Thursday, August 30, 2012

Marine Sanctuaries, the National Forests of the Oceans

As little as 150 years ago, some scientists believed that there was no way that humans could significantly impact the ocean.  Fish stocks appeared so healthy that they believed there would always be enough fish in the sea.  However, by the time Huxley uttered his famous quote in the 1890s (“I believe...all the great sea fisheries are inexhaustible"), some fisheries had already collapsed and industries were beginning to boom and pollute waterways.  Advances in technology resulted in bottom trawls and dredges to catch mussels and bottom dwelling organisms.  In 1993, the cod fishery in New England collapsed, one of the fisheries Huxley considered immune. In addition, as the demand for fuel and natural gas rose, so did the exploitation of the ocean,  with 4,000 oil platforms currently in the Gulf of Mexico alone (see figure).  The Deepwater Horizon spill of 2010 had major environmental impacts and brought to the limelight to potential harmful effects of these oil platforms on the ocean and coastal environment.
However, nestled in these platforms is the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of Texas.  National marine sanctuaries are the crown jewel of America’s marine conservation efforts.  Similar to the goal of National Forests’ to preserve wilderness for multiple uses, marine sanctuaries were created to ensure that future generations can enjoy the ecological and cultural resources our ocean provides.  The first sanctuary created was Monitor off Cape Hatteras in North Carolina in 1975.  Protection at each sanctuary varies and is regulated by the Sanctuary staff and the Advisory Council.  At some sanctuaries, boats are prohibited from anchoring, while at others, diving and some recreational fishing may be allowed.  Sanctuaries are crucial, not just for protecting marine habitat, but for our commercial fisheries as well because they serve as spawning grounds for commercially important species like tuna or swordfish; closing North Atlantic Swordfish spawning grounds was one of the keys to the population’s recovery in the late 1990s after catches had decreased by 50%.

Sanctuaries are also a great place to go diving and see relatively pristine habitat.  Despite being surrounded by oil platforms, Flower Garden Banks is one of the healthiest reefs in the world and diving is very popular.  Sea turtles, large grouper, sharks, and a high diversity of colorful reef fish live with a significantly diminished threat from fishermen. 

You may have been to a Marine Sanctuary and not even have known it!  The Florida Keys are all in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary which protects 3,000 nautical miles extending from Miami to the Tortugas.

Marine sanctuaries receive recommendations for their management by advisory councils made up of people from different backgrounds, including government agencies, fishermen, and academics.  Our director at TNACI, Anna George, is currently serving on the council for Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary as a conservation representative.  This is one of the largest near shore live reefs in the southeastern U.S. and is located 16 miles off the coast of Georgia.  Part of the sanctuary is accessible to divers and recreational fishermen, but a portion of it is closed for research only.  This ensures that scientists can monitor the health of the reef and the animals that call it home.

Do you know where your nearest marine sanctuary is?  Go to to find out!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

South Chickamauga Canoe Trip

On Sunday I helped lead a canoe trip on South Chickamauga Creek sponsored by Outdoor Chattanooga and the Tennessee Aquarium. Ten folks and I met at the relatively new Sterchi Farm Greenway Boat Ramp, part of the South Chickamauga Creek Greenway Trail.  Our trip took us about one mile upstream, where we were paddling with the current (instead of against it) as TVA hydroelectric releases from Chickamauga Dam caused the creek to flow backwards, eventually raising the water level several feet!  The banks of the creek were lined with large hardwoods and several flowering semi-aquatic plants, including Hibiscus and Cardinal Flowers.
Bluffs appeared at several sites on the creek with the Greenway Trail elevating over them.  

We collected several species of fishes, including the very transparent Inland Silverside (Menidia beryllina) and the snubnosed Tennessee Darter (Etheostoma tenneseense).  

We also saw a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias), water snakes, crayfish, basses and bream sunfishes.  It was great weather and a great time!  Look for more outdoor activities in the Tennessee Aquarium’s Riverwatch magazine and on the Events Page.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Conservation Leadership in Action Week

Guest Blogger:  Louise McCallie

What do you get when you have twenty high schoolers and a week of outdoor adventures, then add three days of unexpected, non-stop rain? Apparently those are the ingredients for the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute's up-and-coming summer camp, Conservation Leadership in Action Week (CLAW). Led by Dr. Anna George and Ashford Rosenberg, the campers were exposed to a variety of local conservation issues, then were challenged to form their own plans for creating change.

