WOTUS Rule Fails to Consider Science and Threatens Fish and Fisheries

New Paper, “Headwater Streams and Wetlands are Critical for Sustaining Fish, Fisheries and Ecosystem Services,” demonstrates threats to ecosystem services, imperiled species, commercial and recreational species, and culturally valuable fish from narrow rule.

The American Fisheries Society (AFS) is deeply concerned with the proposed rule released Thursday, February 14, by the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to revise the definition of “Waters of the United States (WOTUS).” The very narrow rule fails to account for the full range of physical, chemical and biological connections between navigable waters and the streams and wetlands.  The limited protections proposed for our nation’s waters threatens fish and fisheries and the communities that rely on them. More than a half century of scientific research has unequivocally demonstrated that the physical, chemical, and biological integrity of “traditionally navigable” waters fundamentally depend on ephemeral, intermittent, and perennial headwater streams, as well as the myriad associated lakes, wetlands, and off-channel habitats.

Recently, AFS convened a group of scientists to look at the value of headwater streams to fish and fisheries. Headwaters are broadly defined as portions of a river basin that contribute to the development and maintenance of downstream navigable waters including rivers, lakes, and oceans. Headwaters include wetlands outside of floodplains, small stream tributaries with permanent flow, tributaries with intermittent flow (e.g., periodic or seasonal flows supported by groundwater or precipitation), or tributaries or areas of the landscape with ephemeral flows (e.g., short-term flows that occur as a direct result of a rainfall event).  Many of these waters would be left unprotected by the new rule.

A new paper, titled “Headwater Streams and Wetlands are Critical for Sustaining Fish, Fisheries and Ecosystems,” details how the loss of Clean Water Act protections for headwaters would diminish ecosystem services provided by those waters, increase the threat to imperiled species, affect commercial and recreational fisheries, and impact fishes of cultural value to Native Americans and the recreating public.

Dr. Susan Colvin, co-author of “Headwater Streams and Wetlands are Critical for Sustaining Fish, Fisheries and Ecosystem Services,” stated: “When headwaters are polluted, or headwater habitats are destroyed, fish, fisheries, and ecosystem services are compromised. Headwaters are key to the sustainability of fish stocks in both upstream and downstream waters. Threatened and endangered species will be harder to recover, and more species will be at risk of becoming imperiled. Simply put, loss of protections for headwaters would have grave consequences for fish and fisheries and would have far reaching implications for fish, wildlife and their habitats, as well as economies dependent on those systems.”

Dr. Mažeika Sullivan, co-author of “Headwater Streams and Wetlands are Critical for Sustaining Fish, Fisheries and Ecosystem Services” and member of the EPA Science Advisory Board “Connectivity of Streams and Wetlands to Downstream Waters” Panel (2013-2014) noted, “The rule fails to align with the original intent of the Clean Water Act to ‘to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters’ and is inconsistent with current science.  The EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have improperly interpreted the theoretical model developed by the EPA Science Advisory Board to illustrate how gradients in connectivity might be used to evaluate downstream impacts of changes to streams and wetlands to eliminate protections for these vulnerable waters.”

Dr. Douglas Austen, Executive Director of the American Fisheries Society (AFS) stated: “The proposed rule is an unprecedented rollback of the Clean Water Act, yet the agencies have not offered an analysis of the impacts of the new rule.  This narrow rule fails to properly consider the well-established science and imperils fish and aquatic resources and communities that rely on them.  A shift of this magnitude merits a full assessment of the impacts of eliminating protections for so many waterways.”

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For more information, please contact:

Ms. Drue Banta Winters
[email protected]
PH 301/897-8616 x202

Dr. Susan Colvin is an Assistant Professor of Sustainable Fisheries at Unity College in Maine. She is the lead author of “Headwater Streams and Wetlands are Critical for Sustaining Fish, Fisheries and Ecosystem Services.” Her research focuses on studying fishes across aquatic ecosystems with emphasis on assemblage changes along gradients of stream size, type, measures of heterogeneity, and anthropogenic influence. Colvin holds a Masters of Fisheries from Oregon State University and Ph.D. in Biological Sciences from Auburn University and is an active member in the American Fisheries Society.

Dr. Mažeika Sullivan is an Associate Professor in the School of Environment and Natural Resources at The Ohio State University (OSU) and the Director of the Ramsar-designated Schiermeier Olentangy River Wetland Research Park. He received a B.A. in Anthropology from Dartmouth College, and earned his M.S. in Biology and Ph.D. in Natural Resources from the University of Vermont. Subsequently, he was a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Idaho before joining the OSU faculty in 2008. Sullivan’s research focuses on water quality and aquatic ecosystems, where his work integrates community and ecosystem ecology, fluvial geomorphology, and biogeochemistry. He also served as a member of the EPA SAB “Connectivity of Streams and Wetlands to Downstream Waters” Panel (2013-2014), and is an active member of the Society for Freshwater Science, the American Fisheries Society, and the Ecological Society of America.

Dr. Doug Austen has been Executive Director since 2013, but has been involved with AFS since the early 1980s beginning as an undergraduate student at South Dakota State University. He served as president of the Illinois Chapter and North Central Division, wrote articles for several AFS journals and books, and also served as an associate editor for the North American Journal of Fisheries Management.  Prior to AFS, Austen was the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service national coordinator for Landscape Conservation Cooperatives, executive director of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, and worked for 10 years each with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the Illinois Natural History Survey. He has a Ph.D. from Iowa State University and an M.S. from Virginia Tech.

Founded in 1870, the American Fisheries Society (AFS) is the world’s oldest and largest fisheries science society. AFS membership is mostly drawn from the scientific community but also includes fisheries professionals such as managers, administrators, educators, and consultants. The mission of AFS is to improve the conservation and sustainability of fishery resources and aquatic ecosystems by advancing fisheries and aquatic science and promoting the development of fisheries professionals. With five journals and numerous books and conferences, AFS is the leading source of fisheries science and management information in North America and around the world.