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A little catfish returns home.

The year was 1888. Grover Cleveland was President, only 38 stars grace the stars and stripes, and a group of adventurous elites formed the National Geographic Society. During the same year, renowned ichthyologist, David Starr Jordan, surveyed fish in the major river basins of the United States for the U.S. Fisheries Commission (a predecessor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). His forays led him to the North Fork Holston River, a tributary of the Tennessee drainage originating in the mountains of southwestern Virginia. As a seine net was dragged through a bed of aquatic "weeds," he captured several small catfish known as madtoms, characterized by their distinct miniature size, fused tail and adipose fins. The specimens were identified as brindled madtom (Noturus miurus), a species he described just ten years earlier.

Now fast forward nearly 80 years. W. Ralph Taylor, Assistant Curator at the National Museum of Natural History, examined faded brindled madtom specimens collected by Jordan and other biologists in the upper Tennessee drainage and discover a new species--the yellowfin madtom (Noturus flavipinnis). The preserved specimens ranged from Virginia to Georgia, indicating it was once widely distributed. Further surveys of the collection sites indicated it was now extinct, a victim of pollution, dams and introduced fish. Extinction is forever, or at least usually that is the case. But for the yellowfin madtom, luck intervened and two populations were quickly found in Tennessee and Virginia.

Based on rarity and vulnerability, it was listed in 1977 as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The status allowed for the development of a recovery plan, provided species protection and ensured much needed funds for research and reintroduction efforts. Grants were given to state wildlife agencies to learn more about the rare fish. Soon a third population was found, and critical research was performed, collecting information about its life history and habitat requirements. Meanwhile, University of Tennessee graduate students, JR Shute and Pat Rakes, investigated methods to propagate and raise them under hatchery conditions--a critical step towards re-establishing the species into its former range. "We were asked if we thought we could do this work, so we decided to give it a shot," remarks Shute. "We had very little success spawning madtoms in captivity, but we were successful in hatching and raising young from fertilized eggs collected from the wild." And they were successful! The first yellowfin madtom reintroduction occurred in 1986 in Abrams Creek, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee. Reintroductions occurred for the next ten years until the population became self-sustaining.

Bringing back a species from the brink of extinction is not without its controversies, even for a small catfish. Issues are usually based on fear of the restrictions on public and private lands that may come with reintroduction. To address these concerns, the Endangered Species Act incorporates the Nonessential/Experimental designation (NEP), which reduces the regulations, penalties, and restrictions to stakeholders where an endangered species is being reintroduced.

Exactly 100 years after Jordan's initial discovery, the North Fork Holston, Tellico and French Broad rivers receive the NEP designation for yellowfin madtom thanks to the tireless efforts of USFWS Biologist Richard Biggins. "Because of successful initiatives in other watersheds, it was a good time to pursue recovery in these rivers" Biggins said. He met with public officials and citizens in several states to share his vision for its recovery. "In the end, you have to get local support if restoration efforts are going to succeed," he exclaimed.

Shute and Rakes, now co-founders of the nonprofit organization Conservation Fisheries, Inc. in Knoxville, Tennessee, began releasing yellowfins into the Tellico River, Tennessee. Releases helped boost numbers and expand the distribution of existing populations. Soon afterwards, one additional population is discovered bringing the number of native populations to four and re-established populations to two.

Then, on June 2, 2016, just northeast of Saltville, Virginia, photographers and reporters eagerly watched on as six 7th grade students of Northwood Middle School stood side by side in the shallow waters of the North Fork Holston River. Each student held a small, clear container of water--inside of which was a single fish. A florescent green mark near its tail distinguishes it as hatchery raised. In unison they bent down and carefully poured out the contents. The fish immediately head for shelter on the river bottom.

Missing for nearly 128 years--the yellowfin madtom returned home. The ritual was repeated until all 70 students got their chance to take part in the event. In all, 300 madtoms were released by students, teachers, County Board members, agency officials, and even Representative Morgan Griffith.

Although the event took less than two hours, it has taken over five years of careful planning, meetings, and studies to get to this point--a collaboration among the USFWS, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Conservation Fisheries, Inc., Virginia Tech, Tennessee Valley Authority, and the Tennessee Aquarium. But the work is not finished. Ahead are more releases and annual population monitoring.

Siltation, a major threat to bottom dwelling fishes like madtoms, will have to be addressed by partnering with local landowners (many of whom are the parents of the same students that helped in the release) to implement best management practices to help maintain good water quality.

In the upcoming years, the best case scenario is that the released madtoms will successfully reproduce and their offspring expand throughout the river. As for the species as a whole, more populations will need to be discovered and reintroduced into its former range for the madtom to be considered recovered. Only then will this unique little catfish truly be home again.

Michael J. Pinder is an Aquatic Biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and can be reached at

Caption: The Yellowfin Madtom (Noturus flavipinnis) is a threatened species found only in the Tennessee River Drainage.

Caption: One year old Yellowfin Madtoms in containers just before the release.

Caption: Northwood Middle School Students and Teacher Ms. Kristen Carter (third from right) get ready to release Yellowfin Madtoms into the North Fork Holston River, Smyth County, Virginia.


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Title Annotation:yellowfin madtom reintroduction in Tennessee
Author:Pinder, Mike
Publication:Endangered Species Bulletin
Geographic Code:1U6TN
Date:Jun 22, 2016
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