Researchers at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff Aquaculture/Fisheries Center of Excellence are studying the distribution and abundance of the Strawberry darter, a rare fish endemic to the Strawberry River drainage in north central Arkansas. The fish was identified as one of the species most in need of conservation, according to the Arkansas Wildlife Action Plan.

“The Strawberry darter is a rare species found in Arkansas that contributes to the state’s relatively high biodiversity,” Kyler Hecke, a graduate student of aquaculture/fisheries, said. “A detailed survey of the status and distribution of the Strawberry darter has not been conducted since 1997 and a new study was needed to assess the current state of the species.”

The primary goal of the UAPB research was to sample the Strawberry darter based on a presence/absence sampling designed to assess the status and distribution of the species in comparison to historical data. The study also sought to identify current environmental factors that may affect the distribution of the fish.

UAPB researchers sampled for Strawberry darters at 64 sites throughout the Strawberry River drainage in north central Arkansas, specifically in areas where it has been documented to exist. A total of 236 individual Strawberry darters were observed during the study at 24 of the sites.

“Our work suggests the status of Strawberry darter appears to be in decline,” Hecke said. “The reasons for the decline of the species are uncertain, however, it is plausible that land-use changes such as deforestation and development along some parts of the river have negatively impacted their habitats.”

Increases in urban land and decreases in forest land often result in increased runoff and sedimentation, which in turn can lead to the loss of gravel-riffle habitat for the fish, he said.

“The Strawberry River drainage is probably less impacted by humans compared to many lowland stream systems in the South Central Plains and Mississippi Alluvial Plain eco-regions within Arkansas,” Hecke said. “Nevertheless, there are impacts in the Strawberry River drainage due to a lack of best management practices such as ensuring the presence of suitable vegetated buffers that would help protect the river from the effects of land use and properly constructed road crossings that allow for fish passage.”

Understanding the challenges surrounding the habitat of the Strawberry darter could lead to the ability to implement improvements in the future, he said. The introduction of vegetated or riparian buffers throughout the drainage could prevent excess runoff that leads to sedimentation and further losses of riffle habitat. This measure in conjunction with the creation of a watershed management plan would help conserve Strawberry darter habitat and overall biodiversity within the drainage.

Hecke said the results of this study support the need for a continuous monitoring program for the Strawberry darter to better determine the rate and magnitude of its decline. Steps taken to preserve the fish are likely to positively affect other nongame fish and preserve aquatic biodiversity throughout the Strawberry River drainage.

“Our results will be useful to personnel at the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help determine whether resource management changes should be pursued in the Strawberry River drainage to support conservation efforts of this species,” he said. “The research on the Strawberry darter and other UAPB projects in fisheries enables these agencies to ensure the conservation of imperiled and rare fishes, which is key to the preservation of aquatic biodiversity in Arkansas.”

— Will Hehemann is a writer/editor with the UAPB School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences.