

The initiative LaVoie refers to is a restocking effort that has, over the last two years, released about 12,000 sicklefin into the upper Oconaluftee and 16,000 into the Tuckasegee River, of which the Oconaluftee is a tributary.

That’s a lot of fish, but it’s hard to say what those release numbers mean for the total population. Some wild fish already lived in the rivers, adding to the number, but young fish like the 28,000 released tend to have a high mortality rate. It’s likely that many of them died before reaching adulthood.

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