Finding blackbanded sunfish in Georgia is like hunting for needles in haystacks. Just add in the other natural factors of mud, gnats, heat and tannin-stained water. Since last summer, a Valdosta State University team working with Georgia DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section has pulled seines, set traps and used dip nets in Carolina bays, swamps and streams thick with muck and aquatic plants in search of this elusive fish.
The State Wildlife Grants survey led by biology professor Dr. David Bechler and graduate student Josh Salter has found a new blackbanded sunfish population – the first new population in Georgia since 1980 – and confirmed another not documented since 2001. The discovery will help conserve a fish state-listed in Georgia as endangered and considered an indicator of the health of the natural ecosystems it inhabits.
“The discovery of new populations improves (the species’) overall conservation status and decreases the need for more regulations in the future,” said Dr. Brett Albanese, senior aquatic zoologist with the Nongame Conservation Section. Less than 4 inches long and marked by black bars on the sides, blackbanded sunfish are found below the fall line from New Jersey to Florida. Yet the fish is threatened across its range because of habitat loss to natural and man-made causes such as drought and development.
The presence of the fish on private lands – and likely at sites not yet documented – makes the role of landowners crucial. The project has shed light on factors behind the distribution of this species in Georgia. But as important, Bechler wrote, have been landowners who “generously provided us access to their lands and the natural wetlands within their properties that has allowed us to build the knowledge base we are … developing. Salter (pictured, right, with Bechler below) said the Valdosta State crew has surveyed 72 sites, and hopes to have sampled each at least three times before the survey is finished in August.
Return trips emphasize the difficulty in finding blackbanded sunfish. Researchers sampled a site in the Aucilla River drainage twice, but no luck.“The third time,” said Salter, “we got ’em.” The find marked the first time in 11 years the sunfish had been found at the Thomas County wetland, providing more data for conserving a species as unique as needles in haystacks.
Landowners with possible blackbanded sunfish sites are encouraged to contact Brett Albanese, (706) 557-3223 or email@example.com. Prime habitats, such as the site above, include Carolina bays and other wetlands with plenty of aquatic vegetation, peat and even old-growth trees.
Finding a state-protected fish species on private property does not restrict what landowners do with the property. The state regulations do not affect habitat on private lands, but prohibit only the intentional killing or commercial use of wildlife.
Threats to blackbanded sunfish are compounded by what Albanese calls the species’ “patchy distribution.” Populations are usually isolated. In south Georgia, the fish has been documented at 11 sites spread across the region, from the Okefenokee Swamp to the Alapaha River system near Tifton and the Aucilla River drainage south of Thomasville. The distance between populations makes each more vulnerable. If one is wiped out, the opportunities for other blackbanded sunfish to migrate to that site and replenish it are limited.