Southeast Aquatics Fund to help conservation, species protection in north-central Alabama

Southeast Aquatics Fund to help conservation, species protection in north-central Alabama
The tiny Trispot darter is quite small in perspective to a person's hand. The new Southeast Aquatics Fund will help fund study of this animal. (Bernard Kuhajda)

Helping save a tiny freshwater fish that hadn’t been seen in Alabama for more than a half century and assessing ways to better protect two watersheds in the north-central portion of the state are the goals behind two grants going to Alabama nonprofits.

Birmingham-based Cawaco Resource, Conservation & Development Council (Cawaco RC&D) and the Nature Conservancy, Alabama Chapter, also based in the Magic City, will be the lead organizations on the two projects, which are being funded through the recently established Southeast Aquatics Fund. The fund is overseen by the nonprofit National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

Alabama Power and parent company Southern Company are helping support a project that funds watershed restoration. (Brendan Boshea)

Alabama Power and its parent, Southern Company, are among the supporters of the Southeast Aquatics Fund, a competitive grants program that focuses on watershed restoration and protecting native freshwater species.

The grant awarded to Cawaco RC&D will go toward research and field studies in the Middle Coosa River Watershed to help expand knowledge surrounding the Trispot Darter, said Cawaco executive director Kellie Johnston. The multi-colored fish, which grows to less than 2 inches, has long been found in parts of the Coosa River Basin in southeastern Tennessee and northern Georgia, but for more than 50 years had not been seen in Alabama. That is, until 2008 when scientists discovered a small population in St. Clair County’s Little Canoe Creek.

This past Monday, (January 28) the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officially listed the Trispot Darter as a threatened species, which provides greater protections for the fish and will help drive research efforts.

Trispot Darters typically live less than three years. Every year, in the winter and early spring, they move upstream, from the larger creeks and waterways where they stay most of the year and into smaller tributaries and rivulets to spawn.

“They’re very unique; they migrate like salmon,” explained Pat O’Neil, deputy director of the Geological Survey of Alabama (GSA), who discovered the once-lost Alabama population of Trispot Darters. GSA, the University of West Alabama and Georgia Department of Natural Resources are partners in the darter project.

O’Neil said that while no one knows precisely, limited studies indicate the tiny darters may migrate more than a half-mile, scaling riffles and snaking past tree snags to get to their spawning sites. “It’s a spectacular migration for a little bitty fish,” he said.

Under the two-year grant, scientists will first take water samples in east Alabama and west Georgia, east of Gadsden and south of Weiss Lake, and test it for environmental DNA that may reveal genetic markers for Trispot Darters. The testing should help narrow the areas where populations of the darters may still exist. In the second year, using their newly developed short list, researchers will head into the field again in hope of pinpointing previously unknown darter populations. The research also will help inform future best practices for protecting and restoring darter habitat.

For example, O’Neil said that “perched culverts” – concrete or metal tunnels that carry a stream under roads, but were built above the stream’s natural channel, creating a mini-waterfall – can be a barrier to darters trying to move upstream to spawn. Finding areas where darters may exist and then modifying the culverts or reconnecting streams so darters can travel upstream may be one way to help the species recover.

Meanwhile, The Nature Conservancy, Alabama Chapter, will take the lead on a two-year grant to assess needs and priorities to help improve water quality and protect biodiversity in the Locust Fork of the Black Warrrior River and the Big Canoe Creek watershed.

The Locust Fork watershed encompasses about 900 square miles in portions of Blount, Etowah, Marshall, Jefferson and Walker counties. The Big Canoe Creek watershed takes in sections of St. Clair, Etowah and Jefferson counties.

Jason Throneberry, director of freshwater programs at The Nature Conservancy, said part of the project involves hiring a watershed coordinator who will help drive the project along with other partners, including GSA and the Alabama Natural Heritage Program, based at Auburn University. The project will include collecting data and engaging landowners throughout the watershed to consider best practices to help protect and improve water quality and habitat for freshwater species.

Throneberry said one of the biggest challenges to the health of the two watersheds is excess sediment flowing into the Locust Fork and their many tributaries. That sediment can come from eroding banks, commercial and residential developments, and agricultural operations. Sediment also can carry pollutants, which can affect water quality.

Throneberry said the assessment will seek to identify “hotspots” where larger amounts of sediment may be entering the waterways and identify ways to reduce it, partnering with local landowners. Methods to reduce sediment intrusion can also include restoring eroded sections of streambank with native plantings, and expanding natural buffers along creeks, streams and riverbanks.

Susan Comensky, vice president of Environmental Affairs for Alabama Power, said the company and its parent Southern Company support the Southeastern Aquatics Fund and its mission.

“The Southeast Aquatics Fund provides resources to researchers and conservation organizations for projects that improve the natural resources within our service territory,” Comensky said.

“Programs such as the Southeast Aquatics Fund support Alabama Power’s efforts to protect the environment and benefit the communities we serve and call home.”

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