Features, On-Campus Profiles, Profiles

Plater Works to Save the Snail Darter Species From Extinction

Some have called him a “fringe lunatic,” but Zygmunt Plater, an environmental law professor at Boston College, has made waves in his field. Most notably, he saved a fish from extinction. In 1976, he filed a lawsuit to protect the snail darter fish from extinction, and by 2019, the species’ numbers had recovered. 

“The thing that really grabbed me, of course, was this little Tennessee River and this little fish,” Plater said. “The first law of ecology is that everything’s connected to everything else, and so that little fish was connected to the corrupt economics. It was connected to the corrupt politics.”

Plater started his career in Ethiopia, where he taught law for two years while working for the nation’s national parks, he said. He then earned his S.J.D. at the University of Michigan in 1973, and studied under Joseph Sax, who is known as one of the founders of the field of environmental law. While working toward his degree, Plater said he found himself working on about a dozen projects concerning wetlands, mining, litter, and more.

Later in the 1970s, he moved to Tennessee, where he worked on roughly 17 projects examining coal mining, parks, and wildlife, he said. During this time, Plater said the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) had put up 68 dams. When the last dam was built by the TVA, the citizens in the surrounding area were upset. This small dam was not only an eyesore, but it would also corrupt the river’s ecosystem and disrupt surrounding wildlife, Plater said.

“The TVA was so powerful,” Plater said. “There was just no way politically to go against it.”

Hank Hill, one of Plater’s students, discovered there was an endangered fish, the snail darter, living in the middle of this dam project. Plater said it was impossible for him to overlook this little fish.

So, Plater filed the lawsuit in 1976, seeing it as an opportunity to aid the fish population and halt the dam project. He worked with the farmers in the area to craft an environmental impact statement, a government document that examines the environmental consequences of a proposed project. Plater said this case was different from many others because the situation threatened an endangered species. 

“The Endangered Species Act isn’t just pushing paper, which is what an environmental impact statement is,” Plater said. “You have to do enough paper to show all the bad things you’re going to do, but this act says a federal agency cannot destroy an endangered species. And that’s what they were going to do.”

Sara Grigsby, a graduate student at University of Tennessee in Knoxville at the time, was one of the many civilians who got involved in this case. When she heard there were environmental law courses being taught by Plater, she signed up. Through this course, she gained knowledge of the snail darter case.

“We had this general appreciation of the environment we were armed with—it was just beautiful flat farmland on both sides.” Grisby said. “We formed a group. It wasn’t a formal organization like a nonprofit, but we called ourselves the Tennessee Endangered Species Committee.”

Her committee had its own logo, t-shirts, and campaign booth where it fundraised at the university’s student center. With the help of this committee, the case reached the Supreme Court in 1978, bringing Plater closer to ending the construction of the dam and ensuring the survival of the little fish. 

“Citizens were critically important from the very beginning,” Plater said. “You have to rely on citizens doing everything possible, sometimes bringing a lawsuit, sometimes protesting, sometimes writing something that gets published all over the world.”

Although many people helped push the case forward, Grisby said Plater was crucial because of his passion and leadership. 

“I can remember being down on the river with him, with our group and, at times, the press,” Grisby said. “He was more than just the attorney, way more. He was our inspiration for all the work we did and in that regard I took inspiration and direction from him.”

Plater was passionate about his mission to ensure the safety of the species. He said the first law of ecology is exceedingly important and reflects the future of human well-being. 

“There are things that a society should worry about that aren’t directly utilitarian to humans,” Plater said. “We are only one species out of a million, and we have the power to destroy more than any other species. If we don’t think about that power, then we will destroy. What goes around comes around.’”

Plater and his supporters were not satisfied with the way the media portrayed this case, he said. Plater said journalists described the fish as much smaller and the dam as much bigger than reality, minimizing the negative impacts of the dam on the fish. 

To negate the influence of the media over the justices’ decision, Plater introduced scaled images of the snail darter and the prospective dam to better communicate the size of each. He also explained how, economically, this dam would not bring much benefit because it did not provide flooding protection or hydroelectric power.

“This project should never have been built, and it was 95 percent complete and still not worth finishing,” Plater said. 

Plater and his team’s arguments proved to be convincing, as his case won in front of the Supreme Court in 1978 and the fish were subsequently put on an endangered list. But, Plater said this was not completely successful. The dam was finished while the fish were transported into various other rivers. Plater said that oxygen was pumped into the rivers with the transported fish to fuel their metabolism and keep the species alive. 

This artificial sustaining of life was not optimal in many ways, Plater said. Plater was displeased with the case’s outcome as it was economically inefficient and not an effective long-term solution to ensuring the survival of the fish, he said. 

Fast forward to 2019—the snail darter species’ numbers had recovered, and the fish could therefore be removed from the endangered species list. Plater then filed an application to delist the fish. He hoped the fish would still keep some of its protections if he went about the delisting in a careful way. 

“We didn’t want to do it, but in 2019 we heard that Trump was going to delist the fish so that the law wouldn’t be at all applicable—there’d be no protections,” Plater said. “By filing a petition for delisting based on a transplant I thought I was going to save the fish from being delisted without protections.”

Plater approached the BC Environmental Law Society, hoping to offer a student the opportunity to gather a team who would write comments about the snail darter delisting. Abigail LaFontan, a BC law student, led this project and recruited seven first-year law students, teaching them how to write a comment to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

“Under the Administrative Procedure Act, an agency has to consider the comments it receives,” Lafontan said. “If there’s signs that the agency hasn’t considered its comments, a commenter can sue the agency for not doing so. It’s an enforceable right. If a civilian submits a comment and it’s addressing a really important part of the rule, the agency has to consider it.” 

LaFontan’s group consisted of students from various backgrounds. This group examined how the current climate crisis and natural disasters may affect the snail darter, how taking away life supports would biologically affect the species, and how a fish on life support is not truly conserved, she said. 

Almost 50 years after Plater honed in on the snail darter case, the fish was officially delisted from the list of endangered species, but it also retains its life support protections. 

“The dance of democracy is something that doesn’t have an end, but if you ever stop, you lose things,” Plater said.

March 26, 2023