Robust Redhorse Conservation Committee

The Robust Redhorse Conservation Committee is a voluntary stakeholder partnership charged with the overall responsibility for directing the recovery of the robust redhorse (Moxostoma robustum). The robust redhorse is a large, long-lived member of the redhorse sucker family. Adults can reach 30 inches in length and weigh up to 17 pounds, although the average length in sample populations is 25 inches and the average weight is 9 pounds. The maximum known age is 27 years. The fish has a thick, robust body with rose-colored fins and a fleshy lower lip. A two-page factsheet provides a quick overview of the fish and its recovery.

The Mystery Fish

Master naturalist Edward Drinker Cope first described the robust redhorse in 1870 based on a single 6-pound specimen that had been collected from the Yadkin River in North Carolina. The specimen was apparently destroyed and by the late 1800's all mention of the robust redhorse had dropped from the scientific literature. In 1980 and 1985, unidentified specimens were collected from the Savannah River (the boundary between Georgia and South Carolina) and the Pee Dee River in North Carolina and South Carolina, respectively. However, they were not properly identified as robust redhorse because the name had been misapplied to a related species.

In August 1991, fishery biologists with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Wildlife Resource Division, collected five unrecognized fish from the Oconee River downstream of Sinclair Dam while conducting an environmental assessment during the early stages of a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission relicensing of the dam. The unknown fish were sent to renowned ichthyologists who unraveled the taxonomic mystery determining that the Oconee specimens and the previously collected unknown fish were the lost robust redhorse. Once the taxonomic mistake was discovered and the 1980, 1985, and 1991 specimens were correctly identified, the collection of robust redhorse from the Oconee River signified the rediscovery of a species that had been lost to science for 122 years.

Following the 1991 rediscovery, efforts were made to locate other remnant populations of robust redhorse within its historic range, the Atlantic Slope Rivers from the Pee Dee River system in North Carolina to the Altamaha River system in Georgia. Despite extensive field surveys in the Pee Dee, Yadkin, Rocky, and Little rivers, North Carolina; the Catawba River, South Carolina; the Ogeechee and Broad rivers, Georgia; and the Savannah River, Georgia/South Carolina, no conclusive evidence for the existence of other populations was found at that time.

Creative Conservation Partnership

The Endangered Species Act encourages creative partnerships between the public and private sectors and among governmental agencies to conserve imperiled species and their habitat. In fact, Section 4 (b)(1)(A) of the ESA requires consideration of existing conservation efforts when determining whether a species should be listed as threatened or endangered. Since efforts to recover the robust redhorse were initiated in the spring of 1992, this preexisting conservation initiative was embraced when the robust redhorse was under consideration for species listing.

As a result, the Robust Redhorse Conservation Committee (RRCC) was established in 1995 under a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between state and federal resource agencies, private industry, and the conservation community in lieu of listing under the ESA. Partners to the robust redhorse recovery include thirteen signatory members to the MOU, two cooperating members under the MOU, and a variety of university research and resource management facilities as affiliate members. The MOU is consistent with federal agency findings that the development and implementation of conservation agreements, management plans and similar documents are effective for conserving declining species making listing unnecessary in some instances.

Threats to the Robust Redhorse

Wild populations of robust redhorse are now known to exist in the Ocmulgee and Oconee rivers (Georgia), the Savannah River (Georgia/South Carolina), and the Pee Dee River (North Carolina/South Carolina). In addition, small stocked populations have been established by introducing fish in the Ocmulgee, Ogeechee, and Broad rivers in Georgia. While much has been learned about the fish since its discovery, many questions about its habitat, life history, and threats to its survival remain. Habitat loss and disruption of spawning migrations resulting from dams and impoundments, predation by introduced nonnative species, and significant deterioration of water quality due to sedimentation and pollution are believed to have contributed to the decline of the species. As well, the limited range of known populations and low rates of recruitment to the adult population represent threats to the species' future.

