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One exception is the Alabama sturgeon, which is, or was, up to 30 inches long. Its population was decimated in the past century by commercial fishing and dams that sealed off its migratory spawning routes. This sturgeon may now be the most endangered fish in the U.S. Intensive searches have turned up exactly three since it was officially protected in 2000. The last one caught, in 2007, was given a tracking device and followed daily for two years on the chance it would lead to others. It never did, and there are no Alabama sturgeons in captivity.

In general, though, the endangered southeastern fish are of no economic importance. In some places that's precisely why they were eliminated. Tennessee's Abrams Creek, which winds for just 25 miles, mostly through Great Smoky Mountains National Park, used to hold nearly 70 species of native fish. (In contrast, the Columbia and Colorado river systems, which drain most of the American West, support only 54 species between them.) But park officials decided in 1957 to poison the native fish and stock the stream with non-native trout for sportfishing. They didn't want all those little local "baitfish" competing with young trout for food. Before long, Abrams Creek had lost nearly half of its original fish species.

Since then, however, attitudes among wildlife managers have changed. Now they want their world-class menagerie of little fish back.

Abrams Creek was running clear and cool, shaded by tulip poplars, pawpaws, and pines, on the day I belly flopped in with Shute and Rakes last fall. Flotillas of crimson leaves sailed by downstream, and stripe-necked musk turtles swam over to survey us as we counted fish. From 1986 to 2002, Shute and Rakes toted bucketfuls of fish from the Knoxville ark to Abrams Creek; now they return each year to monitor the results. It's just one of more than 30 streams they are working in. Since the 1950s and '60s, attitudes—and laws—have changed outside the national parks as well. Southeastern rivers are as dammed up as ever, but after a long era of relentless logging, coal mining, and discharging from factory and sewage pipes, environmental laws have cleaned them enough that in some places, ark-raised fish can be released to test the waters.

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