I've been a summer camp counselor before, but never for high school kids. I wasn't exactly sure what to expect. But after CLAW 2012, I can say with full certainty that our kids were a fabulous first class. Our twenty campers were from fifteen different high schools, some coming from as far away as Memphis, Georgia, and Newport News, VA. It was an adventure waiting to happen, and the kids delivered.

CLAW 2012 was a residential camp, with our home base on Baylor School's campus, and once we got everyone registered and moved in, we kicked off the week with a trip to the Tennessee Aquarium. Several of our campers are youth volunteers at the Aquarium, but they too enjoyed the behind-the-scenes look at the exhibits, as well as the private tour. Our aquatic adventure ended in a sleepover in Ocean Journey's Undersea Caverns, where the campers snuggled into their sleeping bags while sandbar sharks and brightly-colored fish swam by overhead.

Monday's theme was "water," so we were up bright and early before heading over to Renaissance Park to discuss water quality testing. Our next destination was the Hiwassee River, where we took more water quality samples and met up with some more TNACI scientists to see what they'd caught in the crystal-clear waters. The highlight of the afternoon was an eighteen-inch long hellbender, which the kids stroked and posed with for pictures. We turned our campers loose on the river to see what else the riffles had in store - and several of them even hand-caught another hellbender! Talk about a victory lap.
Getting to touch the Hellbender
We then bid adieu to our fishy friends and shifted gears for our next activity:white-water rafting! It was a cool, foggy afternoon that certainly beat the 100-degree heat we'd been having, and we all made it down the river without too much trouble.
Lauren and Kevin on the duckie.
After rafting, we headed back to Baylor to discuss and create rain barrels, provided by Coca-Cola and Ace Hardware. We tied off our day with a talk from Dr. Richard Urban from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, where we learned about the legal aspect of water conservation. Definitely interesting for all our up-and-coming policy makers.

Whew! You'd think we'd be all out of things to do after Monday's busy schedule. But the fun had barely started! Tuesday was "Food Day," which we began with a trip to Crabtree Farms. Crabtree gave the campers a hands-on experience with local food, as they smeared themselves with dirt picking beets in the fields. They were pretty "beat" after that adventure, but our next stop was the Southside for a trip to Link 41 and Niedlov's. Then it was back to Baylor for a lesson in cheesemaking from TNACI's Kathlina Alford, who walked the kids through batches of mozzarella and feta. The highlight of "food day" was our evening meal - Executive Chef Charlie Loomis from Greenlife Grocery came to Baylor and prepared a variety of delicacies crafted from the local food we'd picked up during the day.
The whole group with our fine selection of beets
Wednesday was "Waste Treatment Day," and even though a large, literal raincloud had settled over Chattanooga, the campers were still energetic and ready to learn. Our morning consisted of a trip to Moccasin Bend Wastewater Treatment Facility, where we split into two groups to tour the plant and learn about the process of wastewater treatment. Though the campers were holding their noses and making faces over the smell, they later proclaimed that the trip to Moccasin Bend was one of the highlights of the week. Later that afternoon, we visited the Tennessee American Water Company (who awarded TNACI a $1,000 grant to help fund camp) for a tour of their facility and a brief discussion of the other side of water treatment. Wednesday evening, Nathan Moore from the Southern Environmental Law Center spoke to us about the importance of policy in conservation efforts.

Lily thinks it's stinky at Moccasin Bend

CLAW with our fabulous tour guide, Matt Snyder.

By Thursday, the rain had not let up, which quashed our plans of canoeing. However, the campers still had projects to work on: creating a program to bring back to their high schools and communities, inspired by the issues we'd touched on during the week. Thursday afternoon, we toured the RockTenn recycling facility. All geared up in hard hats and safety vests, the kids got a closer look at where our recycling goes after we put it out on the curb.

Justice in her hard hat ready to go!

Later that evening was "networking night." Dr. George invited a wide variety of community leaders, from Aquarium employees to professors, to listen to the presentations our campers had been working on. This event gave the students invaluable experience with public speaking and presenting, along with giving them the chance to further hone their projects. Many of the campers even swapped contact information with guests. I for one was glowing with pride, watching our campers have passionate, one-on-one conversations about their projects with complete strangers. It was a little different than the rapid pace of our other activities, but networking night was incredibly effective and will certainly be repeated in the future.

