The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Like a message in a bottle, washed-up plastic signals a growing threat to global health

Written by

A Sea Lion sculpture from the Washed Ashore art exhibit.A sea lion sculpture from the Washed Ashore art exhibit that will open this weekend at the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga.  Tennessee Aquarium/Washed Ashore

Poignant plastic-waste art exhibit washes ashore at Tennessee Aquarium  

CHATTANOOGA Visitors to the Tennessee Aquarium will see a dire warning in the guise of colorful art crafted from plastic debris at a unique exhibit beginning April 16.

Washed Ashore is an Oregon-based nonprofit organization dedicated to repurposing plastic waste through artists and sparking conservation conversations. The Tennessee Aquarium will host an exhibit of its sculptures and collages.

Those who walk ocean and lake beaches see the accumulated debris. Some may try to ignore it. Others may abandon their favorite places for recreation and relaxation because they can no longer bear the unsightly wreckage. Plastics impact every living creature.

According to the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT), at any given time, there are more than 100 million pieces of litter on Tennessee’s roadways, which can pose a threat to both land and aquatic animals.

“The connections between roadside litter, water quality, and aquatic systems cannot be overstated,” said Denise Baker, TDOT’s transportation program supervisor. “Since visible litter studies began in Tennessee, TDOT and its many community partners have been effective at decreasing the amount of roadside litter, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.

“By continuing our work with the Tennessee Aquarium and other organizations, we can get more people of all ages excited about cleaning up the litter that already exists and preventing more litter from piling up across the state of Tennessee.” 

TDOT initiated the Nobody Trashes Tennessee campaign and partnered with organizations like the Aquarium to engage people to join in an anti-littering push that will significantly benefit our natural treasures. Aquarium guests will be captivated by the colorful creatures during their visit and then head home to consider ways to join the effort to improve the environment.

Unum is also supporting bringing this art exhibition to Chattanooga. Like a message in a bottle, the plastic debris that washes ashore also signals a growing concern for human health.

“Unum is proud to sponsor the Washed Ashore Art Exhibit because environmental protection and preservation of our oceans, rivers, and beaches is an important part of building a thriving, healthy community,” said Unum’s Executive Vice President of People and Communications Liz Ahmed. “It is great to have an exhibit like this to highlight the importance of recycling and sustainability efforts.”

The sculptures guests can see during their visit or while exploring the plaza and city park surrounding the aquarium include:

  • Seemore the Sea Lion Pup (Aquarium plaza)
  • Sylvia the Silvertip Shark (Aquarium Plaza)
  • Lemon Zest Jelly (Ocean Journey)
  • Giacometti the River Otter (River Journey)
  • Flip Flop Fish (River Journey)
  • Fish Bite Fish (IMAX Theater)
  • Stella the Seahorse (Ocean Journey)
  • Jelly Bloom (Ocean Journey)
  • Sea of Debris Collage (Ocean Journey)
  • Plastic Tribe (River Journey, IMAX Theater)
  • Pinky Wallfish (Ocean Journey)
  • Noah Wallfish (Ocean Journey)
  • Shoefish Wallfish (Ocean Journey)
  • Annie the Anemone (Ocean Journey)
Rate this item
(1 Vote)
Published in News, Event Archive

Related items

  • Tennessee Aquarium marks a milestone in its effort to bring native brook trout back to mountain streams
    in News

    Reintroduction Assistant Kaylee Clayton, left, Jim Hill Fellow for Conservation Anthony Hernandez, center, and Reintroduction Biologist Teresa Israel cross a stream during a Southern Appalachian Brook Trout release.Reintroduction Assistant Kaylee Clayton, left, Jim Hill Fellow for Conservation Anthony Hernandez, center, and Reintroduction Biologist Teresa Israel cross a stream during a Southern Appalachian brook trout release. Tennessee Aquarium

    Emblematic brook trout get a second chance at home in Southern Appalachian streams

    Casey Phillips is a writer for the Tennessee Aquarium.

    CHATTANOOGA A team from the Tennessee Aquarium, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and Trout Unlimited hiked along — and occasionally waded through — a pristine tributary of South Fork Citico Creek in Cherokee National Forest. 

     Navigating an obstacle course of tangled mountain laurel branches and moss-slickened boulders in late May, the team followed the stream as it gently descended through the Appalachian uplands. When a calm pool or shaded rocky overhang presented itself, they paused to dip their nets into five-gallon buckets filled with wriggling juvenile Southern Appalachian brook trout.

    These little fish, raised to about two inches over six months, were the focus of more than six months of work at the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute and the impetus for the hours-long trek into the East Tennessee woods.

