Fish & Water
AUBURN UNIVERSITY, Ala. — Alabama might be known nationally for its football or white sandy beaches, but on the world stage, Alabama is also known for its remarkable biodiversity. There are plants and animals in Alabama’s rivers and forests that are only found in Alabama. The Only in Alabama series will take a look at some of these fascinating plants and animals that are not found anywhere else on earth. This article focuses on the black bass living in waters throughout Alabama.
Alabama is sometimes called the little Amazon because of its great biodiversity. So when it comes to fish, there is no exception. Alabama’s waters are home to millions of fish from hundreds of species.
“Alabama has the most aquatic biodiversity in the entire country,” said Rusty Wright, an Alabama Extension specialist in aquatic resources.
While many of these species have been described for hundreds of years, scientists continue to describe new fish, often dividing what was described as a single species into two or more. An example of that is the great “black bass boom” that has happened over the last decade.
Black Bass Boom
Black basses—which include fish such as the largemouth bass, smallmouth bass and others—were once grouped into as few as three species. Now, biologists have sub-divided this group into as many as 16 to 18 species as work continues. These important game fish have created unique offspring based on the different regions where they reside. These regions include nearly every major drainage area in Alabama.
“What is so special about these black bass species is that a different species have developed in nearly every separate drainage in Alabama,” Wright said. “Each species has slight differences that are unique to each river.”
These drainage areas are usually at the base of a mountain or two divergent rivers that catch the rainfall. The areas serve as nurseries for the black bass fish species. From the Piedmont and Appalachian hills at the top of the Mobile River Basin, to the Mobile Bay, Alabama’s expansive ecosystem diversity has resulted in the vast biodiversity of these fish. The fish are categorized into different species named after the drainage areas that they originated from.
“Originally there were only eight in the United States before the division of species, now Alabama alone has 10 to 12 different species,” Wright said.
The Common and Scientific Names of Fishes from the United States, Canada, and Mexico guide is released every so often whenever a substantial amount of new fish are discovered. The Committee in the American Fisheries Society, in cooperation with the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists, decides when there are enough changes in how fish are named for a new book. The next book will likely include these newly named species of black basses.
“The smallmouth bass, largemouth bass and Northern spotted bass were the first three named and classified in America,” Wright said.
These original three species are among the most fished-for, warm-water fish in North America. They also support recreational fisheries that are tremendously important to the economy. Alabamians are well aware of the importance of bass in their waters and have most likely caught at least one species if they fish Alabama waters.
In the 20th century, professionals added four more black basses to the list, with two of those being from Alabama. The list has expanded in Alabama over the last fifteen years, with the descriptions of up to five more species being described in Alabama.
Below is a list of the 11 black bass species that call Alabama waters home. Most of these fish look similar to an untrained eye, as the differences among species are often subtle. Some of these differences include the shape of the jaw, the number of scales along the lateral line, the length and number of spines and color differences.
Recent genetic techniques now allow biologists to separate similar species using a piece of fin or a mouth swab. The fish biodiversity lab in the Auburn University School of Fisheries, Aquaculture and Aquatic Sciences has done much of the painstaking work necessary to separate similar species.
- Largemouth Bass (Micropterus salmoides) – The celebrity of bass can be found throughout the entire U.S., but mostly lives in the southern half. Native to eastern North America, the largemouth bass has been introduced throughout the world. They can sometimes create great recreational fisheries but can also damage native systems.
- Smallmouth Bass (Micropterus dolomieu) – Similar to the largemouth bass, the smallmouth bass, can also be found across the U.S. They are originally from eastern North America, but they have also been widely stocked outside of their native range.
- Northern Spotted Bass (Micropterus punctulatus) – Northern spotted bass is the third species from the original three named species in North America.
- Shoal Bass (Micropterus cataractae) – A smaller bass that is native to the Chattahoochee River. They are an endangered species and should be thrown back when caught.
- Alabama Bass (Micropterus henshalli) – This bass was subdivided from the Northern spotted bass in 2008.
- Coosa Bass (Redeye Bass) (Micropterus coosae) – Native to the Coosa River.
- Cahaba Bass (Micropterus cahabae) – Native to the Cahaba River.
- Tallapoosa Bass (Micropterus tallapoosae) – Native to the Tallapoosa River.
- Black Warrior Bass (Micropterus warriorensis) – Native to the Black Warrior River.
- Chattahoochee Bass (Micropterus chattahoochae) – Native to the Chattahoochee River.
- Choctaw Bass (Micropterus haiaka) – The Choctaw bass is a proposed species from the Coastal River drainages.
Important to Alabama
Wright said some of the fish species in Alabama have a huge economic importance.
“Anglers spend approximately half a billion dollars a year to catch these big game fish here in Alabama,” he said. “That turns over in the economy and can have an impact of nearly $2 billion when you look at charters, hotel rooms, food and other factors.”
If that is not enough reason to protect these fish, there is also a great ecological importance. Alabama’s entire ecosystem is stable because of all of the animals, rivers and plants that contribute. Each animal has a role. The lack of these species could throw the entire ecosystem out of whack, causing the loss of other species.
“With all this biodiversity, we see a lot of rare species,” Wright said. “This means we have a responsibility to protect these habitats and, where we can, undo some mistakes from the past.”
For more information on black bass or other fish species in Alabama, visit the Alabama Extension website at www.aces.edu.