"The Cape Fear Shiner is a yellowish minnow with black stripes, pointed fins and a hard-luck past.”
So writes Taft Wireback for the News-Record of Greensboro, North Carolina. He goes on to tell how bringing down a dam helped bring back two "relict populations" of this small fish.
It's a wonderful lede, and an inspiring story, especially for those of us hoping to bring back the signature piscine species of Southern California, the steelback, which is widely believed to be able to rebound, if only given the opportunity.
You can think of the tiny yellow-and-black minnow as a sort of miner's canary that swims, a bellwether for the health and restored vigor of the water that surrounds it.
The tiny minnow was unknown to science until 1971, when it was identified in a very limited range that included small reaches of the Haw and Deep rivers in just five counties — Randolph, Chatham, Lee, Moore and Harnett.
By September 1987, it already had been placed on the federal Endangered Species List because of its dwindling habitat.
The minnows need water of decent quality riffling in shallow depths over gravel, stone and boulder bottoms.
The dam that was demolished was a small, hydroelectric operation built in 1921 and shut down in June 2004. But the site, near the line between Chatham and Lee counties, had hosted a series of dams stretching back into the 19th century.
So biologists couldn't be sure how long two separate colonies of Cape Fear Shiner had been separated by one dam or another and its 10-mile stretch of backed-up water, too deep and slow for the minnow's liking.
Meanwhile, on either side of the dam, the isolated populations of Cape Fear Shiner were dwindling. Removing the dam produced results aimed at fixing that problem faster than anyone had been willing to hope, [Adam] Riggsbee, [environmental scientist] said.
"If you provide the habitat, the theory is that you should get the species back in place," he said. "That's exactly what has happened here in less than two years. The river responded very quickly and so did this key species."