Researchers target yellowcheek darter

Researchers focus on Little Red River's yellowcheek darter

LESLIE (AGFC) – Positive results aimed at boosting low numbers of a small but significant fish in Arkansas waters have been produced by aquatic researchers.

The yellowcheek darter is found in some feeder streams above Greers Ferry Lake, and it has suffered during drought conditions, said Brian Wagner, nongame aquatics biologist with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.

Wagner said, "The yellowcheek darter has been officially proposed for federal listing as an endangered species, a designation that is likely to become final this year. Development of this captive breeding and reintroduction technology provides us with another tool to help save this rare Arkansas species from extinction."

Researchers have been able to spawn baby yellowcheek darters under laboratory conditions and have for the first time stocked them in one of the forks of the Little Red River.

Just what is the yellowcheek darter? Wagner said, "The yellowcheek darter is one of the rarest fish in Arkansas. It is only found in portions of the forks of the Little Red River above Greers Ferry Lake in Arkansas. Darters are small, bottom-dwelling fish that make their living darting among the rocks on the stream bottom and eating aquatic invertebrates such as mayfly and stonefly larvae. Yellowcheeks live in fast riffles, and unlike most other darters they do not seem to retreat into the pools during low water conditions."

Research has been underway since 2002 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services working with Conservation Fisheries, Inc. in Knoxville, Tenn., to develop captive breeding techniques for yellowcheeks. Success was limited, Wagner said, so the efforts were moved closer to their home range in 2007 as a joint project of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and the Greers Ferry National Fish Hatchery.

It was determined that maintaining water quality was critical and that young yellowcheek need very small food and must be fed frequently. It was decided in 2010 to move culture efforts to the lab at UAPB, where feedings could be made more frequently and water quality more closely monitored, Wagner said.

This proved successful in producing good numbers of young yellowcheeks averaging an inch and a half long. Sixty-one of these were stocked into the Middle Fork of the Little Red River near Leslie recently.

Wagner said, "We have found genetic differences between yellowcheeks in the different forks, so in order to maintain the genetic identity of the different forks' populations the parents of these fish were collected from the Middle Fork and the young were released in that same fork. The young darters were stocked in a riffle where yellowcheeks had not been seen in recent years, in hopes of reestablishing a population there. Each darter released was marked with a fluorescent tag injected under the skin of its back so we can differentiate stocked fish from possible natural migrants and determine the effectiveness of the stocking."