IF YOU GO
• What: Party at the Peaks and River Giants exhibit opening.
• When: Exhibit opening, 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday; Party at the Peaks, 7-9 p.m.; after-party, 9-11 p.m.
• Where: Tennessee Aquarium, 1 Broad St.
• Admission: A standard ticket ($25 adults, $15 children 3-12); free for Party at the Peaks activities; $20 for after-party.
• Phone: 800-262-0695.
• Website: www.tnaqua.org.
AQUARIUM INSTITUTE REINTRODUCTIONS
When the Tennessee Aquarium's new River Giants exhibit opens today, its global collection of freshwater megafish marks more than just the 20th anniversary of the aquarium's first day.
It also forges a new link in the organization's journey from being just a Chattanooga tourist draw to becoming a major Southeastern conservation force.
But it didn't exactly start out that way, according to Jackson Andrews, director of husbandry and operations.
"When the aquarium opened it certainly was a tourist draw and an economic engine, but within three years we knew we wanted to do some work in research and conservation. And that's what we did. We started out very small," he said.
A lot has happened since then, including the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute which was started in 1996 under a different name, said institute Director Anna George.
Since then, George and the Aquarium have raised and released at least 11 endangered species of fish in regional streams and rivers, including 115,000 lake sturgeon into the Tennessee River.
The lake sturgeon, itself a potential river giant at 6 feet in length and 200 pounds, had been extinct from the 652-mile Tennessee River for decades thanks to overfishing and the building of dams.
The institute's mission is to conserve and restore native aquatic animals and their habitats, and to help people learn to keep the water clean enough for the animals - and people - to survive and prosper.
"Freshwater conservation is a problem we can all do something about. ... And lake sturgeon are a great example of how important it is to preserve for future generations," George said Friday after releasing sturgeon to the Cumberland River near Nashville in front of a group of home-schoolers.
"I like to tell kids that lake sturgeon can live 100 to 150 years, so the fish they are helping us release today could be a fish they may catch with their children someday, or even with their grandchildren."
The institute also partners with Tennessee and Georgia groups and agencies to reintroduce 10 other fish species into rivers, streams and springs in the region, along with several freshwater mussel species.
Andrews and National Geographic conservationist and explorer Zeb Hogan say that preservation all comes down to freshwater.
"Freshwater is a finite resource. Without water, we don't live, and when these fish aren't doing well, we're not doing well. To me it's pretty simple," Andrews said.
Hogan said his emphasis, and that of his National Geographic-sponsored television series, "Monster Fish," has three points: Get people to realize there are mega-fish in the world that live in rivers - not oceans; get people to be excited by that and care; and get people to then pay more attention to local rivers and how they are managed and kept clean.
Hogan will help open the aquarium's new River Giants exhibit today.
On hand in the exhibit tank are a number of giant species that Hogan has traveled the world over to find and do shows about, including the 600-pound Mekong giant catfish and the 14-foot-long freshwater stingray, both found Southeast Asia.
Gazing at the aquarium's River Giants tank last week, Hogan oohed and aahed like the youngsters walking by with their parents.
"This is the first time I've seen all these fish [species] together like this in one place," he said with a big smile.