AP NEWS

Partnership wants to give candy darter a fighting chance

March 9, 2019

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. (AP) — Described as one of the most colorful fish in the state, West Virginia’s native candy darter is in danger of extinction.

The candy darter, identifiable by vertical blue-green bars bordered in red, was listed in November as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported nearly half of the populations documented since 1932 have disappeared.

But thanks to a partnership between the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources and the White Sulphur Springs National Fish Hatchery, the species might have a fighting chance.

The small, colorful, nongame fish is found only in the Gauley and Greenbrier rivers of West Virginia and in New River tributaries in Virginia.

Dan Cincotta, the senior ichthyologist (studier of fish) at the Wildlife Diversity Unit at the state DNR, explained that these fish are slowly disappearing due to hybridization, which is when two closely related species mate. The offspring, he said, are starting to look like the less colorful variegate darter.

But even before the fish were placed on the endangered list, the DNR reached out to the White Sulphur Springs National Fish Hatchery to see how they could work together to help the species.

“We were approached in fall 2017 to see if we could help with some of the propagation of the species,” said hatchery manager Craig Bockholt.

In November 2017, the DNR collected the fish and ran genetic samples to ensure each fish was a pure strain candy darter. By March 2018, roughly 30 candy darters had been collected and were being held at the hatchery.

“They’ve never been bred in captivity,” Bockholt said. “We had to adjust the water temperature and artificial lighting to replicate what would be out in the wild.”

With the correct mock conditions in place, the fish were thriving, and eventually spawning.

“Last year, we got a few fry (baby fish),” Bockholt said. “Everybody was ecstatic to do that.”

With the small successes of last year, the DNR and the hatchery decided to up the game.

The DNR collected roughly 150 fish this year to see how many were hybrids. Bockholt said only four of the fish were hybrids, and they will be kept at the hatchery to prevent further hybridization.

Of the pure breeds, the majority were sent back into the wild, while 40 remained at the hatchery — half male and half female. The females, Bockholt said, can produce 100 to 200 eggs.

“We’ve got the water temperature correct,” he said. “We brought it up slow until it reached 58 to 60 degrees to get them to spawn. Mother Nature will hopefully take over from here.”

If the hatching continues being successful, Bockholt said the program will continue into the foreseeable future.

Bockholt, manager at the hatchery for the past two years, said candy darters need clean, clear water for survival.

“It’s a good indicator of your water quality and health if you have well-populated fish species.”

He encourages residents to “do no harm” to their waterways to help keep these species alive and well.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has said anglers, too, can play a key role in candy darter conservation by dumping their unused bait into the trash rather than rivers or streams.

Live bait fish can upset natural fish communities and may lead to the decline of some species, including the candy darter.

Anyone interested in learning more about the hatchery or its efforts to save endangered species in West Virginia is invited to visit the hatchery, at 400 E. Main St. in White Sulphur Springs.

The hatchery is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Visitors are asked to call ahead, at 304-536-1361, if they’d like a guided tour.

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Information from: The Register-Herald, http://www.register-herald.com