Proposed regulations changes aimed at protection of candy darter

SOUTH CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A small fish, which most of us probably wouldn’t recognize, is the catalyst for one of the biggest proposed changed to West Virginia’s fishing regulations in 2019.  The fish is the candy darter.   It’s a species found almost exclusively in West Virginia and its future looks grim according to biologists with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

A male (top) and female candy darter. The colorful fish are struggling to survive in some of the state’s highest elevation waters

“The Candy Darter is only found in Virginia and West Virginia, those are the only two places in the world it’s found and it’s primarily found in West Virginia,” said Mark Scott, Assistant Chief of Fisheries for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources.

The threat to the candy darter is the introduction of another species called the variegate darter.  It’s not known for certain how the variegate darter got into the watersheds of the New River, Greenbrier River, and the Gauley River in West Virginia, which are the range of the candy darter.  But Scott said it has happened and the much more aggressive variegate darter is putting the squeeze on its kin folk..

“Some folks think it was through bait buckets, but nobody knows for sure,” Scott said. “Where the variegate darter lives it is breeding out the candy darter.  It will hybridize with them, breed them out, and eventually there will be no more candy darter.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has placed the candy darter on the endangered list, which will mean a whole range of new protections. The West Virginia DNR is getting out in front of the issue with a proposal which would disallow fishing with minnows in the upper reaches of the watersheds of the New, Greenbrier, and Gauley Rivers. Those waters include a number of popular trout fishing streams. The exact wording of the regulation is as follows:

The Division of Natural Resources proposes the possession limit on the following streams to be zero for all fish species other than game fish.  Furthermore, no fish may be used as bait on the following waters: 

     A. Confluence of the East and West Forks of the Greenbrier River upstream including all tributaries. 

     B. Gauley River upstream from the Route 55/20 Bridge (Curtin, WV) which includes the Cherry, Williams, Cranberry, and Upper Gauley Rivers and all tributaries  of each river. 

     C.  Camp Creek and Manns Creek including all tributaries of each stream. Note: Glade Creek in Babcock State Park is included in the Manns Creek drainage

The regulation changes further call for the possession of any darter species within the state of West Virginia to become illegal.

“The variegate darter is in West Virginia, but It’s not above Bluestone Dam yet and it’s not above Summersville Dam,” Scott said. “They live in fast moving cold streams, trout water type places.   We’ve tried to figure out the best way to protect it without having to have too much impact on anglers.”

Initially there was a suggestion that no live bait be allowed on those mountain trout streams, but according to Scott that went a little too far.

“That’s unrealistic.  Worms aren’t going to hurt anything,” he said. “Hellgrammites and crawfish and things like that aren’t going to hurt anything,”

The regulations on the variegate darter and bait-fish use are among the package of proposed fishing regulation changes which members of the Natural Resources Commission will vote on this summer. Those proposals remain out for public comment.

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