A tiny fish species is roaming New York waters for the first time in decades following a project involving staff and students at SUNY-Cobleskill and several state agencies.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation last week announced the release of baby gilt darters, an endangered species absent 75 years from New York waters due to pollution, siltation and other factors.
Project participants released 1,200 juvenile fish, many raised in SUNY-Cobleskill’s Endangered Fishes Hatchery, into the Allegheny River and Oswayo Creek in western New York on Wednesday.
The event marks a major step in the five-year project that involves the work of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, the nonprofit Conservation Fisheries of Tennessee and the Seneca Nation of Indians.
“It was a great moment,” said professor John R. Foster, chair of the SUNY-Cobleskill Fisheries and Wildlife Department, who joined other biologists for Wednesday’s effort.
Gilt darters are found in only 12 states. They are typically 2 or 3 inches long but can grow to 4 inches.
The males, in early summer, change colors and develop attractive yellow and green shades on their backs. They eat aquatic insect larvae and crustaceans, according to the DEC.
Foster said the group’s work isn’t done. The next part is a difficult wait to see if the tiny fish are able to live and thrive again in their once-native waters.
Two different gilt darters were introduced, those raised in the college’s hatchery and native fish that still live in the Allegheny River in Pennsylvania.
A dam built on the river in Pennsylvania prevents the gilt darters from swimming into New York to spawn.
The fish are marked with a small fluorescent tag on their underside, the Pennsylvania fish with a pink tag and the college’s hatchery fish with a yellow tag.
The hope is biologists will find newly hatched gilt darters in New York’s portion of the Allegheny River in the near future.
“That will be the really great moment,” Foster said.
Students put together a special electric fish trawl to capture gilt darters for the stocking program. The fish are difficult to catch because they like to stay beneath rocks, Foster said.
The project is seen as a big step toward restoration in the Allegheny River, according to the news release.
“This multiagency effort to re-introduce gilt darters to the Allegheny River in New York brings us one step closer to restoring the natural heritage of this wonderful river,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service field supervisor David Stilwell said in the release.
Helping threatened species to recover with the Endangered Fishes Hatchery is one of several programs offered to students at the college, Foster said.
Students raise food fish like tilapia in the college’s warm water hatchery; salmon, trout and arctic char in the cold water hatchery; and ornamental fish for the aquarium trade.
But there’s no feeling like helping a species make a comeback, Foster said.
“Students really want to conserve and give something back,” he said.