The complex and diverse problems facing the robust redhorse require the RRCC's interdisciplinary approach that uses a broad spectrum of experience, expertise, and management authority to maintain and restore this imperiled species. The RRCC is actively committed to the recovery of the robust redhorse throughout its former range by identifying priority conservation needs for the robust redhorse and its habitat and coordinating implementation of research and management programs for addressing those needs.

Partnership Accomplishments

To date, the RRCC has met as a full committee annually in partial satisfaction of requirements for conservation of the species as designated in the MOU. The annual meeting represents the only scheduled time for all interests to assess progress and to establish management directions that guide recovery efforts in the upcoming year and beyond. The annual meeting is the occasion to explore the scientific and management implication of research results and new data, to debate philosophical viewpoints, and to gather the collective expertise of fisheries and environmental management professionals. This dialogue, documented in RRCC Annual Meeting Reports, includes the best available science on the robust redhorse, which forms the basis of the RRCC's recovery and policy decisions.

A Conservation Strategy for the Robust Redhorse that provides overall conservation guidance to assure the continued survival of the species was adopted by the RRCC in 1998 and updated in 2003. It establishes short- and long-term goals conservation goals, describes the status and distribution of the species, discusses problems facing the species, and presents conservation actions to be implemented to accomplish the short- and long-term goals. Based on the Conservation Strategy, the RRCC participated in a new and innovative United States Fish and Wildlife Service policy to develop a Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA) for the Robust Redhorse in the Ocmulgee River, Georgia. The CCAA involves the commitment of specified research and management actions in exchange for assurances to non-federal participants that further regulatory actions will not be undertaken if the legal status of the species were to change. After publication in the Federal Register, the CCAA was signed as a collaborative effort by the United States Fish and Wildlife, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the Georgia Power Company to restore the species to the Ocmulgee River. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service has produced a short video about the Robust Redhorse Conservation Agreement which can be viewed below or found on their website.

The RRCC has developed sufficient information on the robust redhorse and activities have expanded to the point that unifying policies were needed to implement the short- and long-term goals established in the Conservation Strategy. In 2002, the RRCC adopted the Robust Redhorse Conservation Committee Policies that describe the current understanding of this unique species and the processes under which the partnership operates.

The RRCC established an executive committee to manage the ongoing activities that implement research and management decisions. Research projects and management activities are undertaken by subsets of the RRCC and have resulted in a variety of research reports, master's theses, journal articles, and conference proceedings. Technical working groups were created to focus on specific populations with the expectation of developing river basin management plans. The first set of plans is in development for the Oconee River, Georgia; Broad River, South Carolina; and Pee Dee River, North Carolina and South Carolina. Technical working groups also are formed to address range-wide issues such as habitat restoration. The Habitat TWG has developed the Habitat Restoration Management Plan. In addition to a variety of articles in the popular press and newspaper articles, the RRCC undertakes education to inform the public on the robust redhorse and its unique rediscovery, loss of habitat and biodiversity concerns associated with alterations to riverine systems, and the wonders of the natural world.

Paradigm for the Future

The native habitats of the robust redhorse are typical southeastern rivers, equal parts wilderness beauty and significantly altered riverine systems. The rivers have been intensively fished for hundreds of years. In addition, state and federal resource agencies have undertaken surveys of the river systems in Georgia and the Carolinas for some time. In fact, the Savannah River is one of the most highly surveyed rivers in the Southeast, intensively sampled since the 1950's under the Atomic Energy Commission due to the location of the Savannah River Nuclear Site. For these rivers to reveal such a large fish after a 122-year absence from science shows that rivers still hold natural mysteries that necessitate awe, respect, and protection.

The RRCC partnership is a pioneering effort to recover a species proactively, without federal listing. The nonregulatory basis of the conservation approach shapes the RRCC initiative making broad participation possible and supporting shared commitment. Although challenging, the RRCC's voluntary, multi-stakeholder approach has been extraordinarily successful in accomplishing its activities and achieving its goals. Given the current political climate and fiscal constraints, creative nonregulatory partnerships may be the best approach for achieving conservation goals in the 21st century.