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Fishes of the Sandusky River

In Brian Zimmerman’s hands, it’s all so straightforward.

“OK, people often get the greater and river redhorse suckers confused because of their similarity in size and shape, but the first thing I always look at is the tail.”

Brian corralled two large fish in the metal trough he’d just filled with a dozen specimens from a half-hour electrofishing demonstration in the shallow, cobbly water of the Sandusky River by the Tiffin-Seneca Izaak Walton League.

Some 20 souls had gathered there last Saturday for his Fishes of the Sandusky Scenic River presentation, sponsored by the Ohio Wild and Scenic Rivers Program, the Division of Wildlife and the Izaak Walton League.

“Although they both have red tails, the reddish-orange of the greater covers the whole tail while the river’s rusty-red only colors the tail’s outer edges.”

Zimmerman, a Research Associate at the Ohio State University School of Environment and Natural Resources, is on a mission to draw people’s attention to the wonderous diversity of the State’s native fish species. Together with co-author Dan Rice, his 2019 book, A Naturalist’s Guide to the Fishes of Ohio, is already the hottest selling publication ever released by the Ohio Biological Survey.

Deservedly so. It’s killer good. Superbly written with excellent photos (almost all by Zimmerman), fascinating insights into the ecology of each species and tips on where to best find them, I think of the guide–an update of Trautman’s classic Fishes of Ohio–as an essential read for anyone looking for an accessible introduction to the diverse fishes of our many streams, rivers, wetlands, ponds and lakes.

Prior to the presentation, Christina Kuchle, the Northwest Scenic Rivers Manager (for the Maumee and Sandusky Rivers) reminded the audience of last year’s highly successful workshop on the Freshwater Mussels of the Sandusky (presented by Otterbein University’s Michael Hoggarth), underscoring yet another of the many reasons for protecting one of the highest quality waterways in the State.

It also called to mind the remarkable story of Ohio’s Scenic Rivers Program itself.

In October of 1968, the U.S. Congress passed the National Scenic Rivers Act to protect America’s remaining pristine rivers from deterioration for the benefit of future generations. It was the second such law in the country. Eight months beforehand, Ohio had passed its own Scenic Rivers Act with the same objective.

Since then, Ohio has designated sections of 15 of the State’s rivers and streams into one of three Scenic categories: Scenic and Recreational (two sites), Scenic (nine sites including the Sandusky), and Wild and Scenic (four sites).

The phrase, “Ohio has designated” in the previous paragraph merits elaboration. According to the 1968 law, the Director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources “may propose for designation a watercourse with adjacent lands possessing water conservation, scenic, fish, wildlife, historic or outdoor recreational values that should be preserved…”

That recommendation is based on four criteria: outstanding water quality, high biological diversity, limited human intrusions and valuable recreational resources. But the unique feature of this process is that it is not triggered by a top-down evaluation by a state agency, but by a widely-supported request for designation by members of the local community.

In 1970, the Sandusky was named the State’s second Scenic River (after the Little Miami), largely due to concerted advocacy by Izsaak Walton, Pheasants Forever, Sandusky Coon Hunters and other area conservation-minded groups of citizens.

Kuchle emphasizes that this level of public support remains a critical component of the Scenic Rivers Program, 51 years after its inception. Her Advisory Council consisting of private landowners, farmers, park district representatives and university researchers has been central to her work during her seven years as Northwest Manager.

The single most important factor in protecting our high-caliber waterways for future generations is the restoration and maintenance of their streamside forests, for it is the interface of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems along a Scenic River that has led to its high diversity of plant and animal life.

Here again, the public’s support of the goals of the Scenic Rivers Program are essential. Although the Ohio Department of Natural Resources has the authority to approve or disapprove publicly funded projects like bridges, dams and roads within 1,000 feet of designated scenic rivers (outside municipal corporation limits), it has no regulatory authority over privately owned lands bordering such waters.

For this reason, a lion’s share of Christina’s work involves offering advice and assistance to landowners and conducting educational programs for all manner of interested parties, from school groups and conservation organizations to town and county government officials.

For example, one of the Scenic River Program’s most important (and enjoyable) public outreach activities is its Biological Stream Quality Monitoring program in which volunteers are trained to survey aquatic invertebrates as a measure of the biological integrity of a given stream reach. The data collected is entered into Ohio EPA’s Credible Data Base and is especially useful for tracking potential changes in a stream’s water quality.

For further information or assistance, NW Scenic Rivers Manager Kuchle can be contacted at christinakuchle@dnr.state,oh.us or via her work phone (419) 348-5073.

Ken Baker is a scientist and a retired biology professor. If you have a natural history topic you’d like the author to consider for an upcoming column, email your idea to newsroom@advertiser-tribune.com.

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