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Bay Blog: endangered species

May
24
2017

Five endangered species that live in the Chesapeake Bay region

Since 1973, the Endangered Species Act has served as a way to protect plants and animals that are in danger of becoming extinct. More than 2,300 species are listed as endangered or threatened on the Endangered Species List, several of which depend on the unique habitats found in the Chesapeake Bay region to survive. In honor of Endangered Species Month, we’re highlighting a few of the local critters currently listed as endangered.

Image by Shenandoah National Park/Flickr

Shenandoah Salamander
This small, woodland amphibian is known to inhabit just three mountains, all of which—as evidenced by the salamander’s name—lie within the boundaries of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Once more widely distributed, competition with redback salamanders has confined the Shenandoah salamander to the steep, rocky, north-facing slopes of Hawksbill Mountain, The Pinnacles and Stony Man Mountain. The species’ small range and limited habitat led it to be federally listed as endangered in 1987. Experts are working to monitor the abundance of Shenandoah salamanders, minimize the effects park activities have on the amphibians and understand the potential impacts of warming temperatures on this high-elevation species.

Illustration by Dave Neely/Wikimedia Commons

Maryland Darter
Originally discovered in 1912, the Maryland darter has only ever been recorded in three streams in Harford County, Maryland: Swan Creek, Deer Creek and Gashey’s Run. The species’ scarcity led it to be federally listed as endangered in 1967. Through the late 1980s, the darter continued to be sighted in Deer Creek at irregular intervals, but the last recorded sighting of the Maryland darter was in 1988. Rapid development is thought to have degraded local water quality, decreasing the amount of habitat suitable for darters, which are dependent on clean, well-oxygenated, swiftly-flowing streams. Despite fears that the Maryland darter may be extinct, scientists have continued to search for the fish, although none have been found so far.

Image by Larisa Bishop-Boros/Flickr

Virginia Big-Eared Bat
Named for their distinctive ears, Virginia big-eared bats are found in small populations in Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and Kentucky. Beginning in the early 1950s, the number of Virginia big-eared bats began to drop dramatically, falling to an estimated 3,500 bats when the species was federally listed as endangered in 1979. Their decline has been primarily attributed to human disturbance; however, protection of cave roosts has helped big-eared bat numbers to increase. Today, the total population is estimated at around 20,000 bats. However, white nose syndrome—a disease estimated to have killed nearly six million bats since 2007—poses an emerging threat: in 2010, cases of white nose syndrome were found in West Virginia’s Hellhole Cave, which is home to almost half of all Virginia big-eared bats.

Image by Ethan Nedeau/Flickr

Dwarf Wedge Mussel
This small freshwater mussel lives along the bottoms of rivers and creeks ranging from New Hampshire to North Carolina. To survive, dwarf wedge mussels rely on healthy freshwater streams: minimal sediment, a stable stream bed and plenty of dissolved oxygen. However, rapid land development has led to degraded water quality in areas where the mussels live, causing populations to decline. Dwarf wedge mussels also rely on just a handful of host fish species for dispersal, which has limited their ability to relocate to healthier waterways. In 1990, the species was federally listed as endangered. Scientists continue to monitor populations of the mussels and their changing habitat conditions to aid in the species’ recovery.

Image by jack perks/Shutterstock

Sturgeon
Both the Atlantic sturgeon and the smaller shortnose sturgeon are native to the Chesapeake Bay, and both are federally listed as endangered species. Experts estimate these prehistoric fish have existed for more than 120 million years and have lived in the Bay region for at least 70 million years. Once an abundant source of food for local residents, harvest pressures, barriers to migration and poor water quality caused this sensitive species to become increasingly more rare. In recent years, however, researchers have observed more of the elusive fish in the Bay and are working to boost their knowledge of sturgeon behavior and habitat needs.

 

Despite the uncertain future that faces these and other endangered species, much work has been done to aid in the recovery of plants and animals on the Endangered Species List. The iconic bald eagle, for instance, recovered enough to be removed from the federal list of endangered species in 2007, and the reclusive Delmarva fox squirrel was removed from the list in 2015. Scientists and experts continue to work toward protecting and supporting these irreplaceable species.

