The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia
Friday, 14 April 2023 11:41

Hellbent: Conservation Fisheries saves what we don’t typically see

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summer2021 jon michael mollishConservation Fisheries Executive Director Bo Baxter (second from right) leads young students in an inventory of Little River fish. The “Stream School” collaboration with Little River Watershed Association gets kids in creeks and rivers.  Michael Mollish /Tennessee Valley Authority

‘It’s very good for the soul.’ Bo Baxter and Conservation Fisheries focus underwater to save our Southern fishes.

This is the latest installment of an occasional series, Hellbent, profiling citizens and organizations who work to preserve and improve the Southern Appalachian environment.

KNOXVILLE  For more than 35 years, an obscure nonprofit headquartered here has grown into one of the most quietly successful champions of ecology and environmental restoration in the Eastern United States.

Conservation Fisheries, which occupies a 5,000-square foot facility near the Pellissippi State University campus on Division Street, has spent nearly four decades restoring native fish populations to numerous waterways damaged years ago by misguided governmental policies. 

In fact, the mid-20th century saw wildlife officials frequently exterminating key aquatic species to make way for game fish like trout.

“It was bad science, but it was the best they had at the time,” said Conservation Fisheries Executive Director Bo Baxter. “A lot of the central concepts of ecology, like food webs and communities, were not developed back then.”

In 1957, as Chilhowee Dam was completed south of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, wildlife officials deliberately poisoned Abrams Creek with the pesticide rotenone so they could introduce “trophy trout” into the waterway, Baxter explained. 

They hoped to kill off the so-called “rough fish” thought to compete with the trout, such as the Smoky madtom, the yellowfin madtom, and the duskytail darter. But exterminating the native, non-game fish didn’t work out as they’d hoped, and by the 1980s it was clear that for Abrams Creek to be healthy again officials would need to reintroduce native species to the waterway.

“From Abrams Falls to the reservoirs, there are hundreds of thousands of fish in that community,” Baxter said. “It was a fairly massive effort.”

Baxter is a member of the Hellbender Press editorial board.

Abrams Creek was the first project undertaken by Conservation Fisheries, which was formed in 1986 by biologists J.R. Shute and Pat Rakes. Baxter was a student at the University of Tennessee at the time, and the first paid employee. He eventually went on to a 25-year career at TVA before returning to take over the reins at the agency late last year.

“This is where I wanted to be, but I had to make some profit first,” Baxter, who is now 54, joked while describing his tenure with TVA before moving back to the nonprofit. 

The Abrams Creek project has become an ecological success story, so much so that officials are no longer focused on restocking but have instead entered into a “maintenance period,” Baxter said. 

It was only the beginning for Conservation Fisheries, which has gone on to release nearly 250,000 fish into the wild while expanding its operations to waterways as far away as Oklahoma and Florida.

The organization has restored boulder darter populations in Shoal Creek in Middle Tennessee, expanded the range of marble darters in Little River, and propagated several fish species to be used as hosts for rare mussels imperiled or protected by federal law. 

“We’re kind of in the business of producing as many fish as we can,” Baxter said. “In some ways, it’s more like an art than a science.”

The agency’s current facility holds approximately 850 aquariums which allow the staff of nine full-time employees plus several volunteers to raise thousands of fish from 19 different species.

The Venerable building, however, is no longer large enough to meet the needs of its owners.

“We’d like to double the size of the building,” Baxter said, with most of the added space going to more aquariums. “We’re going to do a little bit to accommodate the humans in the building, but by and large this is for the fish.”

Despite its status as a nonprofit corporation, the agency’s funding has traditionally come through government contracts or grants. The planned expansion, however, has required Baxter and the CF board of directors to begin exploring more traditional means of fundraising for a charitable organization. 

“We have only recently begun flexing our nonprofit muscles, and that’s how we’re working to fund our expansion,” Baxter said.

To that end, officials from Conservation Fisheries hope to raise money and increase awareness through a series of events in coming months that will range from “Pint Nights” at area nightspots to screenings of the documentary film “Hidden Rivers.”

“It’s such a joy to put these fish back where they belong,” Baxter said. “It’s very good for the soul.”

Their most anticipated upcoming fundraiser will take place this month at Albright Grove Brewing Company on Sutherland Avenue.

The April 29 ”Save the Fishes“ event will feature food and live music from Count This Penny and Robinella, featuring Josh Oliver and Clint Mullican. Tickets are $25 and all proceeds will go to Conservation Fisheries.


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