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The Carolina Madtom – A Native Fish in Peril

April 24, 2008

RALEIGH, N.C. – It’s secretive and it’s rare so most people will never encounter one in their lifetime. But at one time, the Carolina madtom was common in the Neuse and Tar rivers.

The small, black and yellow-striped fish, found only in these two North Carolina river basins, has fallen victim to a malady affecting a wide range of aquatic animals in the Tarheel state — water and habitat degradation due to urban sprawl.

Although surveys from the 1960s revealed healthy Carolina madtom populations, by the 1980s, researchers were noticing a steady decline in the madtom’s overall range. In spring 2007, biologists with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission surveyed 60 sites to determine the status of the small fish in the Neuse and Tar River basins.

In the Neuse River basin, the Carolina madtom was discovered at only 10 percent of the sites where the fish had historically occurred. Only two populations were found during the 2007 surveys in the entire Neuse River basin.

Conversely, they found that Carolina madtoms in the Tar River fared much better; 90 percent of sites the biologists sampled that historically held the fish still maintained healthy populations.

Biologists suspect that the population disparity between river basins is due, at least in part, to urban development in and around the Neuse River.

“The Triangle area is located mainly within the Neuse River basin and the tremendous growth and deforestation near streams have severely degraded water quality and aquatic habitat,” said Chris Wood, Commission aquatic biologist and survey project leader. “Without healthy riparian forests to filter the water, sediments can freely enter the aquatic systems and cover precious spawning areas.”

Because the Tar River basin is currently dominated largely by rural communities, farmlands and forests, it has had fewer impacts on aquatic ecosystems.
“However, for fast growing urban areas like the Triangle, there is still hope,” Wood said. “Better stormwater management practices, quality forested buffers next to streams, environmentally conscience building codes, and well-planned growth can lessen the impacts on surrounding wild areas.”
Despite the fact that Tar River basin populations remain relatively healthy, the Carolina madtom is now listed as “State Threatened” and as a “Federal Species of Concern.”

“Rapid growth need not mean less wildlife,” Wood said. “But we need to be aware of the costs of uncontrolled urban sprawl and its effects on our water quality and our native Tarheel wildlife, like the Carolina madtom.”
Funding for aquatic wildlife surveys comes from the Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Fund, the primary source of state funds for the Commission’s Wildlife Diversity program. The agency uses this fund to support nongame wildlife research, conservation and management, as well as to provide mandatory matching funds for federal and other grants. Nongame wildlife includes all the birds, mammals, fish, mollusks, reptiles, amphibians, and crayfish that do not have a designated hunting or fishing season.


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