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Despite COVID-19, Conservation Work Continues as Earth Day Turns 50

Apr 20, 2020

Chattanooga, Tenn. (April 22, 2020) – From a devastating earthquake in Peru and deadly cyclone in Pakistan to the rolling boil of the Cold War and the disbanding of The Beatles, things weren’t going exceptionally well for the world in 1970.

Yet, at the same time, a growing awareness of the impacts of pollution and crewed missions into space were inspiring a recognition of Earth’s fragile beauty and humanity’s role in protecting it. On April 22, less than two weeks after the Apollo 13 tragedy dominated the world’s attention, millions bearing the newly minted title of “environmentalist” celebrated the first Earth Day.

The 50th Earth Day arrives today at a time when many people’s “world” has been reduced to their own home and backyard. Even amid the ongoing health crisis, however, those who champion the planet are still finding ways to safeguard it.

keeper in Delta Swamp

The Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute was founded with the goal of studying and protecting the unparalleled diversity of aquatic life in the Southeast. The coronavirus outbreak has transformed much, but the importance of that mission, at least, remains unchanged, says Dr. Anna George, the Aquarium’s Vice President of Conservation Science and Education.

“Though conservation may seem like a minor concern to many people right now, having a healthy environment is actually the foundation for healthy people, including a strong economy and a high quality of life,” George says. “We’re hearing from so many people right now that sitting in their backyard or watching the webcams at the Tennessee Aquarium is a major stress relief in these scary times, demonstrating the importance of nature in our every day lives.”

“For all of these reasons, it’s incredibly important that we continue our work to protect the beautiful and diverse rivers and streams of the southeastern United States. We know that the work we do will be appreciated by others when it’s safe for us all to be back outside enjoying them.”

From managing strategic care of endangered reptiles to writing new chapters in long-running species restoration efforts, the Tennessee Aquarium continues to serve as a leader in freshwater science on Earth Day, as it does every day.

Tennessee Aquarium staff members serve as coordinators for six Species Survival Plans (SSP) — cooperative programs designed to manage populations of animals in human care — including the critically endangered Arakan Forest Turtle and Keeled Box Turtle.

As with care for any animal, the closure has not interrupted management of these species or coordination with other SSP member institutions, says Dave Collins, the Aquarium’s Director of Forests and Animal Behavior.

“Caring for SSP animals, like the rest of our living collection, is a 365-day-a-year job,” Collins says. “Their needs go on unchanged, regardless of what’s going on in our world. Unlike their wild counterparts, they are entirely dependent on us for their care.”

The Aquarium declared 2020 to be “The Year of the Turtle” in recognition of these reptiles’ beloved (often-revered) role in cultures around the world and the challenges many turtle species face in the wild. As part of this yearlong celebration, the Aquarium also announced its leadership of a new Association of Zoos and Aquariums Saving Animals From Extinction (SAFE) program focused on safeguarding native turtles.

When it launched, the AZA SAFE American Turtles program encompassed 14 zoos and aquariums as well as 30 “field partners” representing state and federal agencies, nonprofits, nature centers, universities and more. The program’s initial focus was on protecting the Wood Turtle, Bog Turtle, Blanding’s Turtle and Spotted Turtle, as well as terrapenes (also known as “box turtles”).

Widespread quarantine orders and business closures have prevented the AZA SAFE American Turtles program from adding to its membership for the time being. Despite the pandemic, work continues behind the scenes to plan how best to assist law enforcement with monitoring and curbing illegal trafficking, which has led to the removal of so many turtles from their native habitats.

“It is important to keep moving forward on growing this program because the threats to turtles are almost certainly not taking a break during the coronavirus pandemic,” says Collins, who serves as the SAFE program leader and coordinator. “As the weather warms up and turtle activity increases, we will be closely tracking the levels in illegal trade.”

With social distancing regulations in place, some of the Aquarium’s conservation programs have been paused, including its effort for more than two decades to restore the Lake Sturgeon to its native waters, including the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers.

baby sturgeon in hand

Since releases began in 2000, the Aquarium and its partners have released more than 220,000 juvenile Lake Sturgeon. Thanks to the onset of COVID-19 and the accompanying interruption of operations at many facilities, including fish hatcheries, the Aquarium will not have access this year to a new class of juvenile sturgeon.

