The Okaloosa darter via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
This is a fish story.
Not as big a fish story as, say, Jonah and the whale, or Chief Brody versus the shark in “Jaws.” It’s actually about a pretty tiny fish. But, as with Jonah and “Jaws,” it’s a fish story with an excellent outcome.
Fifty years ago, a Florida man named Nathaniel Reed worked as assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior. Reed was the son of a New York theater producer but he grew up far from Broadway. He spent his childhood fishing in Hobe Sound, collecting butterflies, and jotting notes on all the birds he saw around Jupiter.
The grown-up Reed was alarmed by reports of wildlife disappearing around America, so he gathered a group of like-minded federal officials at a Chinese restaurant off Constitution Avenue in Washington. In between egg rolls and moo goo gai pan, they jotted down the wording for what would become the Endangered Species Act, which passed Congress by a nearly unanimous vote in 1973 and was signed into law by Reed’s Republican boss, Richard Nixon.
“We had the fervor of youth and a sense of high ethical standards for how man should treat his fellow creatures on spaceship Earth,” Reed told me years later.
The earliest list of endangered species included such well-known critters as the Florida panther, the manatee, and the alligator, but the feds soon added others. One they put on the list in 1973 was a 2-inch yellow and green fish called the Okaloosa darter.
As the name implies, the Okaloosa darter lives in small streams in the Florida Panhandle counties of Okaloosa and Walton. It swims in short bursts of motion. In other words, it darts.
At the time of its listing as endangered, biologists said there were fewer than 1,500 darters left. It was circling the drain.
Now here we are five decades later and there are an estimated 600,000 of them darting around in those Panhandle streams. I’m no math whiz, but even I can tell that’s a vast improvement over 1,500.
The species is doing so well that, just last week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared that the Okaloosa darter would no longer be on the endangered list.
The little fishy made a big comeback, baby!
How did this happen? Well, as the old anglers like to say, it’s quite a tail. Er, tale.
Lately the environmental news around Florida seems remarkably grim.
Our coral reefs are baking like a Thanksgiving turkey in an oven set on too-hot-to-survive. Our seagrass beds are dying nearly statewide, leaving our manatees to starve to death by the hundreds. Our unchecked water pollution is fueling a rich soup of toxic algae that, in addition to being bad for us humans, may also be killing our state animal, the panther.
And I haven’t even mentioned the leprosy outbreak.
That’s why you’ll have to forgive me for making such a big deal about this teeny-tiny fish. The survival of the Okaloosa darter seems like a beacon of bright light amid so much darkness.
Its rebound seems especially remarkable given its history.
For filling me in on this part of the story, I have to thank my friend Bill Kaczor, a former Associated Press reporter who covered some of the earliest controversies involving the darter. He dug up a bunch of fascinating 1970s stories, none of which involved Donna Summer or disco balls.
One story, carrying Bill’s own byline, was headlined “Okaloosa Darter ‘Costly’ Minnow.” That 1975 story begins, “The tiny Okaloosa darter may become known as Florida’s million-dollar minnow.”
That’s how much state and federal money could be spent on keeping it from going extinct, he wrote.
Another story, this one from 1974 from my hometown paper, the Pensacola News Journal, warned that the darter was nearing extinction — but illustrated the story with a line drawing labeled “costly darter,” as if that were its name.
That story quotes Okaloosa County commissioners referring to the darters as “those darn bullheaded minnows.”
The commissioners were upset because a pair of modest bridges that they had planned were not allowed by wildlife officials. The simple box culverts they expected to install beneath the bridges would block the darters from traveling through the creeks. Instead, the Florida Department of Transportation had to build the bridges bigger, adding $940,000 to the cost.
A story about this particular controversy was headlined “Okaloosa Darters Muddy Progress on Highway 85 Cutoff Bridge,” making the fish sound like a particularly aggressive sports team. I can just imagine the cheerleaders chanting: “Go, Darters! Block that bridge!”
“It looks like fish are more important than people,” one bridge advocate harrumphed.
Some stories noted that the darters had “no economic value” of their own, making their protection seem pointless to a lot of hard-headed Panhandle residents. But other stories said that they were food for bass and bream, two popular freshwater sport fish.
Speaking as a hard-headed son of the Panhandle who has eaten his share of fresh-caught bream and bass, I’d say that makes them important indeed. Cook up a mess of filets, hand me a plate, and I’ll say, “Fill it to the rim with bream,” or “I’m all about that bass.”
When the going gets weird
The little darters were lucky in one respect: 90% of the six clear streams where they live is held by a single owner, the federal government.
In fact, their landlord was none other than Eglin Air Force Base near Fort Walton Beach. It’s a place for testing bombs with names like the “Massive Ordnance Air Blast.” I bet they’ve got one they call something like “the Super-Dee-Duper Hyper-Exploding Ultra-Big Bang,” but that’s probably classified.
Eglin has two major claims to fame: At 640 square miles, it is the largest air base in the world. And it’s where the Father of Gonzo Journalism, Hunter S. Thompson, began his literary career.
If you’re not familiar with ex-Airman Thompson’s body of work, such as “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” just remember that Thompson’s personal motto was, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” I think that could also be Florida’s official motto.
Here’s something weird: The place for blowing up those bombs used to be a place for growing trees.
The land was once Choctawhatchee National Forest, created in 1908 by President Teddy Roosevelt. In 1940, when Teddy’s cousin Franklin was president and wars in Europe and Asia loomed, FDR turned the national forest into a big military base.
By then, the darter was already in trouble.
