Finding blackbanded sunfish in south Georgia is like hunting for needles in haystacks – with mud, gnats and sweltering heat thrown in.
Since last summer, a Valdosta State University team working with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources has pulled seines, set traps and used dip nets in Carolina bays, swamps and streams thick with muck and aquatic plants in search of this rare and elusive species.
The State Wildlife Grants survey led by Valdosta biology professor Dr. David Bechler and graduate student Josh Salter has found a new blackbanded sunfish population – the first new population in Georgia since 1980 – and confirmed another not documented since 2001.
The findings will help the DNR Wildlife Resources Division conserve a fish state-listed in Georgia as endangered and considered a health indicator of the natural ecosystems it inhabits.
“The discovery of new populations improves (the species’) overall conservation status and decreases the need for more regulations in the future,” said Dr. Brett Albanese, senior aquatic zoologist with the division’s Nongame Conservation Section.
Georgia is a leading state both in aquatic biodiversity and aquatic fauna at risk. About 30 percent of the state's freshwater fishes and crayfishes are extinct, endangered, threatened or considered species of special concern. The blackbanded sunfish survey is part of a Nongame Conservation Section initiative started in 1998 to determine the status of Georgia's aquatic fauna and develop conservation plans for declining species.
Less than 4 inches long and marked by black bars on the sides, blackbanded sunfish are found below the fall line from New Jersey to northern Florida. Yet the fish is threatened across its range because of habitat loss to natural and man-made causes such as drought, development and excessive water withdrawals.
Threats are compounded by what Albanese calls “patchy” distribution: Blackbanded sunfish populations are usually isolated. In south Georgia, the fish has been documented at 11 sites spread across the region, from the Okefenokee Swamp to the Alapaha River system near Tifton and the Aucilla River drainage south of Thomasville. The distance between populations makes each more vulnerable. If one is wiped out, the opportunities for other blackbanded sunfish to migrate to that site and replenish it are limited.
The presence of the fish on private lands – and likely at sites not yet documented – makes the role of landowners crucial.
The project, funded in part by Valdosta State and the Nongame Conservation Section, has given researchers the chance to better understand factors contributing to where the species is found in south Georgia, Bechler wrote.
“But just as importantly,” he added, “it is the private landowners who have generously provided us access to their lands and the natural wetlands within their properties that has allowed us to build the knowledge base we are … developing.”
Salter said the Valdosta State crew has surveyed 72 sites, and hopes to have sampled each at least three times before the survey is finished in August. The return trips highlight the difficulty in finding blackbanded sunfish. Researchers sampled a site on the Aucilla twice, but no luck.
“The third time,” said Salter, “we got ’em.”
The find marked the first time in 11 years the sunfish had been found at the Thomas County wetland, providing more data for conserving a species as unique as needles in haystacks.
How to Help
Georgia DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section works to conserve fishes such as blackbanded sunfish and Georgia’s other rare and endangered animals and native plants. Yet the agency receives no state general funds, depending instead on fundraisers, grants and donations.
Help by buying or renewing wildlife license plates featuring a bald eagle or a ruby-throated hummingbird. Also, contribute directly to the Georgia Wildlife Conservation Fund. These programs support conservation of wildlife not legally fished for, hunted or collected.
Details: www.georgiawildlife.org/conservation or (478) 994-1438.
Landowners who think they might have a site with blackbanded sunfish are encouraged to contact Brett Albanese, (706) 557-3223 or email@example.com.
Prime habitats include Carolina bays and other wetlands with plenty of aquatic vegetation, peat, and even old-growth cypress and other trees.
Finding a state-protected fish species on private property does not restrict what landowners do with the property, Albanese explained. The state regulations do not affect habitat on private lands, but prohibit only the intentional killing or commercial use of wildlife.
On the Net
• Blackbanded sunfish profile: http://georgiawildlife.com/rare_species_profiles (click “Fishes,” then "Enneacanthus chaetodon/blackbanded sunfish”)
• Fishes of Georgia: http://naturalhistory.uga.edu/~GMNH/FoGA/index.php (search for “blackbanded sunfish”)
• Aquatic Conservation Initiative, as part of the Nongame Conservation Section 2011 annual report: http://georgiawildlife.com/conservation/AnnualReport