JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — An invasive species of bass has been detected in Tennessee waterways, and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) told News Channel 11 that it could be detrimental to the state’s native species.
TWRA Fishery Biologist John Hammonds said the Alabama Bass does have a small natural habitat in Southeast Tennessee near Chattanooga, where they have existed for eons. However, Hammonds said due to anglers relocating them, the species has appeared in new lakes, rivers and reservoirs where it is considered invasive.
If you haven’t noticed them, that’s because the Alabama Bass is strikingly similar in appearance to one of Tennessee’s native fish.
“The Alabama Bass is very similar to our spotted bass,” Hammonds said. “The only way you can tell them apart just by looking at them… well, there really is no way to tell them apart just by looking at them.”
Hammonds said the only way to truly tell the two fish apart is by genetic analysis.
According to Hammonds, the Alabama Bass is native to the Mobile River Basin, which covers areas of Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and a minute portion of Southeastern Tennessee.
While that may technically make the fish a “native” species, they are not supposed to be found anywhere else in the state. In order to naturally make their way into the rest of Tennessee’s waterways, Hammonds said an Alabama Bass would have to go out the Mobile River, into the Gulf of Mexico, up the Mississippi River, into the Ohio River and then enter the Tennessee River.
Seeing as that is all but impossible, Hammonds pointed to the clear reason the species is being detected in Tennessee’s lakes and reservoirs.
“From that little stick of water, people carry them,” Hammonds said. “Anglers just moving them around, maybe not even anglers. With the improvements in live well technology and knowledge about it, it’s easy to take a load of fish a pretty good distance. Of course, that’s illegal; it’s always been illegal.”
Since the Alabama Bass has not grown up with native fish in Tennessee’s waterways, Hammonds said there are no reproductive barriers.
While Tennessee’s native fish know how to coexist with one another, the Alabama Bass does not and poses serious risks both to Tennessee’s smallmouth and largemouth populations. For example, Hammonds said largemouth and smallmouth bass will not typically overlap during their spawning periods. While hybrids do sometimes occur, those are few and far between and not in the numbers to concern wildlife officials.
However, Hammonds said those barriers disappear when the Alabama Bass is present.
“They don’t know how to reproduce without reproducing with each other,” Hammonds said. “So what happens is you get hybrids between an Alabama Bass and our spotted bass and an Alabama Bass and our smallmouth bass.”
Those hybrids are commonly referred to as “meanmouths,” particularly the smallmouth-Alabama hybrids. The crosses between smallmouths and Alabama bass are more noticeable since the invasive species is nearly identical to the spotted bass.
The “meanmouths” don’t sport any significant size difference from their parents, nor do they offer any new challenges in terms of catching them, according to the TWRA. Some hybrid fish are intentionally stocked or sought after, but Hammonds said the “meanmouths” and spawn of Alabama Bass essentially lead to the creation of stunted, “mutt fish” in Tennessee’s waters.
“It’s not a desirable trait,” Hammonds said. “Now they grow, they get big. Not as big as a pure smallmouth, but they do get pretty big and they grow quick and all that maybe. They’re cool to catch, but what happens is after a few generations of those hybrids, they lose any desired qualities and they just become stunted like a mutt fish.”
The Alabama Bass’ method of takeover is unique.
“There’s never been, in my career, an example of an invasive species that their mode of takeover is through hybridization,” Hammonds said. “They’ll usually displace or take over habitat and all that. And that’s what they do as well, but usually the native species they’re displacing is still there. But with smallmouth and our spotted bass, that native species is completely gone due to hybridization.”
According to Hammonds, the Alabama Bass will breed so thoroughly with other species that they eradicate the pure species that were previously there. Examples of those pure smallmouth being wiped out have already occurred in lakes in Georgia and North Carolina, Hammonds said.
The TWRA is concerned because the species has already been genetically detected in East Tennessee, specifically in Watts Bar Lake, Cherokee Reservoir, Norris Reservoir, Tellico Reservoir and Fort Loudon Lake. One of the agency’s fear is that the introduction of the hybridization will erase the smallmouth population.
“We are seeing it take place right now in Watts Bar,” Hammonds said.
In Northeast Tennessee, Hammonds said the priority is making sure the species stays out of lakes like South Holston, Watauga, Boone and Dale Hollow.
“The fear is South Holston is just about all smallmouth,” Hammonds said. “That’s the major fish in there, and the people love to come to South Holston or even Watauga for smallmouth. If those Alabama Bass get in there, the chances of no more smallmouth in that lake are really high. Like not just a maybe, almost definitely, and that’s scary for us as managers.”
Hammonds said Tennessee has some of the best, if not the best, smallmouth bass fishing in the country, with the world-record smallmouth bass being caught in Dale Hollow Lake.
While the species takes over smallmouth and spotted bass populations through reproduction, they target largemouth bass through a different method: competition.
“When you put an Alabama Bass in a system with largemouth bass, usually what happens is the good habitat, the majority of the habitat where people fish in the bulk of the reservoir, is taken over and the largemouth are pushed up into the shallow areas,” Hammonds said.
According to Hammonds, that exact scenario played out in Parksville Lake, deep in Southeast Tennessee inside the Cherokee National Forest.
“If you care about our natural heritage, and you like targeting smallmouth because of the fight about them, that’s going to go away,” he said.
While they are hard to detect, Hammonds said anglers can help in two main ways. First, do not under any circumstances transport live fish from one waterway to another. Doing so is illegal and can result in fines and court costs. Anyone who enjoys fishing should dissuade other anglers from ever doing so.
“We’re asking anglers to just do not, by any means whatsoever, move around fish, especially bass,” Hammonds said.
Second, when possible, harvest bass that could possibly be an Alabama Bass. Hammonds said the fish are entirely safe to eat and actually tasty.
Since DNA testing is required to really identify Alabama Bass from spotted bass or to identify a hybrid, Hammonds said there is not really any point in filling out a report to the TWRA about finding one.
With the species being found throughout the Southeast, Hammonds said the agency hopes to prevent any further spread so world-class fisheries are no longer at risk. In North Carolina lakes already impacted, he said early attempts to stock native bass back into the lakes have not been successful.