Dozens of ‘suckers’ but no Shoal Bass. What fish tell us about the Chattahoochee River
On an unseasonably cold November morning, Professor Steve Sammons of Auburn University hunts shoal bass and other native fish in the Columbus waters of the Chattahoochee River.
He and two fishery experts from the state’s Department of Natural Resources are on a “shock boat” cutting through small swirls of vapor hovering above the river. Fish sampling is essential to understanding the health of the river but is seldom done in this stretch of the Chattahoochee due to a lack of resources and standards.
Yet, Sammons is an optimistic outlier determined to get data, and managed to wrangle a crew and a vessel for a day.
The shock boat has two electric nodes in the front, mimicking a giant bug with antennas on the surface of the water. The electric nodes shock around eight feet deep and 20 feet wide altogether. Sammons and Jody Swearingen, a DNR fishery technician, contorted and balanced their bodies against the boat rails and the thrashing of rapids while the boat moved against them for an hour.
Stunned fish would appear disoriented and sometimes float white “belly up” to the surface, and Sammons and Sweringen would hustle to snag the stunned fish and add them to a pool of fresh water on the boat.
The boat spun and pivoted near the edge of the waveshaper, the eddies near the powerhouse, and crossed over to the Alabama side of the river. Blue herons unaccustomed to the motor boat were spooked and would fly to another boulder to hunt for their breakfast.
This boat was not designed to enter white water areas, but the team was determined to try to find evidence of shoal bass and other native, rare, species of concern.
Native or endemic fish living in the Chattahoochee are an indicator that the river is returning to a healthy state. The Ledger-Enquirer asked Sammons during the trip if the river appeared “restored.”
“It’s really hard to know when you have no data,” Sammons said.
Which is the overarching goal this morning. More data means more understanding of what needs to be done to improve the river’s health.
“They [DNR] never samples water like this so we’re out here to help inform them,” Sammons said. “They are busy keeping tabs on 15 reservoirs and streams in the Flint River system. This corner of [Georgia] gets shared with Alabama and it has been ignored for a long time.”
The Georgia State Wildlife Action Plan is up for renewal in 2025. The federal requirement is updated every 10 years with plans as to how the state will conserve and restore fish and wildlife.
“DNR is in the process of redoing their plan so this is another impetus for us to be up here,” Sammons said.
After a few hours of flinging fish into the boat, Sammons grabbed fin samples (which grow back in a few months) for genetic testing that he will bring to his lab in Auburn, while the DNR team counted several different species.
The team found dozens of Large Mouth Bass and Spotted Bass and Catfish (all non-native). There were a dozen “Suckers” and zero Shoal Bass.
“Another Apalachicola…” Travis Ingram said as he tallied his paper with a pencil.
The “sucker” species they found are “Apalachicola red horse,” a Native species that only is found in the Apalachicola basin. For Sammons, finding them is a huge win, despite the disappointment of not finding any shoal bass.
“When you talk about a system as fragmented and altered as the Chattahoochee, anytime you find strongholds of populations of endemic fish it’s a good thing,” Sammons said. “Whether they are bass, suckers, or minnows.”
But, the sampling done today was not totally accurate. There could have been shoal bass that were not sampled, simply because they were in inaccessible.
“Shoal bass are only found in flowing water,” Sammons said. “It’s hard to work in rivers like this. There just aren’t great gear options and that’s why they’ve been ignored so frequently.”
Just Sammons: Limited resources means limited knowledge
DNR Fisheries biologist, Brent Hess, based in West Point, told the Ledger-Enquirer that there is not necessarily a sampling protocol. He pointed to anglers and Sammons for the “best bet” in the latest information.
“We’re lacking the resources,” Hess said. “We work with universities, and you have to have a special type of raft which is difficult. We don’t have a system where we do it annually. We have a stream team that samples small creeks all over the state, but our equipment doesn’t do well in those fast rapids.”
In 2017 Sammons went out within the 2.5 mile stretch between the Waveshaper and North Highlands dam, in the thick of the whitewater in a homemade “canoe shocker”. In 2017, Sammons and five students built the canoe vessel. That worked before, but that is not something that DNR is willing to do because of safety concerns, Sammons guesses.
Sammons said it would be ideal to conduct this exercise monthly but suggests that is nowhere near possible with DNR’s current personnel headcount.
“These guys just can’t do this monthly,” Sammons said. “They have so much else to do. I try to help these guys out so they can do the best job they can with the resources and the time they have available.”
Fish aren’t the only indicators of a healthy river. Freshwater mussels filter the water, pulling nutrients from the water column to the bottom, helping create an invertebrate food chain.
“Fish population and mussel population go together,”, Matthew Rowe freshwater mussel biologist for DNR said.” For mussels to recolonize it takes fish. They like shoals. Those are the goldilocks zones. Those impoundments [dams] restrict mussel species from living there.”
Mussels act as parasites on fish, attaching to them for a few weeks. “Mussels utilize fish like a taxicab to move upstream. We need fish who have larval mussels on them.”
