Encouraged by the success of experimental stockings during the last three years, biologists with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission are continuing their efforts to restore fish and mussels in the Cheoah and Pigeon rivers.
They are using aquatic species propagated in hatcheries as well as some moved from other streams.
The restoration work reintroduces aquatic animals into waters where they were once found in abundance. So far this year, biologists have placed several thousand fish and mussels in both rivers.
While most of these reintroductions were accomplished by collecting large numbers of relatively common fishes from places where they were abundant and releasing them into the Pigeon, some species were not plentiful enough to make collecting and releasing feasible. In those cases, the commission worked with conservation partners to hatch and raise species to release in these restoration projects.
The releases of wavy-rayed lampmussels in the Pigeon and Cheoah rivers, and rainbow mussels and the spotfin chub, a federally threatened fish, into the Cheoah River in early June, mark the third consecutive year that commission biologists, in collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Conservation Fisheries, have propagated and grown out species in order to introduce them.
“The goals of these restoration efforts are to restore native fauna into rivers where they were found historically, and to improve the overall ecological health of the rivers,” said Steve Fraley, the commission’s western aquatic wildlife diversity coordinator.
“We conduct annual surveys to monitor the status of reintroduced species in the Cheoah and Pigeon rivers and have been pleased with the results. We can now claim that three fish species we’ve been working on in the Pigeon have been successfully re-established, and we’ve seen good indications of survival of other reintroduced species there, and also in the Cheoah.”
On the horizon is another restoration project and one that could have bigger implications for the existence of the Appalachian elktoe, a federally endangered freshwater mussel found only in relict populations in the mountain rivers of western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee.
Since 2009, commission staff, along with N.C. State University and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has worked to perfect successful propagation techniques for Appalachian elktoe, a federal and state-listed endangered freshwater mussel, for eventual release into the Cheoah River to augment a small existing population there.