A team of biologists and assistants pulled in to the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute on the Baylor School campus before dawn Tuesday. Months of work would come to fruition later that morning.
Reintroduction biologist Meredith Harris and three assistants looked into two flow-through systems, called raceways, that the team refers to as "troughs," where 279 Southern Appalachian brook trout swam.
The fish were spawned in November and have been under the watchful eyes of biologists at the facility since. The biologists were waiting for the right moment to release them into Little Stony Creek near Elizabethton, Tennessee, and they believed that moment had come. At nearly 2 inches, the fish were big enough to have a good chance of survival. Waiting any longer might raise the risk of negative effects from captivity or of a disease that could deplete the population.
Harris and her three assistants, Alexandra Miles, Angela Maroti and Shannon Murphy, picked up nets and began to scoop fish from the troughs into plastic bags inside four 5-gallon pails. They filled the bags with oxygen and sealed them.
"It's just like what they do at the pet store with your goldfish," Harris said.
The fish-filled bags were put on ice inside a large Coleman Marine cooler and transferred into the back of a pickup truck for a four-hour-plus journey to northeast Tennessee.
Aquarium biologists have been releasing fish for 20 years to help repopulate Tennessee's streams, creeks and rivers. They started with lake sturgeon and topminnow and have released brook trout for about five years.
"You want to reintroduce over several years, so you get that genetic diversity up in the new reintroduced population," aquarium aquatic conservation biologist Bernie Kuhajda said. "That is its best chance for survival into the future. It can better withstand disease, drought, climate change, just variability in the environment."
The aquarium's program helps speed the recovery process, aquarium spokesman Thom Benson said. The biologists could dump the fish in the streams from the beginning and allow them to naturally repopulate. However, that would run a higher risk of the entire population dying. The controlled spawning allows for more predictability.
For this release, biologists bred 20 adult fish and raised the offspring in special hatching jars before moving them to the institute's raceways.
"All these fishes we've released so far, we're releasing them into areas where they've disappeared," Kuhajda said. "Now that habitats have been restored, there's no way they can return by themselves."
After the long drive, a quick trip to a gas station and a stop to determine directions, aquarium personnel came to a pull-off where they met representatives from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, U.S. Forest Service and a group with Trout Unlimited — a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving waterways.
It was time to release the trout into the creek. TWRA biologists more familiar with the area and the creek took the lead. Rivers and streams biologist Sally Petre gave the groups an overview of what needed to happen. She had already identified the creek as having ideal qualities for the fish. It had clean, cold water and natural barriers to keep the young fish away from predators.
"We've been monitoring this area for several years," Petre said. "We saw that there was a good [brook trout] population upstream but none downstream. We knew it needed to be restocked because of that lower density."
The biologists weren't entirely sure when or why brook trout left the downstream section of the creek, but they know brook trout are native to the area and wanted to repopulate the fish in their native habitat, Petre said.
She had picked out three areas in the creek that were best for the release and walked the aquarium team through the plan. Harris and her team grabbed the cooler and traveled through the creek in waders, carrying the bags of fish. They held the bags in the cold creek for several minutes, talking and giggling as the fish acclimated to their new home.
Once Harris determined it was time, she grabbed the aquarium fish nets along with Miles, Maroti and Murphy. The four women scooped fish from the bags and placed them into Little Stony Creek.
"It's cool to think that tomorrow, this is going to be better than it was today," Benson said. "It's going to be better for years to come because of things like this."