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Genetic integrity, population status, and long-term viability of isolated populations of shoal bass in the upper Chattahoochee River basin, Georgia

April 1, 2018

This report characterizes the status of multiple isolated Shoal Bass (Micropterus cataractae) populations in the upper Chattahoochee River basin (UCRB), Georgia. The Shoal Bass, a sport fish endemic to the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River (ACF) basin, is a fluvial-specialist species considered vulnerable to local extirpations and extinction due to habitat fragmentation and introgression with non-native congeners. Perhaps one of the most isolated populations of Shoal Bass exists in a 2-km reach of Big Creek, a tributary of the Chattahoochee River located near Roswell, Georgia. Big Creek is partially contained within the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, although the Big Creek watershed is riddled with urban land cover. Roswell Mill Dam limits the upstream extent of the Shoal Bass population at Big Creek, and the downstream extent is presumably limited to the confluence of Big Creek and the Chattahoochee River. This reach of the Chattahoochee River is thermally depressed because of coldwater releases from Lake Lanier, and is considered unsuitable for Shoal Bass. Herein, we examine the genetic integrity, population status, and long-term viability of the Shoal Bass population in Big Creek. We also examine two additional Shoal Bass populations that occur in the UCRB, specifically the Chestatee River and the upper Chattahoochee River, both of which are impounded at Lake Lanier. Together, the Shoal Bass inhabiting these three stream systems comprise a distinct genetic stock of Shoal Bass (Taylor 2017), underscoring the importance of conserving these populations towards maintaining the overall diversity and adaptive potential of the species. We assessed genetic diversity and estimated effective population sizes within these three rivers by genotyping fish with 16 microsatellite DNA markers. Results demonstrated that the Shoal Bass population in Big Creek has experienced high rates of introgression with non-native Smallmouth Bass (M. dolomieu), purportedly introduced into the Chattahoochee River in the past 10-15 years. Alarmingly, only 24% (15 of 62) of putative Shoal Bass collected from Big Creek were genetically pure Shoal Bass, whereas the majority of fish were first-filial (F1) generation hybrids and unidirectional backcrosses towards Shoal Bass. Fleeting opportunity may remain to conserve the native genome of the Shoal Bass population in Big Creek. High hybridization rates prevented genetic diversity analysis for the Big Creek population. Shoal Bass populations in the Chestatee and Chattahoochee rivers displayed levels of genetic diversity similar to populations that persist in other rivers in the ACF basin, namely the Flint and Chipola rivers. Effective population sizes of 93.8– 197.4 for the Chestatee and Chattahoochee rivers (combined) suggest that the conservation status of these populations is stable for the short-term, but may be at risk of losing genetic diversity and adaptive potential in the long-term. To estimate age and mortality of the three populations, we used fish scales and capture-markrecapture (CMR) as complementary, non-lethal methods for age estimation. Estimated ages of phenotypic Shoal Bass ranged from 1-12 years in all three populations, demonstrating increased longevity compared to populations elsewhere within the native range. Catch-curve estimates of annual mortality ranged from 18.4-23.7%, which are markedly lower than those observed in other Shoal Bass populations in the ACF basin. These differences in life-history characteristics underscore the need for the development of population-specific management and conservation strategies for Shoal Bass in the UCRB. The lowest recruitment variability (i.e., the variation in year-class strength) was observed in the Chestatee River, a forested watershed, whereas the highest variability was observed in Big Creek, an urbanized watershed. Recruitment strength in Big Creek was negatively influenced by discharge variability in the summer months, suggesting that flashy, sediment-laden flows hinder survival of recently hatched young. Other statistically significant models from Big Creek and the Chattahoochee River indicated that over-winter survival could be an important pinch-point for recruitment in UCRB populations. A multi-agency sampling effort was conducted from May 2013-May 2016 to estimate the population size of Shoal Bass occupying the 1-km of wadeable shoal habitats in Big Creek. Using CMR models, we estimated that approximately 219-348 Shoal Bass (≥ 70 mm total length) occupied the area throughout the duration of our study. These estimates largely reflect abundance of individuals aged 0-2 years, as only 9% (36 of 408) tagged fish were aged ≥ 7 years. Local abundance appeared similar to that reported for a population that inhabited Little Uchee Creek, a similar-sized tributary of the Chattahoochee River, prior to its recent functional extirpation. The low abundance of large, adult Shoal Bass further suggests the long-term viability of the Big Creek population may be in jeopardy. Perhaps most importantly, CMR estimates reflect abundance of phenotypic Shoal Bass – genetic analyses suggest the abundance of pure Shoal Bass could be an order of magnitude smaller. To evaluate the potential for adult Shoal Bass to emigrate from Big Creek into the mainstem Chattahoochee River, we tagged eight adults with acoustic telemetry tags and assessed their seasonal residency at two stationary receiver locations located in increasing proximity to the confluence with the Chattahoochee River. Fish took up residency near the confluence during the fall and winter months, during which time water temperatures in Big Creek were periodically colder than the Chattahoochee River. Although we were unable to document emigration, we conclude that the potential for emigration is highest during the winter months when the Chattahoochee River may be warmer than Big Creek. Two of the tagged fish were caught by anglers near the confluence, suggesting that angling pressure at Big Creek may be higher than previously suspected. Overall, this study observed unique life-history characteristics and characterized the population status of multiple Shoal Bass populations in the UCRB. Populations in the Chestatee and Chattahoochee rivers appear stable at present and likely represent the last remaining strongholds for pure Shoal Bass in the UCRB. Efforts to preserve forested watershed conditions, natural hydrology, and shoal habitats would contribute to the long-term persistence of Shoal Bass populations in these two rivers. Additionally, the detection of non-native Alabama Bass and their associated hybrids in both rivers is cause for concern. Diligent monitoring of hybridization dynamics between Alabama Bass and Shoal Bass is warranted, along with an assessment of Alabama Bass invasion extent upstream of Lake Lanier. The Shoal Bass population in Big Creek is threatened by elevated levels of introgression with nonnative Smallmouth Bass, recruitment variability, low abundance of adults, and isolation from other populations. Conservation intervention is urgently needed to restore and preserve this genetically distinct population, which would contribute to preservation of range wide genetic diversity and adaptability of the species. Additionally, an urban sport fishery for Shoal Bass at Big Creek has the potential to serve as a tool for increasing public awareness, engagement, and support of Shoal Bass conservation efforts in the UCRB. We suggest strategies for conservation of the remnant shoal habitats and Shoal Bass population in Big Creek, including potential development of a supplemental stocking program, selective removal of non-native congeners, and delivery of environmental education programs that could bolster awareness and appreciation.

Publication Year 2018
Title Genetic integrity, population status, and long-term viability of isolated populations of shoal bass in the upper Chattahoochee River basin, Georgia
Authors Andrew T. Taylor, James M. Long
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype Federal Government Series
Series Title Natural Resource Report
Series Number NPS/CHAT/NRR-2018/1620
Index ID 70227844
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Coop Res Unit Atlanta