Friday, September 28, 2012

Where is your Watershed?

Freshwater is the most precious resource on our planet.  Though approximately 75% of the Earth is covered in water, only 3% of that is freshwater.  Less than 1% of that is accessible to humans; the rest is either frozen, underground, or otherwise out or reach.  When you think about it, that’s not much water to share between 7 billion people and all the animals that call our rivers, streams, and lakes home.  In order to ensure there is enough clean water to go around, we need to be good stewards of our watershed.

What is a watershed?  It is an area of land where all the water within it drains to the same place.  Watersheds can vary in size, and there can be watersheds within watersheds.  For example, a drop of water from a rainstorm may hit the ground in the watershed of a smaller river, like the Conasauga.  That water in the Conasauga watershed runs into the Coosa River, making it part of the Coosa Watershed. The Coosa then flows into the Alabama River, which ultimately flows into Mobile Bay.  These watersheds are all connected, and how we take care of our watershed not only directly affects us, but also impacts our neighbors downstream. 

There are many impaired watersheds in the United States, including the Southeast.  Mobile Bay,  one of the largest watersheds in the U.S., has some rivers that run through highly urban, industrial, and agricultural areas.  Therefore, pollution is a big problem in the form of fertilizers, chemicals, and sediment.  In Chattanooga, Citico Creek is highly polluted because damaged septic tanks and sewer lines discharge their effluent into the creek.  That pollution flows into the Tennessee River, where Chattanoogans get their drinking water.  While our local water company does a very good job ensuring that water is safe for us to drink, the pollution stays in the river and affects the fish, mussels, other animals, and even recreational users who call the Tennessee River home.  

What is your watershed?
What can you do to protect your watershed?
  •  Find your local watershed group and volunteer.  Once you have found which watershed is yours, the EPA provides a list of groups that work to protect that watershed. 
  •  Adopt your watershed. If your watershed doesn’t already have a citizen-based group, you can use EPA’s Watershed Stewardship Toolkit to start one.
  •  Practice responsible water consumption.  Decreasing the amount of water you use each day ensures there is more in the watershed for plants and animals, and will lower your water bill. 
  •  Be as organic as possible with your lawn, reducing fertilizer and pesticide use.
  • Find your nearest Waterkeeper. These people devote their time to making sure their river is free from pollution or other harmful activities.  Support them with your time or money so they can make sure you have a safe river to use.  
If you are in Chattanooga, October 6th is the next Tennessee River Rescue. Find your nearest zone and spend some time cleaning the Tennessee River. It’s our river, so let’s make sure it is safe for all the people, plants, and animals that rely on it. We hope to see you there!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Lake Sturgeon Goes to Help Teach 5th Grade!

A few weeks ago we had the opportunity to continue a partnership with Gap Creek Elementary School in Knoxville. Each year the 5th grade class at Gap Creek adopts a Lake Sturgeon to keep in their classroom. This year “Spike”, as the students quickly named him, is living in Ms. Kelly Clemmer’s classroom and will help her teach the students about water chemistry, endangered species, conservation, biology and general responsibility.

"Spike" the Lake Sturgeon was 23 cm long when he moved into the classroom.

Kathlina and Greg, the TNACI fall intern, delivered Spike to the classroom and set him up in his new tank. They led a classroom discussion about how to take care of a Lake Sturgeon and why TNACI is involved in this project. Each day the students will record data about the fish including feedings, tank maintenance, water temperature, pH, ammonia levels, fish length and behavioral observations.

Ms. Clemmer also does a stream lab during the year where students visit a creek and test water quality as well as aquatic insect populations. Taking care of Spike will get them ready to do field work in the spring and will hopefully help them make the connections between fish health, human health and water quality. In November, these students will assist us with the release of our 2012 year class Lake Sturgeon into the French Broad River, which runs right by their school. Their close proximity to the release site is what made this school such a perfect match for this type of partnership. With permission from TWRA we have been able to supply Gap Creek Elementary with a classroom Lake Sturgeon for several years now. Though Spike will never be released into the wild, this fish will return to the Tennessee Aquarium in the spring and be an ambassador for the species in our sturgeon touch tank in Discovery Hall. This unique partnership is a great outreach opportunity for TNACI and an incredible experience for the students. We look forward to working with them throughout the year!