Rowe says the suckers are the only host for a rare Altamaha arcmussel and southern elk toe (which is proposed to be listed as federally endangered), according to Rowe,
Rowe couldn’t say how the mussels are doing in the Chattahoochee because there hasn’t been monitoring in over a decade. “Our goal is to re-sample every river basin every 10 years and we’re currently behind.”
There are five sites in the Flint basin that are monitored, and zero in the Chattahoochee.
“The Chattahoochee is so damaged, so it is a high priority of mine,” Rowe said. It’s been 15 years since we’ve done monitoring. We are limited in resources in a triage situation.”
Right now the entire state has a revenue of $77 million to work with, down by $11 million from Fiscal Year 2022. Rowe’s department gets the majority of funding from grants that the DNR writes themselves. “Some money from the ‘give wildlife a chance license plates’, comes to our department as well.”
This is compared to the $381 million the city earned from tourism in 2023 alone that the Ledger-Enquirer reported on last week.
What about changing climate?
Climate change throws an added wrench into restoration efforts. Temperature extremes and floods are where issues. If the water is cold, they are cold and if the water is hot they are hot.
“Fish have been around a long time and are well adapted for dealing with climate change,” said Dr. Newbrey. “What they aren’t well adapted for dealing with is rapid climate change with no way to circumvent it. They need to be able to move North and South, instead they are boxed in by dams.”
Newbrey suggests parasite numbers can increase in the water with warming temperatures, which is problematic.
Additionally, scientists predict climate change can increase harmful algal bloom events to occur. The Chattahoochee Riverkeeper found harmful algal blooms (HABs) on Lake Harding in the Middle Chattahoochee region in July and August 2021. HABs can occur from a combination of still, stagnant water and warmer temperatures.
“When you impede its flow and change the dynamics, pollutants, nutrients don’t move as quickly as they would. In a reservoir or lake, nutrients build up to negatively impact water quality that can be detrimental to human health and difficult for drinking water treatment,” Chris Manganiello, Chattahoochee Riverkeeper Water Policy Director said.
Sammons suggests the concern in this area is rain events not temperature.
“I don’t think fish notice a difference between 90-95 degrees,” Sammons said. “Floods tend to be hard on river fish for reproduction. It could lead to more inconsistent reproduction and decline resiliency.”
We have harmful algal blooms (blue/green algae) that can lead to water that can be detrimental to human health and difficult for drinking water treatment.
Flowing, healthy water is part of a restoration process.
Two organizations are keeping tabs on the water quality by surveying the watershed: the Chattahoochee Riverkeepers and Chattahoochee River Conservancy (CRC).
Natalie Downey, Chattahoochee River Conservancy Interim Executive Director said the river quality is improving especially since she moved to Columbus 20 years ago.
“When I moved here in the beginning of 2003, I was told ‘You don’t get in the river’ by locals,” Downey said. “The recent kayak championships are proof that we have a clean river. It’s working.”
Today the CRC tests for E.coli and other harmful bacteria at 17 different sites every year over the course of 15 weeks.
“Mill Creek was off the charts,” Downey said. “We talked to the mayor of Phenix City and officials to address infrastructure issues. Now the last two samples weren’t terrible.”
Chattahoochee River Conservancy has planted about 10,000 shoal lilies since 2015, which are prime habitat for mussels, fish, and attract tourists.
The Chattahoochee Riverkeeper started collecting data in 2012 and continues to do constant monitoring via it’s neighborhood water watch and ongoing partnerships with CSU.
“We aren’t going to turn our streams into pre-colonial era health,” Sammons said. “The Chattahoochee Valley is starting to move toward trying to solve legacy problems that we have been handed. The first step is recognizing it and I think that has happened.”
After the area below the waveshaper was sampled and counted, the team went up to Bibb Pond (the area between North Highlands Dam and Lake Oliver) and found zero Shoal Bass and zero Suckers. The North Highlands dam is over 35 feet high. These are not migratory conditions that the native fish species are used to.
“They (fish) are not adapted for dealing with dams,” Michael Newbrey, professor of ictheology at CSU said. “When we open up these environments and end up with white water rapids and faster flowing water — rather than a damned up pond, we are changing and displacing sediment.”
Displacing sediment has a positive ripple effect throughout the ecosystem.
“It exposes rocks, and you have habitats for more organisms, invertebrates at the base of the chain,” Newbrey said. “[Flowing water] provides oxygen into the water and creates a more productive environment.”
After a few hours on the river the monitoring crew tallied over 50 individual fish from a dozen different species. The jackets and layers came off, and the freeze thawed.
“It is very encouraging to know about all of the Suckers,” Sammons said. “That’s new information we can give to Hess at DNR. They are important to the ecosystem. Finding that many Apalachicola red horse that we did in just an hour of sampling, that’s really good news.good news. This will help develop the state action plan.”
After four hours on the water, the boat crew left with a dozen suckers, a half dozen of another endemic species: the greater jump rock.
Sammons hopes days like this will become routine in the future, that the DNR will begin coming out every June to take annual samples and create a monitoring standard, despite there being no requirement.
This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with the Ledger-Enquirer.