The Tiny Fish That Is Beating Extinction

The Oregon chub becomes the first fish to be removed from the U.S. endangered species list—while it's still alive.

Oregon chub. (Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)


Feb 18, 2015· 1 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

A pint-size fish has become a huge conservation success story.

Twenty-two years ago, when the Oregon chub was added to the endangered species list, the three-inch-long minnow-like fish was nearly extinct. Dams and flood-control efforts had eliminated most of the swamps, floodplains, and ponds where it once thrived in the millions. At the same time, predatory nonnative bass and bluegill arrived in Oregon’s waters and looked at the chub as an easy and tasty lunch.

By 1993 only about 1,000 chub remained, and their movements were restricted to a small portion of their historic range in Oregon’s Willamette Basin.

Today, however, it's a different story. After two decades of habitat restoration, captive breeding, and restocking, the population of Oregon chub stands at closer to 140,000. They can now be found in 80 locations—10 times the number of sites the fish called home two decades ago.

As a result of this dramatic population increase, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this week declared that the Oregon chub should be considered recovered and therefore no longer needs the protection of the federal Endangered Species Act.

This makes it the first fish to recover and be removed from the endangered species list. (Other fish have been removed from the list, but only because they became extinct.)

Conservation groups praised the chub’s recovery but said the relatively short time it took is rather unusual.

“For the chub that process took 22 years,” Tierra Curry, senior scientist for the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “For the Florida panther, it’s expected to take until 2085. As a nation, we need to make endangered species recovery funding a priority so that more plants and animals can join the chub on the list of successfully recovered species.”

The Oregon chub owes its recovery to a broad alliance, said Elizabeth Materna, public affairs officer for the FWS in Oregon. Partners over the years have included the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Forest Service, Oregon State Parks, the McKenzie River Trust, local watershed councils, and other organizations and individuals.

“Federal and state agencies and tribes came together with private landowners,” Materna said, calling it an important lesson in working together for species recovery. “It was a very diverse group.”

The efforts involved land acquisition, working with private property owners to improve and protect chub habitats, and restoring previously lost chub habitats. The Army Corps of Engineers played a key role by improving the flow of water around dams into floodplains.

“The flow regimes have been managed now to reflect a more natural flow for the Oregon chub as well as other aquatic animals,” Materna said. The fish need shallow waters with a lot of vegetation for cover and protection.

The Oregon chub’s protections won’t completely disappear with this delisting. The fish will continue to be monitored for nine years to ensure that its recovery continues.