After decades of paper mill pollution, the Pigeon River is coming back to life — literally.
Aquatic biologists embarked on a mission several years ago to restore species that had been wiped out by chemical discharges from the mill. After the paper mill retrofitted its operations to improve water quality, the river was once more capable of supporting many of the species that had been killed off.
It was unlikely the species would migrate back into the river on their own, however, and had to be released by biologists. In some cases, that meant trapping the fish and mollusks from other rivers and creeks. In the case of rarer species, such as the tangerine darter, the fish had to be bred in captivity and then released.
So far, signs are good that the fish released into the river are now reproducing on their own.
The biologists tag all the fish they release, using an injection of medical-grade silicone just under the skin that is visible to the naked eye. The biologists return to the same stretch of river the following year and capture fish.
Any without tags were born in the river, showing that particular species is reproducing. So far, those include the silver shiner, telescope shiner, gilt darter, stripetail darter and mountain brook lamprey.
The severe and persistent drought has complicated the mission, however. Last year, stream flows fell to historically low levels. Fish populations were stressed, and low numbers in spring collections led to postponement of some releases.
The Pigeon River Recovery Project is a partnership of state and federal agencies, industry and private organizations.Major partners include Evergreen paper mill (formerly Blue Ridge Paper), N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, Haywood Community College, Haywood Waterways Association, Progress Energy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Conservation Fisheries, the N.C. Division of Water Quality, Western Carolina University.
By the numbers
21,000: Fish released into Pigeon River
15: Fish species released
9: Number of sites where fish were released
221,000: Native snails released
1,440: Fish released in Haywood County stretch of Pigeon last year alone