HUNTSVILLE, Ala.–(ENEWSPF)–October 1 – In response to a petition from the Center for Biological Diversity and fisheries biologist Mike Sandel, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today proposed Endangered Species Act protection for Alabama’s spring pygmy sunfish. The agency also proposed designating eight stream miles and 1,617 acres of protected critical habitat in Limestone County, Alabama. The spring pygmy sunfish survives only in Beaverdam Creek, where it continues to be threatened by urban sprawl from metropolitan Huntsville, poor agricultural practices and loss of streamside vegetation.
Today’s decision was made in accordance with a 2011 settlement with the Center requiring the Fish and Wildlife Service to make protection decisions on 757 plants and animals, including hundreds in the Southeast.
“The spring pygmy sunfish is only found on one place on Earth,” said Mike Sandel, a fisheries scientist who has done the primary research on the species. “And that one place is severely threatened by urban sprawl, pollution and poor management.”
Discovered in 1937, the sunfish was twice presumed extinct during the 70 years it has been known to science. It is limited primarily to headwater springs and historically occurred in three small disjunct spring complexes (Cave, Pryor and Beaverdam springs) separated by up to 65 miles. Two of the three populations have disappeared. The Cave Springs population was extirpated in 1938 due to inundation by the formation of 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. Critical habitat was designated both on Beaverdam Springs and Creek, where the species survives, and on the Pryor and Branch Spring complex.
“The Endangered Species Act is the last hope for the spring pygmy sunfish,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Hundreds of freshwater species in Alabama and the Southeast are staring extinction in the face. Without help, we risk losing species like the spring pygmy sunfish forever.”
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.
“There’s still time to save the spring pygmy sunfish, but only if we act fast to protect its habitat from careless development and unsustainable agricultural practices,” said Sandel.
In 2010 the Center petitioned for 404 other southeastern aquatic species, including fish, mussels and crayfish. In 2011, Fish and Wildlife determined that 374 of these may warrant protection and is now taking a closer look at these species.