BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (CN) — Hundreds of Birmingham revelers joined together at a local brewery last Sunday afternoon in celebration of an unlikely subject: the three federally endangered species of darter found only in central Alabama.
The darter is a small freshwater fish native to eastern North America, and in Jefferson County, Alabama, there are three species currently listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as endangered: the vermilion darter, the rush darter and the watercress darter.
At the aptly named Darter Festival, which was held at Avondale Brewing Company in downtown Birmingham on April 10, organizers made sure that festivalgoers had a good time, while also leaving with a better understanding of the imperiled fish.
“This festival is part of a general education program to take out the politics,” said Roald Hazelhoff, the director of the Southern Environmental Center at Birmingham-Southern College. “To bring it down to the level of saying, you like this little fish? It can only survive in the cleanest of water. You think we should support that?”
This year marked the city’s ninth annual Darter Festival, which is both a festival in the traditional sense and a fundraiser for the Southern Environmental Center, which manages nearby Turkey Creek Nature Preserve, where the three darter species can be found.
The 466-acre preserve, located just north of Birmingham in Pinson, is a state-owned property that offers pristine habitat for the darters, along with recreational opportunities and environmental education for the public.
“In 2019, right before Covid, we had 134,000 visitors to Turkey Creek from 27 Alabama counties, 17 U.S. states, and four non-U.S. countries, and that’s just from a sampling,” said Hazelhoff.
In the greater Birmingham metro, the movement to protect the area’s endangered darter populations has drawn a variety of different partners over the years.
In 2002, when the watercress darter was found in a spring at the Faith Apostolic Church in western Birmingham, church members quickly rallied behind the fish to support it. Today, there’s an outdoor mosaic at the church depicting the darter, and the church’s praise team even performed at this year’s Darter Festival.
Another local brewery, Good People Brewing Company, created a craft beer in support of the vermilion darter called Darter IPA. This year’s festivalgoers were able to sample the beer before it appears in stores with the vermilion darter colorfully depicted on the side of the limited-edition can.
“Good People grabbed that early and said, hey we agree with you, we should celebrate this little darter because it’s an indicator of water quality. Let’s make an IPA in its honor,” Hazelhoff said. “That’s why we have a sign that says, 'Save the Darter, Drink Darter Beer.'”
Last year, a private landowner, Emily Godsey, donated 26.1 acres of land in the Powderly neighborhood of Birmingham to the Freshwater Land Trust as a conservation easement. That property includes more than 200 feet of Seven Springs, which is one of the few known habitats for the watercress darter.
“We’re working with Emily and the church together to try and come up with a way to really enhance those properties around Seven Springs to make it better for the darters,” Sally Sperling, communications and special projects coordinator for the Freshwater Land Trust, said in a phone interview.
The Freshwater Land Trust, a local nonprofit organization, was also involved in the restoration effort at Roebuck Springs, which was the site of an unfortunate episode in 2008, where thousands of watercress darters were killed following the removal of a beaver dam.
That incident also resulted in years of legal wrangling between the city of Birmingham and state and federal wildlife officials, ending with a settlement in 2012.
More recently, the Freshwater Land Trust completed a project in partnership with Jefferson County and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to restore part of Turkey Creek on privately owned land, where the vermilion darter was being threatened by erosion and upstream development.
“Partnerships are huge in making progress on stuff like this,” said Sperling. “We’ve got these really cool endangered species in our little part of the world that don’t exist anywhere else and so I think it’s really important for us to take ownership of that and try and get the community to take ownership of it as well.”
According to Sperling, the Turkey Creek project, which was completed in February, involved rerouting the stream and replanting the banks with native vegetation.
“Because of upstream development, there was a lot of chert that came down the river and blocked off the creek,” said Sperling. “The thing with all of these darters, and this one in particular is mostly focused on the vermilion darter, but the darters need cool, slow running water to be able to thrive.”
Sitting outside at the Darter Festival on Sunday, Hazelhoff echoed those sentiments, with the sounds of the Faith Apostolic Church choir ringing in the background.
“Birmingham has an opportunity to talk about the fact that we have these endangered species still here today that can only survive in the cleanest of water,” he said. “And this festival helps the discussion.”
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