Fish specimens in Etnier’s collection. (Photo: Contributed)

David Etnier, Ph.D., is a semiretired professor emeritus of ichthyology at the University of Tennessee, and he has plenty of fish stories—of the roads he’s taken, the adventures he’s had and the sheer exhilaration of the endless quest for the ultimate catch.

Though he’s fished Tennessee from the top of the Great Smoky Mountains to the mud flats of Memphis, it’s never been about catching the monster trout or trophy bass. For him, size truly doesn’t matter. The diversity 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.

What Etnier found on the topic when he walked in the door wasn’t much. TVA employees had been collecting the fish they encountered during the dam-building boom of the 1940s and ’50s, but weren’t in the business of identifying them. After TVA conducted a nationwide search for a proper home for the specimens, they ended up at the University of Michigan, which at the time had the nation’s leading collection of fish from the Tennessee River drainage.


Eager to begin the work of understanding the fishes of Tennessee, Etnier approached TVA with a proposition: Fund him and a couple of TVA aquatic biologists, provide them with a vehicle, and they’d travel to Michigan to sort and identify these collections, most of which were gathering dust in the archives. The resulting report would aid TVA in design and decision-making in its work on the rivers and streams of the Tennessee River watershed.

TVA agreed and Etnier went to work.

He said:

It was a very exciting time. We got to Ann Arbor and encountered hundreds of 2-quart canning jars filled with small fishes 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.

It was then that he pledged to figure out how many fish species there are in Tennessee, document where and how they live, and write a book about it. It took him 25 years.

“The Fishes of Tennessee” was released in 1993 and is still considered the bible of freshwater fish studies in the state.

Evan Crews, senior manager for natural resource management at TVA, said:

Thanks to Dr. Etnier’s work, we have learned much about protecting biodiversity in our rivers and lakes. 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
While working on his book (and describing 15 or so new species along the way), Etnier created the UT Etnier Fish Collection, featuring 450,000 specimens of fish from around the world, including about 350 species native to Tennessee. Many of the specimens 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. The collection has served for nearly 40 years as a repository and reference for private and governmental agencies working on the fisheries of the southeastern United States.

TVA and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency have partnered with UT in establishing the Etnier Ichthyology Endowment so Etnier’s collection will continue to grow and be used in the future.

“I am very, very committed to museums that harbor specimens that show us that life is bigger and broader than we ever thought it could be,” Etnier said.

In fact, he is so committed that he and his wife have offered to match donations made by friends and colleagues.

TVA sees the Etnier Ichthyology Endowment as 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,” Crews said. “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.