4 Investigates: Protecting the Rio Grande silvery minnow
August 20, 2019 10:28 PM
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.- The Rio Grande is as ancient as it is beautiful.
The river system took at least 800,000 years to form. As it formed, life started flourishing along its nourishing banks, creating a new ecosystem.
Beneath the water's surface, an unassuming little fish, only three inches long, began to evolve and reproduce.
“It used to be one of the most numerous fish throughout the Rio Grande and Pecos River,” said Kathy Lang, Curator of The Albuquerque Aquatic Conservation Facility.
The tiny Rio Grande silvery minnow became a big piece of the biological puzzle, keeping water clean by eating toxic algae along more than 1,800 miles of river from the headwaters in Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico in Texas.
As humans settled in New Mexico, the Rio Grande began to change: irrigation, dams and towns altered the natural flow.
The silvery minnow began to decline in numbers-- to the point it was listed as endangered in 1994.
Today, its numbers have dropped further. It’s now found in only five percent of its original habitat.
“This is as close as we can get to a natural environment for the silvery minnow,” Lang said.
Efforts to save the silvery minnow aren't just about saving a fish, they are about saving an entire ecosystem.
The silvery minnow eats algae, so in some areas there might be an algae bloom that could prove to be toxic to somebody else.
In addition to keeping algae levels under control, it's also food for larger species in the Bosque.
Lang says removing that link in the chain could disrupt an entire system.
“If it was gone, a lot of folks wouldn't notice but maybe in a couple years you notice there's no migratory birds or there's not as many native plants or not as many insects because the river is starting to dry up because we didn't take care of it,” Lang said.
Land admits that the effort suffers a perception problem on the surface.
“What are some criticisms you hear about silvery minnow conservation—‘Who cares, it's just one little fish.’ I get that a lot,” Lang said.
Lang believes it’s a race against the clock of extinction.
Every year, her team harvests free floating silvery minnow eggs in the Rio Grande, a painstaking process similar to panning for gold.
“Delicately take this little egg off of the screen, typically we do it with a spoon, and you count every one that you collect,” Lang said. “We will do 40,000 in the fall and 20,000 in the spring.”
Once mature, the silvery minnows are released into the Rio Grande in hopes they thrive.
Updated: August 20, 2019 10:28 PM
Created: August 20, 2019 09:03 PM
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