The Endangered Candy Darter Finally Receives Protection

After eight years of petitions, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finally agreed to listing of the candy darter fish as Endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

The candy darter is finally protected under the Endangered Species Act. Photo: Todd Crail / University of Toledo

The agency also took the additional step of protecting as much as 370 stream miles as a critical habitat for the vividly colored fish. Both this and the listing of the candy darter as endangered represent a major victory for nature and the rapidly vanishing ecosystems of West Virginia and Virginia.

The Center for Biological Diversity, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, the Clinch Coalition and other groups petitioned for protection of the candy darter in 2010.

“Nothing’s sweeter than imperiled animals finally getting help to avoid extinction, so we celebrate the candy darter receiving the Endangered Species Act’s lifesaving protections,” said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center. “These colorful fish have disappeared from so many streams, but there’s still time to save them.”

The Candy Darter

With vivid teal, orange and red coloration during the breeding season, candy darters are considered to be one of the most vibrant fishes in North America.

Candy darters are found in the upper Kanawha River basin in Virginia and West Virginia. The proposed critical habitat is in five units in the Middle and Upper New, Lower and Upper Gauley and Greenbrier watersheds. The habitat is in Greenbrier, Nicholas, Pocahontas and Webster counties in West Virginia and in Bland, Giles and Wythe counties in Virginia.

Darters play an important role in nature because they eat caddisfly and mayfly larvae and are eaten in turn by larger fish. They also serve as hosts for freshwater mussel reproduction. Candy darters grow to be about 3 inches long, and males defend their territories by nipping at and chasing away competitors.

Freshwater species are being lost to extinction at 1,000 times the natural background extinction rate. The Southeast is home to more kinds of freshwater animals than anywhere else in the country, but the region has recently lost more than 50 freshwater animals to extinction. The most recent reported extinction from the region was the loss of Georgia’s beaverpond marstonia snail in 2017.

Why the Candy Darter Being Listed As Endangered is So Important

The candy darter has now unfortunately been lost from at least half its range. There are 18 surviving populations, only five of which are considered to be very healthy. The fish was originally known from 35 populations and was once relatively common throughout its range.

The darter was first identified as being in need of federal protection way back in 1982 but nothing was done. The Center sued the Service in 2015 to get a court-binding date for a decision on its protection.

“As long as its critical habitat is approved, this little fish will have a fighting chance to survive,” Curry said.

The candy darter is threatened by pollution, competition and hybridization with the introduced variegate darter and by trout stocking. The darters prefer shallow, fast flowing streams with rocky bottoms. Their habitat becomes unsuitable when silt and sediment fills in the spaces between the rocks, burying the places they need for shelter and egg-laying.

The White Sulphur Springs National Fish Hatchery, with advice from Conservation Fisheries Inc., is attempting to raise candy darters in captivity to re-establish wild populations.