Tiny Fish at Center of 1970s Supreme Court Case Achieves Redemption

Monisha Ravisetti Former Science Writer
Monisha Ravisetti was a science writer at CNET. She covered climate change, space rockets, mathematical puzzles, dinosaur bones, black holes, supernovas, and sometimes, the drama of philosophical thought experiments. Previously, she was a science reporter with a startup publication called The Academic Times, and before that, was an immunology researcher at Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York. She graduated from New York University in 2018 with a B.A. in philosophy, physics and chemistry. When she's not at her desk, she's trying (and failing) to raise her online chess rating. Her favorite movies are Dunkirk and Marcel the Shell with Shoes On.
Monisha Ravisetti
4 min read
A small brownish-yellow fish is seen in the palm of someone's hand.

The snail darter, a puny fish, spurred a legal battle a few decades ago.


What's happening

The snail darter is no longer facing the threat of extinction.

Why it matters

In the 1970s, this fish spurred a US Supreme Court case about conservation law. Its survival may be a testament to the ruling, but it's complicated.

In 1978, the US Supreme Court made a decision that would go down as a turning point for environmental law. It was all because of a tiny fish: the snail darter.

Earlier in the decade, this wispy, brown wriggly creature was the main reason federal officials had to stop building an expensive dam across the Little Tennessee River, a narrow body of water flowing between Georgia, North Carolina and its namesake state. The snail darter, listed as an endangered species since 1975, lived in that river. 

Presumably, only in that river.

Therefore, constructing a dam across this animal's rare habitat, environmentalists argued while invoking rights of 1973's Endangered Species Act, risked putting an already vulnerable population under even more survival pressure. On the other hand, the Tennessee Valley Authority wanted to finish the dam it'd already invested about $100 million in, suggesting the river would simply flood without a sturdy structure. 

It was a massive impasse that evolved into a long legal battle, eventually reaching the Supreme Court. But in 1978, the court ruled in favor of protecting the snail darter.

On Tuesday, 44 years after the iconic moment for environmentalists, the US Department of Interior announced the snail darter is no longer in danger of extinction. "Not now," the institution said in a statement, "nor in the foreseeable future."

The occasion puts snail darters among the more than 50 species of plants and animals that have successfully recovered under federal protection, including bald eagles, peregrine falcons, Tennessee purple coneflowers, American alligators and humpback whales, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

"The recovery of the snail darter is a remarkable conservation milestone that tells a story about how controversy and polarization can evolve into cooperation and a big conservation success," Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland said. "By protecting even the smallest creatures, we show who we are as a country, that we care about our environment and recognize the interconnectedness of our lands, wildlife and people."  

The dam was built, too

For a little background, the TVA versus the Endangered Species Act case is sometimes cited as a direct example of how environmental-forward law, like limiting excessive construction projects, could bring species back from the brink of extinction. By contrast, though, the case is sometimes considered an example of putting too much focus on environmentalism and not enough on economic, possibly infrastructural, pragmatism. 

With such varying stances, we might consider how the snail darter's survival arc is a little more complicated than it might seem.

It's important to note, first of all, that at the time of the Supreme Court ruling, scientists truly thought this fish only resided where the dam was being built. Later, the swimmers were discovered in other places. 

Plus, after the court decision, scientists made an effort to export some of the river-borne snail darters to other areas, hoping to help them flourish. "Snail darters were collected from the Little Tennessee River and transplanted to the Hiwassee and Holston rivers in Tennessee and then to other locations," the statement notes.

Also crucial to the narrative is that Congress ultimately allowed the dam to be completed a year after the court ruling, at a vote of 48 to 44, exempting the project from limitations set by the Endangered Species Act. The gap in construction did mean scientists had solid time to finish their snail darter transplantation efforts, but, some ask, would transplantation alone be the best case scenario?

"Despite constant political attacks on the Endangered Species Act, the law has prevented the extinction of the snail darter and more than 1,000 other species that are under its care," Zygmunt Plater, the attorney who initially sued to protect the fish, said in a statement. "Protecting species in their natural habitat is preferable, and far more reliable, than transplantations, especially those that will require continual artificial support."

To complicate things further, in 1984, the snail darter was demoted from endangered to "threatened," and the release states its critical habitat designation was rescinded at the same time.

Then, NPR reports, a few years after that, "the Center for Biological Diversity, Jim Williams and Zygmunt Plater petitioned to remove the fish from federal protection altogether." (Williams is the biologist who listed the snail darter as endangered).

And most recently, in 1991, the TVA actively implemented conservation strategies associated with many of their dams, such as improving water quality conditions. "These efforts benefitted the snail darter throughout its range," the release states, implying that perhaps the Supreme Court's momentous 1978 ruling trickled down somehow to help the organization put forth such endeavors.

It's a complex saga, yes, but one with a silver lining. At last, the snail darter has exited the endangered species list and achieved redemption. 

And going forward, as Plater puts it, "there still is much we can learn from this little fish's story."

Correction, 12:15 p.m.: This story initially misstated the number of years since the Supreme Court ruling. It's been 44 years.