How a rare minnow spawned a $90,000 effort at the Tennessee Aquarium

Photo by Tennessee Aquarium, Casey Phillips / Aquarium science coordinator Shawna Mitchell Fix displays a laurel dace collected during a recent population survey.

The Tennessee Aquarium recently launched a project focused on sustainable agriculture - which seems like a shift for an institution dedicated to fish.

But in fact, it was all inspired by an inch-long minnow.

Shawna Mitchell Fix, science coordinator at the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute, has been studying the federally endangered laurel dace for five years. Known to exist only in streams on Walden's Ridge of the Cumberland Plateau, the species depends on silt-free waters.

"A lot of vegetable production goes on on that ridge," says Fix.

The problem she and other researchers noticed was that dirt from these family farms was washing into nearby waterways, potentially suffocating the fish eggs in the stream bed.

"The farmers there have these big long rows of veggies, but between those rows is bare soil - that's what washes away," she explains. "Even if they're not right next to a stream, you get ephemeral streams, which are streams that run only when it rains."

One solution, says Fix, is to have farmers plant cover crops in between their rows. To do that, however, would require outreach, education and expensive equipment known as crimpers, which help farmers easily remove cover crops each season.

Earlier this year, Fix and her team began to meet with other groups - the Tennessee Department of Energy and Conservation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for example - to discuss the agricultural threats facing Walden's Ridge's rarest fish.

"The stars just all aligned. All these people we talked to said, 'Yes! We've been thinking about this, too!'" she says.

Then, in June, the Aquarium was awarded $90,000 through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation's Cumberland Plateau Stewardship Fund, officially launching its effort to promote sustainable farming on Walden's Ridge and save the laurel dace.

Here, in her own words, Fix talks minnows, conservation and what it's been like to be an aquarium scientist amid a pandemic.

> The laurel dace is a small minnow that has large eyes and two black stripes that go down its sides. During the breeding season, it has a bright red belly and red lips, the space in between the black stripes turns a brilliant gold color and the fins turn neon yellow.

> We hosted a roundtable meeting in October of 2019 for a handful of farmers on Walden's Ridge. The farmers don't want to be losing soil from their fields anymore than we want it washing into the streams.

> The takeaway of that meeting was that it was going to take time for our group to gain trust with the community, but because we all are searching for a common goal, it is an achievable goal. We all came to the same conclusion that saving the laurel dace and the other aquatic species is going to take some time, but as long as we can find the resources to make it happen, the community will be on board.

> Protecting a fish like the laurel dace impacts more than just a single species. Protecting this fish means protecting the health of a watershed, which protects our drinking water resources.

> All of these headwater streams eventually make their way into the Tennessee River, which is home to all of those animals plus a very unique group of aquatic species: freshwater mussels. Many mussels have gone extinct or ended up on the endangered species list because they live on the bottom of rivers and are often impacted by heavy siltation from agriculture and development.

> One of the most disheartening things to see while out in the field is the amount of trash, specifically plastic; pollution that we encounter in the streams. Be mindful of carrying out what you carry in while hiking or enjoying a Saturday with your family on the side of a stream. No one wants to swim in your garbage.

> Right now, the pandemic will be a bit of an obstacle to our progress. A lot of this project is going to require meeting with landowners and farmers in person, and I'm sure that not everyone is going to be comfortable with that.

> The hardest part about the pandemic for me was not being able to hire our summer interns. I really enjoy mentoring these students and showing them all the amazing fish diversity in the Southeast, but because of the pandemic we weren't able to do that this year.

> My favorite memories are the look on [our interns'] faces the first time they get to see a laurel dace in the wild. After a couple of weeks of built-up excitement learning about them, they get to go out with us to help with our yearly monitoring efforts. I know that this species means as much to them as it does to me because many of them have continued on in the field of freshwater conservation.

> All of our research is grant funded, so I am grateful that none of that work was affected by the pandemic. We know that this pandemic won't last forever and are continuing to look ahead and move forward with our work.

>Now that the Aquarium has reopened, all departments have been helping out on the front lines, greeting customers and taking tickets. Our excellent dedication to animal care and customer service is what has helped us gain national recognition as one of the best aquariums in the country.

> The Tennessee Aquarium is a family, and while these times have been hard, we are closer than we ever have been before.


The Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute isn't alone in its effort to protect the laurel dace.

"We're the facilitators of the project," Fix says. "But we would not be able to do this without our partners." Partners of the project include the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Bledsoe County Soil Conservation District, Tennessee Department of Energy and Conservation, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.


The Cumberland Plateau Stewardship Fund supports restoration and conservation initiatives in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee, focused on native forests and freshwater systems. The awards make available nearly $3 million for protective projects. To see a complete list of this year's grantees, visit