In the 1930s, federal workers began building red clay roads crisscrossing the property. For the road base, they dug clay from borrow pits — more than 100 of them. The old borrow pits and the crumbling clay roads dumped sediment into the streams, smothering the places where the darters lived, fed, and spawned.
The alteration of their habitat is what led to the darter decline. Thus, when the darters were put under federal protection in 1973, the military determined that the borrow pits and roads were the first places on the base that had to change.
Not right away, mind you. Nothing in the military moves that fast. Air Force officials took about 20 years to pivot from destruction to reconstruction.
But once they got going, they made a lot of progress, with help from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. You could say they were all swimming together toward a common goal, not unlike a school of fish.
Fish with skylights
I talked to two biologists who did a lot of the work on saving the darter: Michael Hill, now retired from the state wildlife agency, and Chris Metcalf, acting chief of the Panama City office of the federal wildlife agency.
Hill said that as they worked, they still ran into scorn from some people who didn’t understand the point of saving such an insignificant animal.
“You couldn’t eat it, so who gives a crap about it?” Hill told me was the attitude they ran into. But Hill said he called it “the poster fish for endangered fish” because the biologists had to come up with fresh strategies for pulling it back from the brink of extinction.
In 1994, Eglin officials committed more than $3.6 million to end the borrow pit problem. Meanwhile, Hill and Metcalf labored to fix other aspects of the darters’ disappearing habitat — for instance, the railroad trestle no one remembered.
“There used to be a system of train tracks for moving things around the base, and one of the trestles was built over one of the darters’ creeks,” Metcalf explained.
At some point, the trestle fell into such disrepair that it collapsed. Meanwhile, erosion made the culvert that had been beneath it too high for the stream to reach. In effect, it had become a dam, blocking the fish, which meant it had to be removed and relocated.
“We didn’t even know there was a trestle under there until we started digging everything out,” Metcalf said. “Then we removed the culverts and reconnected the stream that had flowed underneath. Within days, the darters were moving up through the stream.”
Another problem: the base’s golf course water hazard.
“There were 10,000 golf balls in it when we drained it,” Hill said. They cleaned out the muck on the bottom, too.
They also focused on a stream at the course where the darters had been seen years before, although none lived there anymore. The biologists figured they could restore the stream flow and attract the fish. But how?
The stream ran beneath a wide path to the fairway where the golfers often drove their carts. That meant the biologists couldn’t just eliminate the pathway. Instead, they put in a very special culvert, one nearly 200 feet long.
A culvert that long would be dark like a cave, Metcalf said. Unlike some politicians I could name, darters don’t like the dark.
In order to show the darers that it was safe to swim through the long culvert, they built a series of manholes with Plexiglas covers. That would allow sunlight to penetrate the culvert’s gloom so the fish could see it was safe.
In effect, Hill said, they built skylights for the fish.
“Within two days, the darters were already moving from downstream to upstream through the culvert,” Metcalf said. “It just opened up this whole area.”
Metcalf and Hill were both fairly happy with the solution, which Metcalf called “pretty nifty.” By the way, if you are thinking that “Skylights for Fish” would make an excellent name for an indie rock band, I would say you’re absolutely correct.
I asked both Hill and Metcalf what they learned from the restoration project, something that we could apply to other endangered species.
“One thing we learned,” Metcalf said, “was to think WAAAAY outside the box.”
Little fish, big pond
Justin Johnson, who’s the chief of fish and wildlife at Eglin, called the skylight solution “smart people addressing a challenge,” which I think sums up the whole effort.
Johnson told me they had to deal with other obstacles — beavers, for instance, that built actual dams that had to be removed. Overall, though, mostly what they were erasing were thoughtless human intrusions on the natural landscape.
By repairing the darter habitat, they enabled the fish to fill it with a piscine population boom. Johnson is hopeful that Eglin can apply that tactic to some of the 10 other endangered species that live on the base, too.
“The point is that recovery is attainable,” Johnson said. “It does happen, although it doesn’t happen often.”
When I mentioned that it took 50 years from listing to recovery for the darters, Metcalf pointed out that they were correcting mistakes made even further back — nearly 100 years, in fact.
The darter story takes on added importance because there’s been some chatter lately about how Nat Reed’s law, the Endangered Species Act, may itself be endangered.
“Conservative administrations and lawmakers have stepped up efforts to weaken it, backed by landowner and industry groups that contend the act stifles property rights and economic growth,” an Associated Press story reported recently. “Members of Congress try increasingly to overrule government experts on protecting individual species.”
The chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, an Arkansas Republican and former Razorback football player named Bruce Westerman, called the act “well-intentioned but entirely outdated … twisted and morphed by radical litigants into a political firefight rather than an important piece of conservation law.” He promised changes would be forthcoming.
I wish every one of these naysaying nincompoops could see the success of the Okaloosa darter the same way the Air Force does — as a major victory.
At a ceremony at Eglin last week that for some reason did NOT involve dancing, the current assistant secretary of the Interior, a Florida native named Shannon Estenoz, told the Northwest Florida Daily News that the way to look at this is the way a child would:
“If you want to understand the real magic and connection of the Okaloosa darter, take a 4-year-old down to the streambed and just listen and watch them when they spot an Okaloosa darter — the wonder and delight of seeing something living scurry.”
Recalling Bill Kaczor’s story about the “million-dollar minnow,” I asked Johnson how much saving the darter had cost the taxpayers. He estimated the price was about $200,000 a year for the past 30 years or so. Hey, it’s the Six Million Dollar Fish!
But bear in mind that’s a total of $6 million out of a federal defense budget that’s currently totaling $1.77 trillion-with-a-T per year.
I think you could fairly call that a drop in the bucket — or maybe a little fish in a very, very big pond.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.