The restoration of endangered species to their native environment has become more critical as man's impact on the planet increases. Biologists world wide are working hard to help many species living on the edge of extinction, and such was the case recently as a collaboration of biologists released 1200 juvenille fish into the Allegany River near Olean. The Gilt Darter, so named for it's brilliant spawning colors, is a small fish in the Perch family that has been absent from the region for 75 years. The recent release represents a collaboration between several agencies, including the NY DEC, which led the effort. The darter was lost to the river due to poor water quality and the creation of the Allegany reservoir. In addition to the scientific imperative, the restoration efforts are seen by some involved as correcting a past mistake. John Foster Of SUNY Cobleskill helped raise the darters. " There's the kind of the moral side of it in that they were extirpated due to our activities. With water pollution and siltation, and building the dam, we've harmed a species, and we ought to try and make it right for them."
The Gilt Darter is a species that is very sensitive to adverse water conditions and so fell prey to earlier degradation of the Allegany River. The reintroduction is good news for both fish and humans. It means that the river is now much cleaner than it was in the past. Doug Fischer is a Fisheries Biologist with the PA Fish & Boat Commission.They provided some fish from Pennsylvania waters." Water quality has increased, the habitat exists, and for man's part, it takes a relatively minimal effort to restore it."
Although not too much is known about the Gilt Darter, it is believed that the tiny fish can help expand the mussel population in the river, which also will contribute to the Allegany's health. Mussels are important in filtering water, thus creating a stronger system. The process itself is an amazing example of symbiosis in nature. Mike Clancy is Fisheries Mgr. with the NY DEC, which led the project." What mussels do is, they don't swim around, they're in the sediment, but they attract darters to them, and then lay their eggs in their gills, and the darters swim up the system farther , the eggs drop out and you have a new population farther up the system. So without the darters, we wouldn't have freshwater mussels."
Because of their sensitivity to water conditions,the little fish are also a bellwether to the conditions of the river, says Clancy.
" If through the stocking, they start thriving, doing well, and we do regular monitoring, if we start seeing a problem, start losing some fish species, this will probably be one of the first ones it will show up in. We'll know we have a problem."
For the DEC, the success of this project could lead to restoration of other endangered species. But perhaps the larger lesson to be learned here is that all species, no matter how small are important in the intricate web of life. " Just a tiny fish," says Clancy"And most people say, why bother, what are you doing this for, but this makes NY waters healthier, it's great to have a complete community out there."