The Masterplan to Save Our Nation's Richest Rivers

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The Tennessee Aquarium and University of Georgia's River Basin Center have collaborated on a new study that spotlights the Southeast's most diverse and imperiled waterways.

Map of aquatic species in the Southeast

New Southeast Species Richness Map

“The Southeast has an incredible number of species, and it's really important that we focus our attention on protecting places where we can get the most bang for our buck" - Dr. Anna George

After more than a year of data collection, analysis and mapping, the University of Georgia River Basin Center and the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute recently published a comprehensive survey of aquatic animals in Southeastern watersheds.

This first-of-a-kind study used information on where aquatic animals live gathered directly from field researchers, universities, museums and government agencies. The report’s creators hope it will serve as a call to action for protection and restoration, helping to chart future conservation efforts in the region.

Among scientists, the Southeast is renowned as a hotspot for freshwater wildlife, but the life that teems beneath the surface of its rivers and streams — a veritable underwater rainforest — remains relatively unknown to the general public.

After decades of being overlooked, conservationists think the time has come for the region to take its rightful place in the spotlight.

“The Southeast’s rich aquatic communities are globally significant. There’s nothing else like our biodiversity anywhere else on the continent or anywhere else in the temperate world,” said Dr. Duncan Elkins, the study’s coordinator and a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Georgia River Basin Center.

All southeastern states have incredible aquatic life, but the study spotlights areas with higher diversity and at greater risk of imperilment. Take one look at the report’s heat maps, and the Southeast’s ecological significance becomes impossible to ignore.

The maps use colors to represent the variety of species in a given area — warmer colors indicating greater diversity — and are based on the distribution of almost 1,050 fish, crayfish and mussel species in almost 300 watersheds spanning 11 states. The vivid red-and-orange bullseye centered on Middle and Southeast Tennessee, Northwest Georgia and Northern Alabama clearly shows why this region is so biologically significant.

“The Southeast has an incredible number of species, and it's really important that we focus our attention on protecting places where we can get the most bang for our buck,” said Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute Director Dr. Anna George.

By highlighting the region’s most diverse watersheds, the study will help to focus future scientific research and guide conservation groups to areas where intervention can have the greatest impact.

“The need is great for us to act to protect our species,” George continued. “This project allows us to visualize, across the Southeast, where those places are that are so critically important for our water and wildlife.”

Scientists “scored” each watershed based on three characteristics: the number of species it contained, the conservation status of those species and how widespread each species was. Areas containing a larger variety of species, many endangered or threatened species or species found in few or no other locations were ranked higher.

According to the study, the 10 highest-priority watersheds are:

1. Pickwick Lake (Middle Tennessee/Northern Alabama)
2. Wheeler Lake (Middle Tennessee/Northern Alabama)
3. Cahaba (Central Alabama)
4. Upper Clinch (Northeast Tennessee/Southwest Virginia)
5. Middle Coosa (Northeast Alabama)
6. Lower Duck (Middle Tennessee)
7. Conasauga (Southeast Tennessee/Northwest Georgia)
8. Lower Coosa (Central Alabama)
9. Etowah (Northwest Georgia)
10. Caney (Middle Tennessee)

The story of the Southeast’s freshwater ecology is one of both unrivaled diversity and rampant imperilment.

Experts place the region’s plethora of aquatic wildlife on equal footing with that of species-rich tropical ecosystems. More than 1,400 species reside in waterways within a 500-mile radius of Chattanooga, Tenn., including about three-quarters (73.1 percent) of all native fish species in the United States. More than 90 percent of all American mussel and crayfish species live within that same area.

More than a quarter of the species included in the study are found nowhere else in the world, yet 28 percent of Southeastern fish species are considered imperiled, more than doubling during the last 20 years fueled by intensive human development and a lack of financial support for regional conservation efforts.

The publication of the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute and River Basin Center study, which was created through a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant, comes at a crucial time for Southeastern aquatic ecosystems. Efforts to study and safeguard freshwater species in the region continue to struggle due to anemic funding and a lack of federally protected lands, especially compared to less-diverse regions, such as the Western United States.

The study’s creators say they hope it will serve as a master plan to guide research and conservation work that will ensure the long-term survival of waterways that dramatically impact the human communities that rely on them.

“Rivers and streams in the U.S. are the arteries that flow through our landscape, and they carry a measure of the health of the landscape with them,” George said. “Right now, those rivers are having heart attacks.

“What we're doing is like visiting a doctor to learn how to take better care of the health of our rivers. We’ve identified some of the most important places to start a small change in our habits and how we take care of our waters. And over time, just like walking a mile turns into running a race, those small changes will add up to big differences for the health of the country’s rivers and streams.’”

About the study

  • Undertaken between July 2015 and September 2016
  • Analyzed fish, crayfish and mussel distribution across 290 watersheds
  • Study area encompassed 11 states
  • Based on data on almost 1,050 species collected from field researchers, government agencies, museums and universities
  • Study’s 14 member advisory board included diverse representation including state and federal agencies, tribes, and academia

Read the complete study online.

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Thom Benson
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