Why A Tiny Fish Is Stalling The New Toyota-Mazda Factory In Alabama

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Image: Eugene Hoshiko (AP), Center for Biological Diversity

A small, Alabama-native fish species that rarely grows longer than an inch had a big impact on the 2,400-acre site of the planned $1.6-billion plant for Toyota and Mazda. A lawsuit about the fish’s potential for extinction with development in the area was filed in June, and the automakers announced that work to build the plant was temporarily halted on Thursday—just over a month later.


The giant plant spent 2017 making headlines how much as more than a dozen U.S. states were making a fuss to try to become the site of it, but the area of Alabama that the automakers ultimately decided upon comes with its own fuss.

Toyota and the city of Huntsville, Alabama issued statements about the plant on Thursday, scheduled to start producing up to 300,000 cars annually once built. The statements and work stoppage were triggered by a lawsuit from a nonprofit called the Center for Biological Diversity in June aiming to protect the spring pygmy sunfish, a species living in dense underwater plants near where the plant will go. The ongoing lawsuit alleged that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to designate the area near the plant site as a protected habitat for the fish, and that development there could send the fish into extinction.

Despite the fish’s diminutive size, killing off any one species is potentially cataclysmic to the ecosystem as a whole. So, we shouldn’t dismiss pygmy sunfish as unimportant just because it’s little.

The statements, published by local paper the Cullman Times, called the stoppage temporary and acknowledged wanting to work to protect the species. The work stoppage doesn’t affect construction since that won’t begin until October, and a Toyota spokesperson told Jalopnik that the temporary stoppage only impacts the initial groundwork preparation “for additional technical surveys to be completed, further ensuring the sustainable development of the property.”

“We anticipate that this will be a short-term suspension and that work will resume soon with minimal disruption,” the spokesperson said.

The city statement, as quoted by the newspaper, said the surveys will happen to make sure there’s “no impact on the habitat” of the fish, and that the stoppage “reflects a shared goal of environmental preservation by Mazda, Toyota and the City of Huntsville.” The newspaper said city officials didn’t immediately answer about whether the delay would impact its 2021 startup date, but that Toyota’s statement indicated it wouldn’t have an effect.


Here are the statements from Toyota and the Center for Biological Diversity, as quoted by the Cullman Times:

“We are aware of the Center for Biological Diversity’s concerns regarding the sunfish,” said a statement from Toyota. “Throughout the planning and design of this project, we continue to work closely with US Fish and Wildlife Service, the City of Huntsville and our joint venture partner, Mazda, to ensure that the necessary protections are in place. Mazda and Toyota continue to make environmental preservation a priority and we are committed to developing the property sustainably.”

Elise Bennett, a staff attorney at the CBD, said finding a way to protect the “beautiful little fish” would be a win-win for all parties.

“We’re encouraged that Mazda-Toyota has stopped work and seems to really want to do the right thing for the spring pygmy sunfish,” Bennett said in a statement.


Jalopnik has spoken with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about what its role may be in the attempts to plan the property around preservation of the area, and the service didn’t have immediate comment. We’ll update this story when the service sends comment along.

The lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, an organization that helps species nearing extinction, never explicitly mentioned the Toyota-Mazda plant despite successfully halting work on it. It was instead a filing against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s alleged failure to comply with portions of the Endangered Species Act with the spring pygmy sunfish. That resulted in, the lawsuit said, a lack of legal protections for the species.


The sunfish used to live in three natural spring systems in Alabama, according to the lawsuit, before river damming and water contamination made two of those areas inhabitable. Attempts to reintroduce the sunfish to those two areas failed, and left it with only one habitat—the Beaverdam Spring and Creek area, where the center claimed in the lawsuit that the plant and later development could harm the remaining population.

The center claimed in the lawsuit that legal protections there aren’t in place for the sunfish, listed as a threatened species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, because of the failure by the service to comply with the Endangered Species Act by not designating “critical habitat” for the sunfish. Naming that critical habitat comes with legal protections centered around preserving the species, which the lawsuit alleged the sunfish currently does not have.


A critical habitat doesn’t prevent development from coming into that area; it just legally requires federal agencies to “make special efforts to protect the important characteristics of these areas,” according to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s website. The website says only elements that require federal permits are subject to that rule, and that plans requiring those federal permits have to avoid “adversely affecting the critical habitat.”

“Thus, most federal projects are likely to go forward, but some will be modified to minimize harm to critical habitat,” the website says.


The center’s June lawsuit said the sunfish’s “very existence remains at risk until the Service fulfills its statutory duty to protect the critical habitat,” and asked for the service to designate a critical habitat for it. A critical habitat for the fish is still not listed on the service’s website, and the service didn’t have immediate comment on the status of determining a critical habitat. We’ll update this story when the service comments on that status.

But at least in the interim, Toyota, Mazda and the city claim to be looking into what can be done for the small fish that probably couldn’t hold its own against a giant new car factory.


A. Barth

Side note: Alabama is routinely (and rightly) decried as a backward intellectual wasteland filled with subpar Forrest Gump clones, but IIRC at one point (1990s) Huntsville had the highest per capita concentration of PhDs in the US. This was primarily due to the presence of the US Space & Rocket Center.

Memory is a little fuzzy but I think that’s correct.