Lawsuit Launched to Protect Vanishing Freshwater Animals in Tennessee, Georgia, Other Southeast States

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Tierra Curry, (928) 522-3681

Lawsuit Launched to Protect Vanishing Freshwater Animals in Tennessee, Georgia, Other Southeast States

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - The Center for Biological Diversity filed a formal notice of intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today over its failure to protect 13 Southeast freshwater species under the Endangered Species Act. The Center petitioned for protection of the species in 2010, but the agency has failed to make a decision on their protection as required by law. The species include seven fish, four mussels and two crayfish from eight southeastern states, including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.

“The Southeast is home to more kinds of freshwater animals than anywhere else in the world, but the region has already lost more than 50 of these species to extinction,” said Tierra Curry, a biologist at the Center. “These small but important fish, mussels and crayfish need the protection of the Endangered Species Act to have a fighting chance at staying alive.”

Tennessee has more species of freshwater fish than any other state and is home to eight of the species. Georgia hosts six, Virginia hosts three, two are found in Florida, two in the Carolinas, two in Alabama and one in Mississippi. The animals face many threats, chief among them water pollution and drought.

“Protecting these little animals we don’t often think about, like fish, mussels and crawdads, will also help protect the clean, healthy water people need,” said Curry.

The Center and allies petitioned for protection for the species in 2010. In accordance with a multispecies agreement with the Center, the Service in 2011 determined that they “may warrant” protection. The agreement does not specify a date by which the agency must make required “12-month findings” on whether protection is in fact warranted for the petitioned species, and the Center will work with the Service to identify dates for the species to receive decisions between now and 2017. In the meantime independent scientists and state biologists are giving these and other petitioned species a closer look, which is having an immediate conservation benefit. The agreement has already resulted in 11 southeastern aquatic species gaining protection.

Though often underappreciated, freshwater species play a critical role in maintaining the water quality and ecological health of streams and rivers. Crayfish and small fish like darters play an important role in the food web and provide food for animals like larger fish, birds and otters. Freshwater mussels breathe and feed by constantly filtering water, which removes harmful pollutants and makes the water clearer.

“The Southeast has an incredibly rich natural heritage, and we need to do everything we can to keep it intact for our children and for future generations,” said Curry.

The 13 species included in the notice are the Suwannee moccasinshell, bridled darter, piebald madtom, Atlantic pigtoe, yellow lance, trispot darter, sickle darter, barrens darter, saddled madtom, holiday darter, Coosa creekshell, Coosawattae crayfish and north Florida spider cave crayfish.

Background
The Suwannee moccasinshell is a small freshwater mussel found only in the Suwannee River drainage in Florida. Until it was rediscovered in 2012, scientists feared it could already be extinct because it hadn’t been seen since 1994. It requires good water quality to survive and is threatened by pollution, drought and groundwater pumping. At 2 inches long, it has a black or yellowish-green shell shaped like a rhomboid. It was first put on a waiting list for federal protection in 1994.

The bridled darter is a small fish found only in northern Georgia and southeastern Tennessee in the Conasauga and Etowah river watersheds. It was discovered in 2007. It is a slender fish, about 3 inches long, and has overlapping dark, circular blotches on its sides that form undulating stripes. The darter is very sensitive to water pollution and is threatened by runoff from development, logging and agriculture.

The piebald madtom is a tiny, 4-inch catfish with striking black-and-yellow patterning, found only in western Tennessee and northern Mississippi. It was discovered in 2004. Males build nests and defend them. The eggs can be smothered by silt from erosion and runoff.

The Atlantic pigtoe is a small, yellow-to-dark-brown mussel that was once widespread in rivers on the Atlantic slope from Virginia to Georgia, but it has experienced a range decline of 70 percent. It is likely extirpated in South Carolina, and many populations in North Carolina have disappeared. The juveniles of this mussel are killed by high levels of water pollution. It was first put on a waiting list for federal protection in 1991. Its 2-inch shell is unique because instead of being smooth, the outside of the shell has a cloth-like texture.

The holiday darter is a small fish found in upper Coosa River system in Alabama, Georgia and southeastern Tennessee. Adults are only 2 inches long, and males develop bright coloration during the breeding season. The species is threatened by dams, logging and the emerging threat of fracking.

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At the Center for Biological Diversity, we believe that the welfare of human beings is deeply linked to nature - to the existence in our world of a vast diversity of wild animals and plants. Because diversity has intrinsic value, and because its loss impoverishes society, we work to secure a future for all species, great and small, hovering on the brink of extinction. We do so through science, law, and creative media, with a focus on protecting the lands, waters, and climate that species need to survive.

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