The experience I had as a volunteer with the TNACI Sturgeon Husbandry Program was, in short, phenomenal. Throughout my six weeks with TNACI my eyes were opened to countless new perspectives and insights regarding conservation, ranging from sturgeon to silt, sustainable seafood to stunned sunfish, animal care to education. The Husbandry Program is undeniably ambitious, a quality emphasized more so when one considers the extreme frailty of the young sturgeon’s fettle. Nevertheless, what struck me the most about the project was the relentless torrent of enthusiastic energy that fueled it, particularly an eagerness to engage the external community. This desire to not only better the environment, but to also teach and encourage the participation of others was trademark of all of TNACI’s projects. Whether organizing an attention-grabbing production such as the highly publicized sustainable seafood event or contemplating smaller scale outreach to children with an iconic “Sammy the Sturgeon”—my personal favorite—the Conservation Institute dedicates itself to more than “giving fish” to the community. Rather than resuscitating the marine environment for a few more years, it strives ardently to but to “teach [us all] how to fish” on our own, ballooning effectiveness and longevity through mass participation. Examine my own experience. Hardly a high school senior, not to mention completely oblivious to the mechanics of sturgeon reintroduction and marine science, I was accepted into the TNACI scene with enthusiasm and welcome. Despite my initial ignorance, I was invited to partake in a slew of incredible experiences, not only watching the young sturgeon grow and fight off an Aeromonas attack, but even being invited outside of the husbandry facility, collecting sunfish for the aquarium via an electroshocking boat.
Caroline (l) and Sarah (r) snorkeling in the Hiwassee River
It was through TNACI’s willingness to educate and share its passion for conservation that I in turn was inspired. Thanks to my exploits this summer at the expense of TNACI’s generosity, I look forward to passing on the torch, to spreading the enthusiasm and commitment to educate within my own community.
Last Friday, we all headed out for some summer snorkeling in the Hiwassee River to celebrate the last day of our high school summer volunteer, Caroline. The access point was a bit remote (lots of time on gravel roads!), but it was a pleasant day and everyone saw many beautiful native fish species, including tangerine darters (Percina aurantiaca), mirror shiners (Notropis spectrunculus), whitetail shiners (Cyprinella galactura), and logperch (Percina caprodes). Despite the isolation of the area, it was still being impacted by aquatic nuisance species. We saw two invasive species, redbreast sunfish (Lepomis auritus, discussed here), and Asian clams (Corbicula fluminea).
Asian clams are native to Southeast Asia and parts of Russia. They were first seen in the United States in 1938 and have spread to almost 40 states since then. They were first brought into the country by immigrants using it for food, but now the main pathways of spread are bait buckets and intentional release.
Once the clams are established in an area, they outcompete native invertebrates for habitat and food. They also spread very quickly, in part because they are hermaphroditic, possessing both male and female reproductive organs. Asian clams are capable of self fertilization, and a single clam can produce seventy thousand offspring per year. The larvae are free swimming, an advantage over the native mussels whose larvae must attach to fish to disperse. Asian clams also cause economic damage through biofouling. In a very short time, pipes can become clogged with these small clams, and they have cost the U.S. millions of dollars in pipe repair or replacement.
So we did our part for native species on Friday—we opened up a few Asian clams to feed to the tangerine darters and logperch swimming around us! It was quite the feeding frenzy.