When the Tennessee Aquarium announced last fall it was opening a $4.5 million freshwater institute on the campus of Baylor School, local media outlets bubbled with excitement. Our city would now have a research facility near downtown, and not just any research facility – one poised to become an international leader in freshwater conservation. Yet while the announcement came as breaking news, it was also the latest installment in a longstanding effort to celebrate and safeguard our surrounding rivers and streams. Since the Tennessee Aquarium was founded in the ’90s, it has continued to put the extraordinary underwater world around us – and the critical need to protect it – at the center of the public eye.
“Our very own, homegrown cathedral of conservation.”
This is what former mayor Gene Roberts called the Tennessee Aquarium upon its opening in 1992. Then comprised only of the River Journey building – Ocean Journey was added 13 years later in 2005 – the attraction was designed to tell the Story of the River, with visitors following the path of a raindrop from high in the Appalachian Mountains all the way to the Gulf of Mexico on their tour of Southeastern freshwater habitats.
It was a landmark (no pun intended) moment in our city’s revitalization, and we know the story well. But it was also a landmark moment for public aquariums in the U.S. which are, for the large part, marine in focus with the majority of their conservation work done abroad in exotic locales. When it arrived on the scene, the Tennessee Aquarium was both the largest freshwater aquarium in the world and one of the only in the U.S., if not the only, to focus exclusively on regional freshwater populations.
“Our philosophy has always been that we live in a really special place in the world, and that we need to focus our efforts on our backyard,” says Jackson Andrews, the aquarium’s director of husbandry and operations, who was involved in its early strategic planning efforts. “The Tennessee Aquarium’s architect, Peter Chermayeff, said that he wanted to make the ordinary extraordinary.”
Two years after the aquarium opened its immersive tribute to Southeastern rivers – a highly successful one with 1.4 million guests visiting River Journey within its first year – it established its own research department under the leadership of fish biologist Dr. George Benz.
At the time, Tennessee had already made great strides in reversing the effects of industrial pollution following the passing of the Clean Water Act in the ’70s and the launch of TVA’s Reservoir Release Improvement Program in the ’80s. And yet our region’s freshwater ecosystems remained and remain to this day some of the most threatened on Earth, with an animal extinction rate 2 to 5 times higher than terrestrial or marine life.
To a start a national discussion around the challenges facing our region’s freshwater ecosystems, Benz and curator of forests David Collins organized a conference in 1994 that brought top scientists from across the country to Chattanooga.
“Once [George Benz] started working here, he said, ‘You know, what we need to do is get leading biologists from all over the country to come to Chattanooga and collaborate on these issues.’ And he did just that,” Andrews recalls.
Two years later, the proceedings of the conference were published in a seminal book titled “Aquatic Fauna in Peril,” which continues to raise awareness about the disappearing aquatic animals in our Southeastern waters.
Alongside the publication’s release, the aquarium launched its own freshwater conservation institute focusing on scientific research, ecosystem restoration, and the reintroduction of native aquatic species.
“[George Benz] came in with the mindset of: this is a very special place that we not only need to celebrate but also protect,” says Dr. Anna George, current director of the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute (TNACI). “What’s really cool for me is that I used ‘Aquatic Fauna in Peril’ as a main reference while a student in graduate school. It was a rallying point for scientists, and it’s still used in our field today. So getting this job and moving here and having that legacy be something I inherited felt very, very important.”
Today TNACI continues to expand its education and conservation efforts under Dr. George’s energetic leadership. Among the many initiatives that have gained momentum since her tenure began in 2006, the best known is the Lake Sturgeon reintroduction program – and with good reason. First started by Benz in 2000, the program has since restored nearly 200,000 Lake Sturgeon into the main stem of the Tennessee River in the past 15 years.
Dr. George, who was nicknamed the “sturgeon general” shortly after her arrival, has an infectious enthusiasm for the species, which was completely lost from most of the Southeast by 1960 due to water pollution and the construction of dams.
“Sturgeons are really popular fish for recreational fishermen. They kind of look like dinosaurs, they can get up to 8 feet long, and they are just incredibly cool. I mean, you want Lake Sturgeon in your rivers. They are just awesome fish.”
A little over three years ago, Dr. George also oversaw the addition of a program to restore Southern Appalachian Brook Trout (SABT) to our region’s lakes and streams. A brilliant species with bright red bellies and golden markings, the fish were once abundant in our mountain headwaters but are down to 13% of their historical range today due to the effects of climate change, logging activities, and competition from introduced species.
With funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, 50 adult fish were collected from a state natural area in 2012. Since then TNACI has been spawning and rearing SABT in captivity before release into the wild. The project has grown four-fold since its inception, with hundreds of the fish now released into their native waters.
If spending a day at River Journey is like watching a trailer for what you can find in our region’s freshwater habitats, spending time at TNACI’s new state-of-the-art facility will allow you to dive into their depths. Acting as the future home base for the aquarium’s six-person conservation staff – which now includes two Ph.D. aquatic conservation biologists in addition to Dr. George – it will pick up freshwater education right where the aquarium’s more informal offerings leave off.
Equipped with labs for researchers, a teaching lab for students, a meeting space for collaborative projects, and systems for TNACI’s sturgeon and trout reintroduction programs, it will be the first facility in the U.S. to focus exclusively on freshwater biodiversity and conservation research. High school, college, and graduate students interested in environmental studies will have an unparalleled opportunity to learn from top researchers in the field.
“We want TNACI to become the place to be in freshwater conservation,” says Dr. George. “So in 30 years, if you’re a famous freshwater scientist, at some point in your career you will have worked here.”
From the exterior architecture down to the eco-sensitive way it’s being built, its mission is to connect our community and the world at large to the habitats found on the Tennessee River and throughout the Southeast, Dr. George says.
“I’ve been out on the construction site a lot this week, and we’ve had some warm rainfall, which means the frogs have started calling. And it was just really cool that we could stand right where the construction is happening and see heron fishing in the wetland and hear frogs calling up and down the wetlands. There was so much wildlife right next door to where we were working. It was a great reminder of why we are doing as much as we can to protect it even as we are building something new.”
On Freshwater Snorkeling
And other musings of Dr. Anna George, Director of the
Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute (TNACI)
What are the moments in your daily job that make you feel like:
This is why I do this?
Any time I’m in the river catching fish, I’m in my happiest place. (laughs) Part of it is that I’ve had a fascination with fish since I was a child. But also, our team works really well together, and when we’re outside in the sun on a river, we’re all kind of giddy, almost like kids. It’s field work, but it feels like playing.
How can we become better conservationists?
I think just enjoying fresh water – the rivers and streams and the scenic beauty all around you – is really the first step to becoming a great conservationist. We struggle to get outside in nature, but here in Chattanooga we have so many opportunities to build a stronger connection to the outdoors. So anything that gets you outside and appreciating nature – whether it’s trail running or kayaking or rock climbing, all of these incredible activities we hear about in our area – is part of the solution.
What would you like for people to understand about this area?
I’d like for Southeastern rivers and streams to come to mind when people think of great destinations for ecotourism. That if you want to see a lot of different animals, it’s one of the places to go. Having moved here myself for that very reason, I’m constantly amazed by the people who don’t know what surrounds them. We have 55% of all of North America’s freshwater fish species right here.