Monday, September 17, 2012

Tennessee's Most Unwanted

It’s been a long journey, but we are happy to report that two snakeheads are now in the new Invasive Species exhibit at the Tennessee Aquarium.  This tank calls attention to one of the most serious threats to our native animals: species that have been accidentally or purposefully released outside their native range.  As you study this tank full of “unwanted” animals, you will see the shells of Zebra Mussels (Dreissena polymorpha), and Asian Clams (Corbicula fluminea), in addition to Yellow Perch (Perca flavescens), Redbreast Sunfish (Lepomis auritus), Grass Carp (Ctenopharyngodon idella), and Northern Snakeheads (Chana argus).   Each of these species has an impact on the ecosystem it has been introduced into, some more drastic than others.

Zebra Mussels and Snakeheads have been two of the most expensive invasive species our country is battling.  Zebra mussels are native to Eurasia and were first found in the Great Lakes in the 1980s.  They were most likely introduced by ballast water from barges as they entered harbors and waterways.  Since then, Zebra Mussels have spread rapidly, densely colonizing virtually any surface, including other aquatic animals!  They outcompete native mussels for food and habitat, and millions of dollars are spent each year de-fouling industrial pipes clogged with zebra mussels.  
Zebra mussels growing on a crayfishFrom:

Pipe clogged with zebra mussels

Snakeheads are another invasive species that has gotten a lot of attention lately.  Due to their snake-like appearance, mouth full of sharp teeth, and ability to breathe air and “crawl” over land, the media has dubbed this animal “Frankenfish.”  While this name may be a bit harsh, there is no doubt that snakeheads have the potential to severely degrade an area where they are introduced.  They are voracious predators and highly territorial; therefore they can outcompete popular sportfish, like bass, for food.  They are also aggressive, especially during breeding season as they guard their eggs and larvae.  There are no established populations in Tennessee right now, though one snakehead was caught near Memphis in 2006.  There are established populations in Virginia, Florida, and Arkansas, however.  The largest eradication attempt in the U.S. was performed over 110 square miles in the Piney Creek drainage in Arkansas.  Biologists attempted to poison what they thought was a contained population.  This massive project was successful in diminishing the snakehead population, but was unsuccessful  in eradicating the river of them.   It is illegal to possess a snakehead in the state of Tennessee. 

Northern Snakehead at the Tennessee Aquarium
We are able to display these species thanks to funding from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.  Come visit the Aquarium to see our new exhibit in the Tennessee River Gallery of the River Journey building.  And remember--you can help prevent the spread of invasive species.  After being on the water, check your boat and equipment for aquatic hitchhikers, clean thoroughly after each use, and dry before use in a different waterbody.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Snorkeling with Alexandra Cousteau

In 2009 the Tennessee Aquarium was awarded a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to increase inland residents’ awareness of their connection to the ocean.  One part of this ambitious project is the “Our Blue Planet” lecture series that has brought leaders in ocean research and conservation to the Tennessee Aquarium.  Last week, the last speaker of the series is part of a family whose name is synonymous with ocean exploration: Alexandra Cousteau.

Like her grandfather, Alexandra is a passionate environmentalist.  She is an advocate for sustainable management of our water resources.  She has traveled the globe to locations where watersheds have been negatively impacted by water misuse, but also to places where sustainable management of water has been successful.  Her mission is to "engage individuals around the world through telling the story of our water planet."

She accomplished this mission as she spoke to high school students in the morning, then to a full house in our IMAX theater that evening.  She showed some of the short documentaries she has filmed all over the world, but focused on some of the imperiled watersheds in North America, including the Emory River, the Colorado River, the Potomac River, and Mobile Bay.  These videos, as well as her no-nonsense presentation style, were successful at motivating citizens of all age groups.  She encouraged all of us to be conscious of our water use, and to be advocates for our watersheds.  Everyone has the right to clean water.

We decided to take Alexandra to the Hiwassee River and show her some of the aquatic wildlife that makes the Southeastern U.S. so unique.  We were joined by two Waterkeepers:  Donna Lisenby the Watauga Riverkeeper, and David Whiteside the Tennessee Riverkeeper.  We had a brief, but eventful, time on the Hiwassee. Our catches included three Hellbenders, a Tangerine Darter (Percina aurantiaca), and one of the most controversial fish in history, the Snail Darter (Percina tanasi).  It was a great day on the river and everyone had a good time. We hope Alexandra will come back.

Donna Lisenby and Alexandra Cousteau with a Hellbender

Tangerine Darter (Percina aurantiaca)

Snail Darter (Percina tanasi)
TNACI with a tanasi!

Anna and Alexandra with a Hellbender
All photos taken by Andree Herbert.

Here's a great video about the day from our friend, Donna Lisenby.