Groups talking to various experts about their projects.

Vega talking with a Sewanee professor.

Friday - our last full day - was another day out on the water, but this time we ventured up to the Conasauga River for a snorkeling expedition - wetsuits and all! Scientists from TNACI took some campers upriver for some more experience with seine netting, then showed off their catches in little clear photo tanks. After lunch we split into two groups again: one group of campers stayed by the river to continue snorkeling, while the others went on a bird walk through the surrounding wilderness.
Only way to see fish is getting your face in the water!

Looking for some birds

I think Thaddeus sees a fish!

Friday night was another big event - one of our campers was chosen to give her presentation at PechaKucha, a low-key style of presenting where the topics ranged from unsanctioned racing to nature poetry. Our student, Justice Graves, stood her ground in front of a crowd of more than a hundred and spoke passionately about the importance of preserving the environment. She even worked in some of our pictures from the week, discussing how our activities had inspired her and pushed her to think on a larger scale.

And then Saturday morning rolled around, when the parents arrived to see what we'd been doing with their kids all week. Our campers gave their presentations in groups of four or five, using KeyNote and some shared iPads to turn their ideas into something visual. The presentations passed in a flash, and before we knew it, we were waving goodbye and hauling our own gear down to our cars. I'm sure I wasn't the only one who slept well that night!

I was honored to be a part of such a successful inaugural experience. And a big thanks to Thaddeus Taylor, Larry Roberts, and Ben Nelson who were with us all week on our adventures.  The program has an incredibly solid base, and I'm thrilled to see how it will grow and change as the years go by. So here's to CLAW, and here's to many more years of adventure and discovery!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Summary of Summer!

Phew! Now that we are into August, summer is drawing to a close for TNACI. While we have tried to keep the blog updated, between conferences, summer camps, and meetings, we have not always been the most current. So it's time to catch you up!

Lake Sturgeon
 In May, Kathlina and our new group of interns (Jessica, Stephen, Louise, and Josh) picked up 2,000 baby sturgeon from Warm Springs National Fish Hatchery. This is the second year we have raised Lake Sturgeon in a recirculating system and they have done well. We anticipate releasing these fish in a month or two. 
Kathlina and Louise measuring fish.
Our baby river giant!
Serve and Protect: Supporting Sustainable Seafood
Part of our delicious meal at Greenlife Grocery!
Ashford continues Serve and Protect outreach for both high school students and restaurant partners. We have co-hosted sustainable seafood dinners with three of our partner restaurants (Greenlife Grocery, Broad Street Grille, and Bluewater Grille). These have been very successful and we enjoyed amazing food at each event. We have seafood dinners every month, and you can register online to attend. We are also very excited that Alton Brown is coming back this year for the Tennessee Aquarium’s annual fundraiser. There is a lunch event in addition to the dinner, so come one down on your lunch break and enjoy a presentation from Alton Brown. 

Outreach and Education
Both Bernie and I taught at universities this summer. I got to spend a few weeks at the
Mountain Lake Biological Station (MLBS) in Virginia teaching a field-intensive class on biology and conservation of fishes. While the class was a ton of fun, we had an interesting time, as the station was one of the many locations affected by the derecho storm that caused millions to lose power in that portion of the country. Bernie taught an Aquatic Biodiversity class at the University of Alabama. This was a short course for teachers that included some field work. 

Some of my MLBS students in the New River drainage
One of the most exciting things that happened at TNACI this summer was kicking off our new residential summer camp, the
Conservation Leadership in Action Week. In July, twenty high school students joined TNACI staff for a week at Baylor School to learn more about environmental leadership. These passionate students came from fifteen different schools in ten different towns in three different states. They spent the week learning about local conservation work and designing their own project to tackle a problem in their community. We kept these kids (and ourselves!) busy. They sampled the Hiwassee River with Bernie, Evan, and Dave, worked on a local organic farm, made cheese with Kathlina, cooked dinner with Greenlife Grocery, toured our sewage treatment plant, and snorkeled the Conasauga River. There were some impressive conservation projects at the end of this week, and we can’t wait to see these students take these projects to their homes and schools and start making a difference. I'm very grateful to have received support for this camp by being selected as an Audubon and Toyota TogetherGreen Fellow and from Tennessee American Water.
CLAW campers before we paddle the Hiwassee River!
Whew, now that the big updates are out of the way, we'll try to get back to more regular postings!