Eating Snail Darters

The last dam that the Tennessee Valley Authority built was the Federal agency’s most controversial one. The Tellico Dam flooded the Little Tennessee River, a beautiful, trout-filled stream coming out of North Carolina and flowing into the Tennessee River just below Knoxville. There was no need for the project except to create more lakefront property for developers.

Environmentalists, using the Endangered Species Act, did halt the dam for several years by claiming that construction would wipe out the Snail Darter, a minnow-sized fish thought to exist only in the waters of the Little Tennessee River. The Supreme Court ruled that closing the gates on the $116 million dam would violate the Endangered Species Act, and for a time in the late 1970s, until Snail Darters were identified in other streams, the project was dead in its tracks.

I was a stringer for The New York Times back then, and attended all manner of tedious hearings and press conferences about the legal battle. After visiting an Asian grocery store and procuring some dried anchovies, I began carrying these dried critters–heads and bug eyes and tails and all–in a plastic bag in my jacket.

“Have you ever seen one of those Snail Darters?” I would conspiratorially whisper to a victim sitting with me in the rear of a hearing, while someone droned on up front. They always said no, so I would reach in my pocket and produce, with a flourish, a desiccated little fish.

The person would always marvel that such a small fish could halt a mighty dam, then I would make my move. “There aren’t many of these left,” I would murmur, “but they sure are good.” I would then pop the “Snail Darter” in my mouth, crunch down on it, and smile with a wink.

This action would invariably make my victim’s own eyes bug out. One guy got outraged and said “I can’t believe you just ate an endangered species!”

This blog is part of a much larger website, also entitled Tennessee Guy, that contains travel and cultural information about Tennessee. Visit it here.

One Response to Eating Snail Darters

  1. Zyg Plater says:

    Hmm. You were a stringer for the Times? You need to read the new book THE SNAIL DARTER & THE DAM: HOW PORK-BARREL POLITICS ENDANGERED A LITTLE FISH & KILLED A RIVER. I don’t remember you, but I do remember how the “liberal media” never inquired into the critically important heart of the story. It’s not too late.

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