Reports: Fish Habitat Seriously Degraded

April 27, 2011

In an extensive assessment that the authors say is the first of its kind, a coalition of experts has found that US fresh- and saltwater habitat for the nation's 3,000+ fish species is seriously degraded in much of the country.

For the lower 48 states, 27 percent of stream miles are at high or very high risk of current habitat degradation, and 29% are at moderate risk. For estuaries, 53% of the total area is at high or very high risk, and 24% is at moderate risk. Alaska and Hawaii also are included in the analysis. Lakes, reservoirs, and other marine waters couldn't be included, due to data and other limitations, and some key information is known to be missing for certain areas, such as the local effects of logging or water diversions.

Among the areas most at risk are:

  • The urban corridor between Boston and Atlanta
  • Many areas of states in the middle of the country, including North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee
  • Southern Florida
  • Central and southern California
  • Parts of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana
  • Some estuaries in New England, the mid-Atlantic, southern California, Texas, and Hawaii

The primary human sources of habitat degradation identified included urban development, livestock grazing, agriculture, point source pollution, and areas with high numbers of active mines and dams.

The report was prepared under the auspices of the National Fish Habitat Board, which was formed in 2006. There are more than 200 agencies, organizations, universities, and fishing and boating companies or organizations that are supporting the Board's National Fish Habitat Action Plan. For a full list, see:

The maps provided in the report and online have fairly good resolution, allowing you to zoom in on local threatened areas. The report discusses many steps that can be taken to help alleviate problems, and profiles some mitigation efforts, providing numerous hooks to hang your coverage on. One of the report's goals is to help reduce threats to about 40% of the nation's freshwater fish species that are considered at risk or on the verge of extinction.

In a related development, the habitat of at least two of the Great Lakes is being degraded even more dramatically than previously thought by invasive mussels, according to a new study. The presence of the quagga and zebra mussels had previously been documented, but the new study indicates that the extent of ecosystem alteration in LakeMichigan and Lake Huron, particularly the depletion of algae at the base of the food chain, is unprecedented in recorded history, says lead author Mary Anne Evans. The research team says its findings suggest that agencies responsible for managing the lakes need to act much more aggressively and quickly to thwart even greater changes.

The paper was published online April 21, 2011, in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

In addition to covering fish and fish habitat issues, your reporting can link the findings of these reports to ripple effects on humans. For instance, poor fish habitat caused by toxic algal blooms often translates directly to threats to human health or restricted use of beaches. Oxygen depletion that threatens fish also can cause putrid smells that are aggravating to people living nearby or trying to use a waterway for recreational purposes. And excess pollution can affect other wildlife, such as birds that eat fish, with a further impact of reducing opportunities for birdwatchers. 

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