Mid-June began our third year’s breeding efforts with the Topeka shiner minnows at the Neosho National Fish Hatchery.
These diminutive fish are a federally endangered species, and have been since 1999. Our first two years have produced about 5,000 spawned shiners, with most of them being stocked in northern Missouri at two different locations.
This year, thanks to state partners up at the Lost Valley State Fish Hatchery near Warsaw, we are trying new techniques that they have found extremely promising.
A real kick-start for this year’s efforts came as a result of a meeting on the endangered minnow at the end of May. Hosted by the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) hatchery near Warsaw, plenty of state, federal and other voices chimed in to discuss local concerns with this fish.
Since they have been working to locate extant populations, monitor suitable habitat areas, research historic ranges, breed and reintroduce these minnows for many years now, Lost Valley was the perfect place for this meeting.
The Topeka shiner (Notropis topeka) is a small minnow, less than three inches in total length. It is an
overall silvery color, with a well-defined dark stripe along its side and (just the males) reddish fins during breeding time.
It is declining for varied and complex reasons, but this species is endangered primarily because of their need for cold, clear water – they are completely intolerant of turbid water and pollution.
Most of their decline can be traced back to human activities of some sort. As people have moved into regions these fish call home, road construction, livestock usage and other developments made great changes to their habitat.
Whether it was muddying up the waters, drying up ponds and wetlands, disconnecting populations or adding pollutants, the shiners were dying off at an alarming rate throughout their range.
When scientists surveyed the streams where they once were plentiful, they found shiners had become extirpated (locally extinct) from 80 percent of their former homes. Now, the populations are so fragmented that genetic mixing is difficult or impossible without human intervention.
As a result of information shared at this recent meeting, the news about this shiner’s future is both distressing and promising. The MDC folks say that there are only two extant Missouri populations where once there were at least ten.
And the Topeka shiner has been identified as a good indicator species where it is found. Indicator species can signal a change in the biological condition of a particular ecosystem, and thus may be used as a proxy to diagnose the health of an ecosystem.
This means that areas where it no longer ranges could see a decline in other ecological and biodiversity conditions. So, numbers in the state are nothing compared to what they once were.
Which brings us to the encouraging news. Last year, Lost Valley biologists tried a new breeding mat idea that increased their progeny several fold. As in thousands more offspring than the previous years.
With their specs, we have duplicated those spawning mats and are currently watching (not quite time yet!) for eggs to be deposited. The other interesting technique involved the commensal breeding partner fish, where only males are going to be used.
This will cut out the huge numbers that are produced unnecessarily of these sunfish partners, and make separating the two completely avoidable. These are good, strong steps forward (we hope) for our shiner program for 2017.
With our increased breeding production along with help from state partners, getting those 10 historic drainage systems repopulated with shiners doesn’t seem so daunting.
It is such a pleasant thing when people and agencies can come alongside each other to assist and augment each other – and in this case – greatly help this endangered little fish.
(Bruce Hallman is the environmental education specialist at the Neosho National Fish Hatchery in Neosho, Mo.)