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Researchers seeking elusive fish species
Brett Albanese says looking for the blackbanded sunfish is a classic needle in a haystack situation.

Albanese, an aquatic zoologist with the Wildlife Resources Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, is part of a survey led by a biology professor at Valdosta State University that hopes to uncover new populations of the tiny fish in south Georgia.

"We are kind of scratching our heads," Albanese said over the phone while giving directions to a co-worker as the pair navigated their way through rural Charlton County in search of the fish.

The fish prefers shallow, low-velocity waters of lakes, ponds, rivers and streams, he said. But because they grow to only 4 inches long and live in areas with dense aquatic vegetation, they are difficult to find, he added.

"A lot of these (coastal plain) fishes are unique and live in very specific habitats," Albanese said.

That is why he and David Bechler, the college professor leading the survey, are turning to private landowners for help. They will be crucial to the survey because there could be many unknown populations of the fish living in areas previously untested, Albanese said.

The survey so far has produced the first newly identified population of the elusive fish since 1980.

Bechler and his graduate assistant, Josh Salter, also located a population of the fish in a Thomas County wetland that had not been seen in 11 years. Salter said it took three tries at the same location to find the fish.

The sunfish is protected by the state, but that protection does not apply to private landowners. Finding a state-protected fish species on private property does not restrict what landowners can do with the property, Albanese said.

He encourages any landowners who think they may have the fish on their property to contact him.

"The discovery of new populations improves (the species) overall conservation status and decreases the need for more regulations in the future," Albanese said.

There are 11 sites across the region, from the Okefenokee Swamp to the Alapaha River near Tifton, Albanese said.

"At the present time, we don't have any records of it in Glynn County," he said.

The sunfish is not likely to be in a tidal area because of the water's high salinity, he added.

But because the fish is found below the fall line from New Jersey to Florida, he is not ruling out Glynn County as a possible habitat.

Learn more

Landowners with potential blackbanded sunfish sites are encouraged to contact Brett Albanese at 706-557-3223 or Prime habitats include Carolina bays and other wetlands with plenty of aquatic vegetation, peat and even old-growth trees.

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