Blue Ridge Country July/August 2020 - 62

Fishing
science outside

FOR

ANSWERS

Reintroduction biologist Meredith Harris works
to save endangered species.
By NANCY HENDERSON | Photo courtesy TENNESSEE AQUARIUM

3 WAYS YOU CAN HELP PROTECT NATIVE FISHES

I

t's not easy for a chatty young scientist with an "out there" personality
to hole up alone in a spacious facility
that is usually bustling with human
interaction. But that is exactly what
Meredith Harris, reintroduction biologist at the Tennessee Aquarium
Conservation Institute in Chattanooga, is
doing on the day we talked to her, during
the coronavirus shutdown. The lone staff
member in the building, the 30-year-old
Harris is keeping an eye on the native fish
species that live in the tanks.
"I'm feeding them. I am making sure
that their life support is still functioning
every day, monitoring them," she says.
"But we're also in the middle of spawning
season for a couple of our species."
Harris grew up on a dairy farm near
Murfreesboro, Tennessee, showing cows
at state and county fairs and voraciously
reading books about wildlife.
"I loved running around the woods
there, trying to spot wild animals, or trying to catch fish or minnows or frogs in
the ponds and the river," she says.
Despite her passion for critters, she
thought she'd become a writer or a piano
teacher. "Science itself never really appealed to me when I was a child," she says.
What did appeal to her was preserving the natural world. At the University
of Tennessee in Knoxville, she set out
to earn a degree in environmental stud-

62

BLUERIDGECOUNTRY.COM

Reduce your use of single-use plastics.
"Pollution is a huge issue for fresh water and the freshwater ecosystems," says Meredith Harris, a reintroduction biologist at the Tennessee Aquarium Research Institute.
"Everything that we do on land, no matter how far away we may be from a river,
eventually makes its way into the water. It's really all connected and our actions do
have an impact on all of that."
Support environmental legislation.
Call or write your elected officials and encourage them to pass laws protecting the
environment, including the removal of small dams that greatly impact wild fish.
Participate in public meetings that are focused on conservation issues.
Voice your interest in protecting fish and other freshwater animals and band together with like-minded citizens to find ways to make things happen.	
-NH

ies with a focus on policy, but soon felt
burned out on the lobbying aspect. One
day, a friend who was majoring in ecology
and evolutionary biology shared her textbook-which to Harris looked more like
a field guide-and information about her
lab classes, which required a lot of time
outdoors.
"And I was like, 'Oh my gosh, that is
the major that I need to be in,'" Harris
says. "I realized I just really needed to do
more direct, hands-on conservation work
with endangered animals."
But it wasn't until her last semester of
college, when she and her classmates went
on an electro-fishing expedition to sample
the variety and abundance of fish in a local stream, that she realized what kinds of
critters she wanted to work with.
"I knew that we had things like catfish,
like brim or bass," she says. "But that was

the first time that I was aware of just the
sheer amount of fish biodiversity that we
have in our backyard in East Tennessee. I
found out that we are the state that has
the most species of freshwater fishes in
the country, and the region that has just
about the most anywhere in the entire
world. That was kind of a lightbulb moment for me."
Upon graduation in 2013, Harris
joined the staff of Conservation Fisheries
Inc., in Knoxville, where she propagated,
cared for and assisted in the release and
monitoring of rare and endangered native
freshwater species while earning her master's in fisheries science at UT. In the fall
of 2017, she heard about the job opening
at TNACI.
"I've always loved the [Tennessee]
Aquarium, ever since I was a kid and taking field trips here," she says. "So it really


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Blue Ridge Country July/August 2020

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