Chattanooga, Tenn. (October 21, 2015) – The Southeast is home to an incredible array of freshwater biodiversity. More than 660 of the 905 native fish species found in the United States live within a 500 mile circle that’s centered on Chattanooga. The rivers, lakes and streams are also home to half the freshwater turtles found in North America, and nearly all of the salamanders, mussels and crayfish found on the continent.
“We are surrounded by an underwater rainforest,” said Dr. Anna George, director of the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute (TNACI). “These amazing freshwater communities are unparalleled for any location outside the tropics. This is why the Southeast is so exciting to the scientific community.”
Unfortunately, freshwater ecosystems are the most threatened on Earth. Extinction rates of freshwater animals are two to five times higher than terrestrial or marine animals. And, as human freshwater use continues to grow, it becomes more challenging to understand, protect and restore populations of imperiled aquatic species. “The Aquarium has been educating our guests about freshwater and working on conservation projects with a variety of partners in our region for nearly 25 years,” said Charlie Arant, the Aquarium’s president and CEO. “The time has come for us to expand those efforts in order to have an even greater impact on this region for generations to come.”
A new 14,000 square foot riverfront facility will be constructed in Chattanooga to serve as the only freshwater science center in the Southeast. This biological field station will house propagation systems for reintroduction programs, three fully-equipped labs for researchers, a spacious teaching lab for rising high school and college students as well as meeting space for collaborative projects with other scientists.
“TNACI’s role in collaborative conservation planning allows our research to have a direct and lasting impact throughout the region,” said Dr. George. “We work with other conservation managers in the Southeast to ensure that as our region grows, we are able to preserve the freshwater animals and habitats that support our high quality of life.”
Leading up to creating a centralized hub for this important work, TNACI has been hiring additional experts. Scientists with extensive backgrounds in conservation genetics, field biology, cave biology, and geographic information systems are now on staff. The team’s scope of work is expanding to include new research projects with turtles and salamanders. Dr. George plans to have eight to 10 scientists and educators moving into the new building when the doors open sometime in the late summer or fall of 2016.
The new location, on the south campus of the Baylor School, connects TNACI to the Tennessee River and opens the door for more educational opportunities for schools throughout the region. These programs will focus on high school, college and graduate students who are really dedicated to careers in environmental science. “Baylor School is immensely proud to partner with the Tennessee Aquarium,” said Scott Wilson, Baylor School Headmaster. “This opportunity represents a triumph for TNACI, Baylor, and everyone in this region who is passionate about freshwater conservation, science, and education.”
The Conservation Leadership in Action Week, or CLAW camp, has been highly successful in its first four years. Plans are in the works for expanded summer programs that go beyond a one-week crash course of conservation lessons. "I have witnessed the life-changing effects of the CLAW program on high school students,” said Tennessee Aquarium board member Franklin McCallie. “There is no substitute for learning about the critical importance of fresh water and the life it sustains than tramping in our creeks with the TNACI scientists conducting research and conservation projects. With the building of the new facility, diverse students from all schools in our region will have new opportunities like these during the summer or within the school year--and some of these students will even walk away with new career paths in mind.”
Healthy rivers and watersheds are vital to local economies, to enjoyment of the natural world and to the quality of the environment on which we all depend. Like all challenges related to public health, there are no quick and easy fixes. Dr. George and other Aquarium experts believe that expanding TNACI’s programs now will help build a healthier future for our communities and help solidify Chattanooga’s environmental reputation on a national level.
As a lead supporter, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee recognizes the crucial role of TNACI’s work to collaborate, educate and work toward environmental prosperity. Their contribution helped begin the $4.5 million dollar expansion of TNACI’s work to examine and protect our physical environment’s resilience, health and well-being.
“The health of our waterways plays a vital role in the overall health of the environment, and is a key component to creating areas where residents can engage in healthy, outdoor activities,” said John Giblin, executive vice president and CFO of BlueCross and a member of the Aquarium’s board of directors. “BlueCross is proud to support this venture to ensure the continued health of our freshwater systems and the people who rely on them.”
Consolidating scientific efforts within a state-of-the-art facility will enable the Aquarium to focus on the research and restoration of freshwater animals and their habitats throughout our region in ways never before envisioned. With continued community support, the Aquarium hopes to grow its commitment to freshwater science to $8 million over the next five years. “This is a tremendous opportunity and responsibility for us,” said Arant. “People are really concerned about the health of our waterways, and we will lead, convene and collaborate with others for the benefit of our region. Twenty years from now we’ll look back on what TNACI has achieved, both on a regional and national level, and we’ll be very proud we took this next step to protect our water.”
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