PINOLA, Miss. (AP) – A tiny species of fish that once thrived in a river that flowed hundreds of miles from central Mississippi to southeastern Louisiana is being reintroduced into the Pearl River after disappearing 50 years ago.
Wildlife experts say a number of factors likely contributed to the Pearl Pillar’s disappearance from the Pearl River system, including oil and gas exploration, agricultural runoff, urban pollution and dam construction. All are considered harmful to the habitat and survival of the pearl pillar.
And while the Pearl River, which is more than 400 miles (644 kilometers) long, continues to be affected by pollution and other habitat threats today, officials say the federal Clean Water Act of 1972 helped make it cleaner make. In fact, it’s clean enough that Mississippi and federal wildlife experts say there are signs the pearl pillar may thrive again there.
“This site has some of the highest biodiversity in the entire Pearl River,” said Matt Wagner, a US Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who last month joined workers wading in the Strong River, a tributary of the Pearl River. They dipped bowls into buckets full of tiny pillars of pearls from a private hatchery and slipped them into the water.
“There are more species here than most other places, and many of the species that we find here are so-called sensitive species. They are species that are not very tolerant of pollution, severe disturbances and things like that.”
The presence of these species bodes well for the return of Pillar Pearl to the Pearl River, Wagner said.
The pearlneck is a bottom-dwelling fish about 2.5 inches (6.4 centimeters) long. It is named for the iridescent coloring of its gills, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which listed it as a threatened species in 2017.
It had not completely disappeared by 1973. It was still found in the Pascagoula River system in Mississippi. But that only accounted for about 43% of its historical reach.
Wagner is optimistic about his future in the Pearl River.
“This is the biggest victory of my career as a biologist so far,” said Wagner. “It is very rare that a species can be reintroduced to its historical range. Going to school as a biologist is the day everyone dreams of.”
Water samples are taken regularly to see how the species is surviving. The hope is that they will thrive and spread throughout the Pearl system and that one day federal protection will no longer be needed.
“Ideally, they should be removed from the Endangered Species Act,” Wagner said.
McGill reported from New Orleans.