“We’re sad at the thought of not having baby Lake Sturgeon in our facility for the first time in 20 years,” Dr. George says. “However, we know that the program will be able to pick up again when it is safe for us to do so.”

The interruption of Lake Sturgeon propagation at the Aquarium’s freshwater science center doesn’t mean this year won’t see any new sturgeon returned to their native waters. One hundred individuals held from the 2019 release class will be introduced into the Cumberland River near Nashville later this year. In the meantime, biologists at the institute are taking advantage of these holdovers to conduct genetic testing that will help to better manage these river giants in the future.

On the other hand, propagation efforts for several different species at the Conservation Institute, including the Longhead Darter and Common Logperch, are continuing uninterrupted.

The Aquarium’s conservation efforts to restore the Southern Appalachian Brook Trout to native streams in Northeast Tennessee are not only unimpeded by the pandemic but are poised to turn the page on an all-new chapter.

Last year, Aquarium biologists and their partners celebrated a significant milestone when they discovered that this species — Tennessee’s only native trout — was spawning on its own in the Appalachian stream where restocking efforts had been focused.

brook trout

A new class of juvenile Brook Trout has been growing steadily under expert care at the freshwater science center, where eggs were spawned and fertilized last October. In late May, this newest batch of juveniles will be released at a new location, furthering the restoration of this beautiful trout to even more of its historic range.

Since 1999, the Aquarium and its partners have been working to prevent the extinction of the Barrens Topminnow, a small, colorful species found in only a handful of streams in Middle Tennessee. Last year, this native fish was listed as an endangered species, a move that reflected the dramatic decline in its wild numbers while simultaneously providing access to more significant resources to fuel conservation efforts.

Even in the midst of the pandemic and just in time for Earth Day, news broke of another important step in the fight to conserve the Barrens Topminnow. Earlier this month, Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium announced that it had successfully spawned six Barrens Topminnows sent there from the Tennessee Aquarium to create a new population whose offspring will be used to restore native creeks in Tennessee.

While social distancing protocols have curtailed field activities, the quarantine has also provided an opportunity for Aquarium biologists to work through previously collected data.

“Scientists always have plenty of data from previous years that we haven’t had time to finish analyzing and writing up,” Dr. George says. “I think we’re going to see a lot of scientific publications coming out of the Conservation Institute this year.”

In addition to a pioneering effort to study the origins and impact of microplastic pollution on freshwater fish, Conservation Institute scientists working from home are wrapping up a wide range of projects.

In recent months — and even during the coronavirus-spurred quarantine — Aquarium scientists celebrated the peer-reviewed publication of their papers covering a variety of topics, including:

  • How the presence of fish impacts salamander distribution in streams
  • The significant influence turtles have on food webs in freshwater ponds
  • How living in resource-poor caves affects the reproductive potential of crayfish
  • Analyzing how the generation of wind and solar energy impacts terrestrial wildlife, such as desert tortoises
  • Pioneering observations of breeding behavior of the federally endangered Laurel Dace

Every day, the Aquarium seeks to forge meaningful connections between people and nature. Since the onset of the health crisis, the Aquarium has ramped up efforts to make these connections online for homebound “digital visitors” from all over the world. This effort has resulted in the production of a wealth of fun, interactive content, including Weekday Wonders – a curated series of science-at-home activities – and daily Facebook Live streams that provide a sense of connection to Aquarium animals and experts.

Fittingly, Earth Day marks the launch of the latest addition to its Aquarium At Home content library.

Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute Freshwater Biologist Dr. Josh Ennen and Geographic Information Systems Analyst Sarah Sweat have been hard at work creating an interactive story map. This fun online resource serves as a kind of “virtual guide” to the Aquarium’s collection of freshwater turtles, the largest of its kind in North America. This multimedia-rich platform offers fun facts, images, videos and more on turtles from all over the world who live at the Aquarium. More species will regularly be added to this still-developing resource.

The widespread impact of COVID-19 has forced Aquarium scientists and experts to adapt, sometime dramatically, to pursue their mission of caring for, studying and protecting wildlife. On Earth Day and every day since its doors were shut, that important work continues, but the closure has resulted in significant financial hardship.

In order to offset the toll the prolonged closure is taking, the Aquarium has established an Emergency Operations Fund to support its ongoing animal care and conservation efforts. Charitable donations to this fund can be made by visiting https://community.tnaqua.org/donate

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