A new online data system geared as a social network of sorts for aquatic hobbyists and conservationists has launched to provide more data on fish in the Southeast.
The Freshwater Information Network, or FIN, allows users to upload photos of fish they found in the region, mark the location and then receive more information about the fish from a team of biologists from the Tennessee Aquarium. It is also now home to years' worth of scientific data. Biologists hope the system will provide additional information while educating the public about the aquatic biodiversity in the region.
"We wanted a way to bring together the general public and also the scientific community in one website," said Sarah Sweat, Tennessee Aquarium geographic information specialist. "So we created the Freshwater Information Network, which takes that museum data and makes it readily available to the general public. They can search about what's in their area."
FIN currently includes data for the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers and the Mobile Basin. Those watersheds are home to 46 percent of fish species in the U.S. and Canada despite encompassing just 1.4 percent of that landmass.
Aquarium biologists monitor the site to answer questions and identify the fish. There are also instructions on how to capture high-quality fish photos. The hope is the site will introduce the public to many of the rare and endangered species that call the region home. The goal isn't to turn the site into a place for fishermen to upload all of their latest catches at Chickamauga, but aquarium personnel aren't discouraged by that possibility.
"If that happens, in order for those people to upload that information, they had to go to our webpage," Aquarium Conservation Institute Science Program Manager Bernie Kuhajda said. "While they're on our webpage, there's a good chance they'll see some minnows and darters and catfishes and top minnows and silver sides and cave fish and sturgeon and all the other cool fishes that are around Chickamauga Reservoir," Kuhajda said.
Sweat created the webpage and developed much of the project. The aquarium's network pulls from existing museum data, which includes information about the fish in the region and where they can be found.
FIN can be accessed at tnacifin.com.
Those aquatic museums, found at several universities and other locations in the U.S., have a shared information network with much of the existing data. However, that network isn't widely available to the general public. That's where aquarium personnel believe FIN can help. FIN compiles decades of those records and allows users to contribute in a searchable database.
"This is something we've wanted to see for a long time; it's basically social media for people who love rivers," said Anna George, Tennessee Aquarium vice president of conservation, science and education. "What we're trying to do is make sure that if you know where a fish is, if you've recently found a fish in a particular location, you have a way to report that and immediately share that with everyone else who is interested to receive that information."
Scientists like Kuhajda believe the system will also help with their studies. The biologist recently received a grant to study the blue shiner — a threatened species found in the Conasauga River. He would later learn a researcher at Jacksonville State was also studying the species.
"Neither of us knew the other person was studying the fish," Kuhajda said. "It's just amazing the lack of communication even between two scientists just a state away working on the same threatened species."