A 4-inch fish might someday affect how people work and play in and around West Virginia's lower Elk River.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last week proposed that the diamond darter be placed on the federal Endangered Species List. If the silvery little member of the perch family becomes the first Mountain State fish to end up on the list, 23 miles of the Elk - from King Shoals downstream to Coonskin Park - would be considered the species' "critical habitat."
Bret Preston, fisheries chief for the state Division of Natural Resources, said endangered status would likely force mining, construction, and gas drilling companies to take special precautions when working along the lower Elk and its tributaries.
"When federal permits are required, there would also be a requirement to look at potential impacts on endangered species," Preston said. "The [darter's presence] might require companies to alter the location of a project, limit the amount of in-stream work that is done, or the time of year when the work is done."
DNR biologists would even need to change the way they conduct fish-sampling surveys.
"We knew there was potential for the diamond darter to be listed," Preston said. "So we looked for ways to avoid or minimize impacts. We looked at the methods we use for electrofishing, seining and trap netting. Knowing [the darters'] preferred habitat, we said we wouldn't operate boats in shallow riffle areas that could be diamond darter habitat. Instead of running the boat through with the motor on, we'll either get out and pull the boat through or avoid the area entirely."
Scientists didn't even know diamond darters existed until 1980, when former DNR district biologist Mike Hoeft collected one from the Elk near Coonskin Park.
"Mike knew he had something different, so he called me up," said Dan Cincotta, the DNR's non-game fish biologist. "We realized it was [similar to] a crystal darter, a species once abundant in the Midwest but now gone from most of its former range."
In the next several years, Cincotta captured a few more of the hard-to-find fish and took a closer look at them. He discovered physical characteristics that didn't quite match up with those of Midwestern crystal darters.
"Our fish here has a bigger head, a bigger mouth, a distinctive break in the pigments of its face, and it has sickle-shaped pelvic fins," Cincotta explained. "I wrote a paper on it in 1986."
To distinguish the differences, scientists began referring to Elk River fish as "Elk River crystal darters." That name stayed in effect until 2008, when Stuart Welsh, a professor at West Virginia University's School of Forestry and Natural Resources, concluded that the mysterious little denizens of the lower Elk were indeed a species all their own.
Welsh and his partner, Robert Wood, gave the species the common name "diamond darter," and proposed it be given the scientific name Crystallaria cincotta in honor of Cincotta's field and lab work.