Frecklebelly madtom fish could get Endangered Species Act protection

    A small fish called the frecklebelly madtom would soon be considered a "threatened" species in Georgia under a new federal proposal. Brett Albanese/Georgia DNR Wildlife Resources Division

    A small Southern fish would soon become a new threatened species in Georgia and Tennessee under a federal proposal announced Wednesday.

    The frecklebelly madtom, which is a kind of catfish, favors the free-flowing waters of river channels and tributaries in a handful of Southern states, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has pinpointed the populations in Georgia and Tennessee as particularly fragile. The state of Georgia has already flagged the fish as endangered.

    The federal proposal would protect sections of the rivers considered essential to the fish’s survival: a 51.5-mile segment of Conasauga River in Whitfield and Murray counties that extends into Tennessee, and another 82.5-mile portion of the Etowah River that flows through Cherokee, Forsyth, Dawson and Lumpkin counties.

    “We do regular monitoring in the Conasauga and Etowah rivers, which are our most diverse river systems in the state,” said Brett Albanese, program manager with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and a fish biologist.

    “And we’ve documented a decline in the Conasauga River, where they once were fairly widespread. You can’t find them anymore. They’re still hanging on in the Etowah River, though,” he said Wednesday.

    Albanese said it is difficult to say exactly what has led to the population’s decline, but industrial and agricultural pollution likely played a role. Being federally tagged as “threatened” in this case won’t come with a host of new regulatory protections for business since the fish exists with species that are already protected, but it could send additional federal dollars down South to boost conservation and restoration efforts, he said.

    “Madtom catfishes as a group are sensitive,” Albanese said. “Like big catfish, they use their barbels or chemosensory, and so they’re searching for food with those barbels and if there’s some kind of chemical pollutant in the water, that could interfere with that process.”

    Albanese called the proposal “strategic,” since it does not apply to the species in other states like Alabama and Mississippi.

    The announcement kicks of a public comment period that ends Jan. 19.

    “Recognition of the unique frecklebelly madtom as threatened shows we need to do more to care for our rivers and streams,” Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement following Wednesday’s announcement.

    “Decades of damming, channelization and pollution have taken a toll on these catfish. Protecting the madtom under the Endangered Species Act will help not just the fish, but rivers we all need to live.”

    Jill Nolin
    Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.