The Toccoa: a River in Need of Conservation

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The Toccoa: a River in Need of Conservation

By Linda May
The Toccoa River in north-central Georgia originates 27 miles upstream of Lake Blue Ridge and from Blue Ridge continues another 14 miles to the Tennessee line, where it becomes the Ocoee River. Known for trout fishing and tubing, this river offers more than beautiful scenery for recreational escape.

It is the only home in the state for three species of endangered perch: olive, tangerine and wounded darters. The blotched chub, an endangered minnow, is also found here, as well as about 40 other native fish species. The state-threatened hellbender, North America’s largest salamander, and several freshwater mussels also live in the Toccoa.

Because the river supports so many rare species, it was designated a high-priority waterway in the State Wildlife Action Plan, or SWAP, which serves as a guide for biologists, natural resource managers, businesses and landowners to protect disappearing species and habitats. Little was known about the Toccoa’s biodiversity, so more field surveys were needed to determine the abundance and distribution of its fish species.

Surveying for rare fishes in ToccoaIn summer 2008, a team of Georgia Wildlife Resources Division biologists and other staff explored the river using snorkels, kayaks and backpack electrofishing units. Historically, finding small fish in the Toccoa was difficult because the river is wide, deep and swift. However, Brett Albanese, a senior aquatic zoologist with DNR, used the project to test new methods for estimating fish populations.

"We learned a lot about the use of snorkeling techniques to estimate the conservation status of rare fishes," Albanese said. "The methods we used have application in many other large, clear streams in the Southern Appalachians. One surprise is that snorkeling was just as good or in some cases better than backpack electrofishing for detecting our target species."

The species found in the survey as well as those discovered in Georgia’s other freshwater streams and rivers are described in Fishes of Georgia. A product of thousands of hours in the field and studying records, this online database was launched in March 2009. With more than 325 species, Georgia is third among states in freshwater fish diversity.

While anglers seek trout, bass and bream, most of the Toccoa’s fishes are small and obscure. Why care about protecting fish most people hardly notice?

“These species make the world a more interesting place to live in,” Albanese said. “More broadly, the things we need to do to protect these species – protecting streamside forests, managing growth and protecting water quality – directly benefit the health and quality of life for our citizens.”

Tangerine darterWith increased development along the Toccoa, the fate of the stream’s rare species like darters, chubs and hellbenders largely is in the hands of landowners. Aquatic animals in the mountains require clean, clear water with exposed rocks and gravel for nesting. However, human practices – particularly in riparian zones, where the land meets the water – have harmed these habitats. Forests along streambanks are often replaced with lawns, allowing sediment, fertilizers and other unwanted chemicals to creep into the river. Cattle access points are especially harmful; they decrease water quality in that area as well as far downstream.

Stretches of the Toccoa with native vegetation along the banks – as on the Chattahoochee National Forest and in conservation easements – maintain higher populations of aquatic life. These healthy riparian zones are able to filter out sediment, nutrients and pollutants before they reach the river. Tree roots help stabilize the banks by slowing down runoff and preventing erosion. Forest canopies provide shade, which is important for maintaining the cool water temperatures many of the Toccoa’s wildlife species require.

Efforts to restore streambanks to these ideal conditions along more sections of the Toccoa may save the biotic diversity of this beautiful waterway, achieving another goal of Georgia’s Wildlife Action Plan.

How to help along the Toccoa

  • Protect forested areas.
  • For banks that are bare or only have lawns, plant native trees and shrubs.
  • Minimize or avoid the use of fertilizers and herbicides in your yard.
  • Advocate the enforcement of stream buffer laws by reporting potential violations to county officials and the Georgia EPD.
  • Keep development at least 100 feet from streams or rivers.
  • Minimize the amount of land converted to impervious surfaces (roads, driveways, etc.).

River life

Want to experience the Toccoa’s aquatic life? Bring a mask, snorkel and wetsuit (if you have one) to Deep Hole and Sandy Bottoms recreation areas, two great access points the U.S. Forest Service manages. Each also offers camping, canoe trails and fishing access.

Wondering about watersheds

  • What is a watershed? The land where all the water that is under it or drains from it goes into the same place (i.e., a river, lake, or stream). Human practices on the land affect the quality of water and aquatic habitats in the watershed.
  • What watershed do you live in? Enter your ZIP code at the EPA website. Then click on the 8-digit HCU (hydrologic cataloging unit) of your watershed for a map of the watershed and links to related information, such as citizen groups that work in the watershed and water quality monitoring data.

This is the second article in a five-part series on the State Wildlife Action Plan. Read the entire series here.

Linda May is the environmental outreach coordinator with the Nongame Conservation Section.

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