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Sunday, March 3, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Sunfish Drifting Toward Extinction, Says Agency

WASHINGTON (CN) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to list the spring pygmy sunfish as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, with a designation of critical habitat of the only spring it inhabits and a historically inhabited spring where the species may be reintroduced.

The action is part of a 2011 settlement between the agency and environmental groups that requires the USFWS to speed listing decisions on 757 plants and animals, "including hundreds in the Southeast," according to a Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) statement.

"A recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey found that North American fish species are going extinct at a rate 877 times the fossil record and that this rate may double between now and 2050. Alabama is at the center of this fish extinction crisis with 124 species recognized by scientists as being imperiled. Of these, only 14 are protected under the Endangered Species Act," the CBD statement continued.

The pygmy sunfish, less than one inch long, lives in the Beaverdam Spring/Creek system in the Tennessee River drainage area in Limestone County, Alabama, and is threatened by pesticide and herbicide pollution, urban and industrial development, and large scale water extractions despite the protections provided by a voluntary Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA) between the wildlife agency and private landowners. The CCAA protects a quarter of the habitat occupied by the species, the agency said in a statement.

The fish was discovered in 1937, and twice thought to be extinct, the CBD said. "Two of the three populations have disappeared. The Cave Springs population was extirpated in 1938 due to inundation by the formation of the Pickwick Reservoir; the Pryor Springs population disappeared by the late 1960s, most likely due to dredging and chemical contamination. The single remaining native population occupies just five river miles of the Beaverdam Springs complex," the CBD said.

The little sunfish languished in listing limbo since 1977, when it was first proposed for listing. It was removed from the candidate list in 1996 when new populations were found and thought to be increasing.

The CBD petitioned for listing in 2009, and the federal agency entered into the CCAA in 2010 as an interim conservation measure, according to the action.

The agency proposed a threatened listing because many of the threats the fish face are not imminent, such as urban and industrial developments that are still in the planning stage. "Current evidence suggests that the spring pygmy sunfish may become threatened with extinction in the foreseeable future," the agency said.

The agency requests scientific and commercial information to be used in the preparation of a final listing rule.

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