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.