Casting a Wide Net

Wednesday, January 24, 2018 - by Scott Fiedler
Like many men of a certain age, David Etnier has plenty of fish stories—of the roads he’s taken, the adventures he’s had and of the fun, fascination and sheer exhilaration of the endless quest for the ultimate catch. He’s fished Tennessee from the top of the Great Smokey Mountains to the mud flats of Memphis. But he’s never been about catching the monster trout, nor the trophy bass. For him, truly, size doesn’t matter.

For David Etnier, Ph.D., is a fish collector more interested in diversity than dimension.
As a semiretired professor emeritus of Ichthyology at UT, the depth and breadth of fish species found in the state of Tennessee has been his passion and life’s work since he arrived in the state as an assistant professor in 1965.

Throwing out a Line
What he found on the topic when he walked in the door was precisely this: not much.

TVA’s employees had been collecting the fish they encountered during the dam-building boom of the 1940s and 50s, but were not in the the business of identifying them. After a nationwide search for a proper home for the specimens, TVA ended up sending them on to the University of Michigan, which had at the time the nation’s leading collections of fish from the Tennessee River drainage.

So Dr. Etnier, eager to begin his work of understanding the fishes of Tennessee, came to TVA with a proposition: fund him and a couple of TVA aquatic biologists, provide them with a vehicle and they’d travel up to Ann Arbor to sort and identify these collections, most of which were merely gathering dust in the archives. The resulting report would be available to TVA to aid in design and decision making during the course of its work on the rivers and streams of the Tennessee River watershed.

TVA took that bait; Dr. Etnier et.al. quickly got to work. “It was a very exciting time,” he remembers. “We got [to Ann Arbor] and encountered hundreds of two quart canning jars filled with small fished preserved in 70 percent ethanol. Thirty years in preservatives had caused the fishes to lose their color and turn to browns and grays, and we had to relearn them using other characteristics such as body shape and fin ray counts.

“I realized how much work there was to do, and pledged to continue to find out how many fish species there were in Tennessee—where and how they lived—and write a book about it. It took me 25 years.”

That book, succinctly entitled “The Fishes of Tennessee,” was released in 1993 and is still considered the bible of freshwater fish studies in the state—a resource used by academics, aquatic biologists, hobbyist enthusiasts and, yes, any and all working on the rivers and streams in the state of Tennessee. Like the Tennessee Valley Authority.

“Thanks to Dr. Etnier’s work, we have learned much about protecting biodiversity in our rivers and lakes,” said Evan Crews, senior manager for Natural Resource Management at TVA. “For many years, he has been there to help us see to it that our work involving power plants, power lines, water intakes and more is done in an environmentally responsible way to protect the diverse array of aquatic species in our region.”

Reeling in a Catch
In the course of working on his book (and describing 15 or so new, unknown species along the way), Dr. Etnier created his own collection—the UT Etnier Fish Collection—which features 450,000 specimens of fish from around the world, including about 350 species native to Tennessee. Many specimens in the collection have been used by Etnier and his colleagues for describing new species. Other specimens help scientists study global warming and water quality on aquatic communities. For nearly 40 years, the collection has served as a repository and reference for private and governmental agencies working on the fishes of the southeastern United States.

TVA joined with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency to partner with UT in establishing the Etnier Ichthyology Endowment so that Etnier’s collection will continue to be grow, and be used and and maintained into the future. “I am very, very committed to museums that harbor specimens that show us life is bigger and broader than we ever though it could be,” said Dr. Etnier. So committed is he, in fact, that he and his wife have offered to match donations made by friends and colleagues.

For TVA, donating to the Etnier Ichthyology Endowment is simply a good investment in the future. “We rely heavily on UT and other partners to help improve and enhance biodiversity in the Tennessee River watershed,” said Mr. Crews. “Having this important information available is vital for those of us who work to improve aquatic biodiversity and habitat enhancement, and have to make conservation decisions surrounding our natural resources. 

To learn more about the Etnier Ichthyology Endowment, contact Chris Cox, director of Development at the University of Tennessee, at (865) 974-7692.

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