EBCI Fisheries and Wildlife Management has been working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, and Conservation Fisheries Inc. to conserve and restore the imperiled sicklefin redhorse since 2007.
“This project is focused on returning a rare and culturally significant fish to its historic distribution on and off of Cherokee lands,” said Mike LaVoie, EBCI Fisheries and Wildlife Management program manager. “This exemplary collaboration between the EBCI, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, and Conservation Fisheries Inc.
showcases how agencies can work together across political boundaries to meet joint conservation goals. Ultimately, our objective is to ensure that this fish and its relationship with Cherokee culture is both restored and maintained for future generations.”
The sicklefin redhorse, known to the Cherokee as jungihtla and translated as “wearing a red feather” due to its falcate dorsal fin, was not recognized by the scientific community as a unique species until 1992. Today, the aptly named sicklefin redhorse has been eliminated from approximately 50 percent of its native range in the Little Tennessee and Hiwassee watersheds due habitat degradation and fragmentation from dams.
This long-lived sucker species, growing to 25 inches in length, was either stewed or roasted and provided a calorically rich seasonal component of Cherokee subsistence. These fish were traditionally captured in V-shaped fish weirs, scattered throughout the southern Appalachian’s large streams, and were fundamental to the Cherokee peoples’ livelihood for centuries.
Located adjacent to historic settlements, these carefully constructed boulder and cobble structures helped to funnel abundant runs of fish into basket traps made of oak or hickory splits. Fishing was a cooperative endeavor for the Cherokee with shared efforts by men, women and children culminating in the acquisition of both rich nutritional resources and meaningful family experiences.
Historic restoration efforts have focused on juvenile fish introductions to the upper Oconaluftee River above Ela Dam.
LaVoie commented, “We have some concerns relying on this method as a recent juvenile radio-telemetry project demonstrated that many of these small fish may be transported
downsteam during high flow events over the dam and cannot return to tribal waters. Our present study is shifting gears to focus on moving adult fish to tribal waters. We captured 10 adult fish (both male and female) from the Tuckasegee River, surgically implanted radio-tracking devices, and then subsequently moved the fish to tribal waters above Ela dam.”
“The goal is both to continue to restore this fish to its historical distribution in tribal waters of the Qualla Boundary and also complete a research project to better understand the fishes movement patterns, habitat use, and reproductive ecology in their new home. We will be tracking the fish with a specialized radio receiver and antenna to locate the fish on a weekly basis and taking detailed measurements to evaluate the results of the restoration efforts. The transmitters in the fish will be active for approximately 1.5 years. We plan to adapt future restoration strategies for the fish from information gained from this study.”
– EBCI Public Relations