RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The candy darter is a small, brightly colored fish found in streams across Virginia and West Virginia. But since 1932, nearly half of the 35 known types of candy darter have disappeared.

Candy darters are freshwater fish native to the Gauley, Greenbrier and New River watersheds in Virginia and West Virginia, according to the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife Service.

Named for their vibrant colors akin to candy stripes, males of the species have five black ‘saddles’ or markings along their backs, as well as nine to eleven reddish-orange and blueish-green stripes along their sides, the department said. Females display a similar pattern, although they appear to be less bright, usually with tones of olive green and black.

After a review of scientific research, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ranked the candy darter as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in November of 2018.

Candy darter (Photo: Department of Fish and Wildlife Services)

The department said that the degradation of habitats and geographic isolation has contributed to the decrease in candy darter populations.

Candy darters are a critical link in the aquatic food chain, causing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to consider the species’ endangerment status pressing. Darters eat small macroinvertebrates, such as mayflies and caddisflies, which allow the species to grow large enough and eventually become prey for larger fish like bass and trout.

In 2019, the White Sulphur Springs National Fish Hatchery in West Virginia began a program to attempt to increase populations of candy darters by selective breeding and stocking.

“The Service partnered with West Virginia University, the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources and the Service’s West Virginia Field Office to better understand the genetics of both candy darters and variegate darters and the impacts of hybridization,” the department said.

Through this partnership, candy darters were first successfully raised in captivity in 2021 and fish raised in the hatchery were released into the wild for the first time in fall 2022.

For Virginians that are fond of these rare, colorful fish and want to help their population — and those of other native fish — thrive, the Department of Fish and Wildlife Services advises you to take the following steps:

  • Never release fish from your bait bucket into streams or waterways.
  • Plant trees and other native woody plants along streams to stabilize banks, help prevent erosion, and filter pollution and sediment before reaching waterways.
  • Dispose of chemical waste products properly to prevent the pollution of soils and streams.
  • Become an advocate for candy darters by learning more about this brightly-colored species and telling your friends!