Stephanie Smith's avatar
About Stephanie Smith - Stephanie is the Web Content Manager at the Chesapeake Bay Program. A native of the Midwest, she received her Bachelor’s in Professional Writing from Purdue University and Master of Science degree from the University of Michigan. Stephanie’s lifelong love of nature motivates her to explore solutions to environmental problems and teach others what they can do to help.



Jan
31
2012

Atlantic sturgeon in Chesapeake Bay officially declared endangered

The federal government has officially declared the Chesapeake Bay’s Atlantic sturgeon – a bony, ancient-looking fish that has been around since dinosaurs roamed the earth – an endangered species.

Atlantic sturgeon

(Image courtesy Virginia Institute of Marine Science)

NOAA Fisheries Service officially listed the Bay’s Atlantic sturgeon population under the federal Endangered Species Act. The endangered listing will prompt action to help reduce bycatch of sturgeon and other species by commercial fisheries. It is already illegal to fish for, catch or keep Atlantic sturgeon.

Atlantic sturgeon is a slow-growing fish that relies on the Chesapeake Bay and other estuaries to spawn. Historic fishing records indicate that sturgeon used to be abundant. However, increased demand for sturgeon caviar in the late 19th century combined with damming and pollution led to a population collapse.

For more information about the endangered species listing, visit NOAA Fisheries Service’s website.



Sep
22
2011

Scientists suspect multiple yearly spawning runs for Atlantic sturgeon in James River

Scientists are examining the possibility that Atlantic sturgeon – a prehistoric fish whose population is so low that it may be listed as an endangered species – may spawn more than once per year in the James River.

Atlantic strugeon (image courtesy Virginia Institute of Marine Science)

In early September, biologists with Virginia Commonwealth University captured a female sturgeon leaking eggs near the confluence of the Appomattox and James rivers. This area may be a place where migrating fish adjust to less salty water before moving upstream to spawn.

If the Atlantic sturgeon is placed on the federal Endangered Species List, the multiple spawning run discovery could increase the amount of time that spawning-age fish are protected each year.

Read this article from the Bay Journal to learn more about Atlantic sturgeon on the James River.

Image courtesy Virginia Institute of Marine Science



Oct
27
2010

Chesapeake Bay Atlantic Sturgeon Proposed for Endangered Species List

The Atlantic sturgeon – a rare, ancient-looking fish that supported an important 19th century fishery in the Chesapeake Bay region – has been proposed by NOAA Fisheries Service to be protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Atlantic sturgeon have existed since the Cretaceous period, when dinosaurs roamed the earth. They are large fish with brownish bodies covered in bony plates. They visit the Chesapeake Bay in spring to spawn in fresh water. Sturgeon likely used to spawn in all of the Bay’s tributaries, but today only the James and York rivers in Virginia have small spawning populations.

Records indicate that Atlantic sturgeon were once abundant. The fish supported an important 19th century fishery when their eggs became popular as caviar. The commercial fishery peaked in 1870 but collapsed by 1901, when landings were just 10 percent of the peak.

All Atlantic coast states completely banned Atlantic sturgeon fishing in 1998, but sturgeon are still extremely rare. According to a federal review in 2007, Atlantic sturgeon are usually harmed by unintentional catch, vessel strikes and dredging, as well as by polluted water and damming of rivers.

The purpose of listing species as “endangered” is to offer special protections designed to prevent the species from becoming extinct.

Another Chesapeake Bay sturgeon, the shortnose sturgeon, is already on the endangered species list.

The Gulf of Maine, New York Bight, Carolina and South Atlantic populations of Atlantic sturgeon are also included in this proposal.

Citizens can comment on NOAA’s proposed listing by Jan. 4, 2011.



Oct
29
2009

After search, status of elusive Maryland darter still unknown

The Search for the Maryland Darter from Chesapeake Bay Program on Vimeo.

