Blue Cross Blue Shield of TN Leads in Making The Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute’s New Field Station A Reality
The Southeast is home to an incredible array of freshwater biodiversity. More than 660 of the 905 native fish species found in the United States live within a 500-mile circle that’s centered on Chattanooga. The rivers, lakes and streams in this watershed are also home to half the freshwater turtles found in North America and nearly all of the salamanders, mussels and crayfish found on the continent.
A new 14,000-square-foot riverfront facility is being constructed in Chattanooga to serve as the only freshwater science center in the Southeast. This biological field station will house propagation systems for reintroduction programs, as well as, three fully-equipped labs for researchers, a spacious teaching lab for rising high school and college students and meeting space for collaborative projects with other scientists.
“These amazing freshwater communities are unparalleled for any location outside the tropics,” says Dr. Anna George, director of the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute (TNACI). “This is why the Southeast is so exciting to the scientific community.”
Unfortunately, freshwater ecosystems are the most threatened on Earth. Extinction rates of freshwater animals are two to five times higher than terrestrial or marine animals. As human freshwater use continues to grow, it becomes more challenging to understand, protect and restore populations of imperiled aquatic species.
“The Aquarium has been educating our guests about freshwater and working on conservation projects with a variety of partners in our region for nearly 25 years,” says Charlie Arant, the Aquarium’s president and CEO. “The time has come for us to expand those efforts in order to have an even greater impact on this region for generations to come.”
“TNACI’s role in collaborative conservation planning allows our research to have a direct and lasting impact throughout the region,” says Dr. George. “We work with other conservation managers in the Southeast to ensure that as our region grows, we are able to preserve the freshwater habitats that support our high quality of life.”
The decision to create a centralized hub for this important work has caused TNACI to hire additional experts. This staff infrastructure includes scientists with extensive backgrounds in conservation genetics, field biology, cave biology and geographic information systems. Already, the team’s scope of work is expanding to include new research projects with turtles and salamanders. When the new building opens its doors this fall, eight to 10 scientists and educators will be housed there.
The new location, on the south campus of the Baylor School, connects TNACI to the Tennessee River and will become the gateway for educational opportunities for schools throughout the region. These programs will focus on high school, college and graduate students who are dedicated to careers in environmental science.
“Baylor School is immensely proud to partner with the Tennessee Aquarium,” says Scott Wilson, Baylor School Headmaster. “This opportunity represents a triumph for everyone in this region who is passionate about freshwater conservation, science, and education.”
The Conservation Leadership in Action Week, or CLAW, has been highly successful in its first four years. Plans are in the works for expanded summer programs that go beyond a one-week crash course of conservation lessons.
“I have witnessed the life-changing effects of the CLAW program on high school students,” says Tennessee Aquarium board member Franklin McCallie. He says the new facility will draw students from all schools in the region, both during the summer and within the school year, to work on projects that may suggest new career paths.
Healthy rivers and watersheds are vital to local economies for the enjoyment of the natural world and to maintain the quality of the environment on which all depend. Like most challenges related to public health, there are no easy fixes. Dr. George and other Aquarium experts believe that expanding TNACI’s programs will help build a healthier future and help solidify Chattanooga’s environmental reputation on a national level.
As a lead supporter, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee recognizes the crucial role of TNACI’s work to collaborate, educate and work toward environmental prosperity. Their contribution helped begin the $4.5 million dollar expansion of TNACI’s work to examine and protect our physical environment’s resilience, health and wellbeing.
“The health of our waterways plays a vital role in the overall health of the environment, and is a key component to creating areas where residents can engage in healthy, outdoor activities,” says John Giblin, executive vice president and CFO of BlueCross and a member of the Aquarium’s board of directors. “BlueCross is proud to support this venture to ensure the continued health of our freshwater systems and the people who rely on them.”
With continued community support, the Aquarium hopes to grow its commitment to freshwater science to $8 million over the next five years. “This is a tremendous opportunity and responsibility for us,” says Arant. “Twenty years from now we’ll look back on what TNACI has achieved, both on a regional and national level, and we’ll be very proud we took this step to protect our water.”
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