A crew of about a dozen biologists from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Frostburg University and Marshall University spent an October afternoon searching for the Maryland darter, a fish that was last seen in 1988 and is feared to be extinct. Though their search proved unsuccessful, biologists are not giving up hope.

The Maryland darter, a 2- to 3-inch long fish, was last seen by Dr. Richard Raesly of Frostburg University in 1988. The fish has historically been found in just three Maryland streams near the mouth of the Susquehanna River. Using new technology, Dr. Raesly worked with Tom Jones of Marshall University to sample the river bottom at Susquehanna State Park.

The crew of biologists divided into two teams that worked with two large seine nets to try to catch the darter. One person on each team wore a backpack with an electric shocker that could send a current into the water in a 3-foot radius. The electric current does not harm fish; it only stuns them so biologists can easily gather them in the seine net for an accurate sample of the stream.

Pulling up the net, the team members sifted through leaves, sediment and other creatures in search of the Maryland darter. But no luck. Once an area had been sampled, the team moved downstream to continue the search.

Scientists involved with the project all gave the same answer as to why it is important to find the darter, particularly now: biodiversity.

DNR biologist Scott Stranko explained that just as the entire world is becoming more socially homogenized, the environment is undergoing the same kind of transformation, with just a few species that are found everywhere.

“All the streams are looking very much the same and we’re losing that specialness,” Stranko said. “While Maryland has been losing native stream species, we’ve gained widespread non-native species like carp and snakeheads that can be found all over the world. If this trend continues, no streams will be special like the Maryland darter streams once were.”

The livelihood of small species such as the darter also speaks volumes about the health of the tributaries that lead to the Chesapeake Bay. Since the Maryland darter was last seen in 1988, development has boomed in the areas surrounding Susquehanna State Park. In this landscape of overdevelopment, just a small amount of concrete or asphalt near the river’s freshwater streams is all it takes to create enough polluted runoff to harm underwater life. Biologists believe this is the main cause of the disappearance of the darter.

The fear that the Maryland darter is extinct still looms in the biologists’ minds. But they are hopeful that new technology and the largest search effort in decades will help them rediscover this rare fish.

The team will trawl the Susquehanna River once again on November 6-8 to continue the search. For more information about the Maryland darter, visit DNR’s website.



Jun
29
2009

Into the Wild

Waves lapped against the shore, an osprey flew overhead, warm sand squished between my toes, and all I thought was, “This is home.”  The sights, the sounds, the smells -- they made me wonder what it was like for our terrapins to experience these things for the first time. 

At Kent Narrows, the place their mother laid their eggs, we released our brood back into the wild.  Our tender loving care allowed our three terrapins to grow five times larger than terps of a comparable age in the wild.  They truly have a head start on life thanks to the Terrapin Institute’s program

Secchi was the first to be released. I set him down in the soft white sand and he took off instinctively towards the breaking waves.  Without hesitation he swam through the cove and out into open water.  After swimming about 10 yards he popped his little head out of the water and looked back at us standing on the shore.  It was almost as if he was saying goodbye. 

Skipjack was the next to go.  Liana set this little lady down a few feet from the water.  Skipjack swaggered her way into the waves.  She swam in the cove for a few minutes before making her way through the breaking waves and into open water.  

Finally it was Runoff’s turn.  I sent her down in the sand, and she just sat there looking up at me.  After some encouragement and a nudge in the right direction her feet finally hit the waters of the Chesapeake and she beelined it out of the cove.

We all stood on the beach, watching our little babies all grown up and out on their own.  We scanned the water for their little heads popping out here and there looking back at us.  It was goodbye for the last time.

Being a part of this program and raising our brood will have a positive impact on this beautiful species and the Chesapeake Bay.  These terrapins made me recognize all the connections between the land, the water, the people and the critters that call the bay their home. 

I left that morning feeling I was a part of something much greater than myself; I had made a true Chesapeake connection. 

About Krissy Hopkins - Krissy Hopkins was the Communications and Education Subcommittee staffer with the Chesapeake Research Consortium at the Chesapeake Bay Program.



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