  • Dinosaurs released in Chattanooga to honor Earth Day 2022
    in News

    Director of Hospitality and Marketing Meredith Roberts, right, and her daughter Lucy release Lake Sturgeon.Tennessee Aquarium Director of Hospitality and Marketing Meredith Roberts and her daughter Lucy release a juvenile lake sturgeon during an Earth Day event on the Chattanooga riverfront.  Tennessee Aquarium

    Tennessee Aquarium releases endangered sturgeon on a fin and a prayer

    CHATTANOOGA Lake sturgeon are living fossils.

    They are dinosaur fish. They have no scales. They are protected by a tough skin with boney plates, and are unchanged for millennia. They are part of a widespread related group of fish, with 23 species worldwide, and are an endangered species in Tennessee.

    Tennessee Aquarium staff released some of these dinosaurs into the Tennessee River here on Earth Day, observed this year on April 22. Aquarium staff were joined by 30 students from Calvin Donaldson Elementary School and the public to release 65 juvenile lake sturgeon into the Tennessee River at Chattanooga’s Coolidge Park.

  • Marie Kurz: Helping science on watersheds flow across disciplines
    in News

    Kurz1Marie Kurz is seen at a pond on the campus of Oak Ridge National Laboratory.  Carlos Jones/ORNL

    From California canyons to German creeks: Science is personal and practical for ORNL scientist Marie Kurz

    Kristen Coyne is a writer for Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

    OAK RIDGE Spanning no less than three disciplines, Marie Kurz’s title — hydrogeochemist — already gives you a sense of the collaborative, interdisciplinary nature of her research at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Still, those six syllables only hint at the vast web of relationships encompassed in her work.  

    Kurz studies how rivers flow through landscapes; what kinds of nutrients, contaminants and other material sail through them; and how they transform along the way. As an experimentalist, her favorite part of the job is getting into the field. Depending on the season, Kurz can be found clad in tights, gloves reaching her shoulders, a neon vest and a ponytail-taming cap as she sloshes in olive hip waders through the particular stream under her scrutiny. The getup, she said, always makes her feel a bit like the Michelin Man.

  • Baby whale! Cruise with a humpback and her calf at Tennessee Aquarium 3D movie

    Sylvia Earle and Pico Island 6 Catarina FazendaSylvia Earle  Courtesy Catarina Fazenda

    The Tennessee Aquarium IMAX Theater in Chattanooga premiered its new 3D educational movie Ocean Odyssey on March 4.

    Author,  oceanographer and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Sylvia Earle visited the aquarium to help launch the movie, which she and Rupert Degas narrate.

    The movie follows a humpback whale mother and calf as they navigate the East Australian Current from the Great Barrier Reef to Antarctica. The planet’s oceans are home to the most diverse and abundant array of life on earth, but they are threatened by climate change, pollution and acidification. Still, life lives on.

    The Tennessee Aquarium encourages filmgoers to enhance the 3D film experience with a visit to the Secret Reef exhibit in their Ocean Journey building. This exhibit replicates the Flower Garden Banks off the coast of Texas and Louisiana. 

    In 1990, Dr. Sylvia Earle became the first woman appointed chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  

    She left that agency to work in the private sector to promote healthy oceans and public access to ocean environments, including Mission Blue.

  • New year. Old challenges.

    168691309 4048180571871818 2861942263530178348 n

    From plastic pollution to extreme weather and the extinction crisis, the year ahead promises tough fights, enormous challenges and critical opportunities

    This story was originally published by The Revelator.

    A new year brings with it new opportunities — and more of the same environmental threats from the previous 12 months.

  • Even the movement of butterflies is affected by supply-chain issues
    in News

    Heliconius melpomene, or the Postman Butterfly, in the Tennessee Aquarium Butterfly Garden.A postman butterfly feeds on a bloom in the Tennessee Aquarium’s Butterfly Garden in Chattanooga. At any one time, the garden may host 1,000 to 1,500 butterflies representing more than 200 species. Courtesy Tennessee Aquarium

    Butterflies are back at the Tennessee Aquarium after pandemic bottleneck

    Some of the Tennessee Aquarium’s most entrancing, cherished residents — and there are literally thousands of them — have been absent for more than a year and a half.

    The aquarium has been unable to source butterflies to fill the Ocean Journey building’s Butterfly Garden since early 2020 because of supply chain disruptions.

    The butterflies typically originate from Costa Rica. Every week, about 500 butterfly chrysalises — the life stage between caterpillars and full-fledged adults — are delivered to the aquarium. By raising specific plants, Costa Rican farmers can attract butterflies that use the plants as egg-laying sites and feeding sources for their offspring. By collecting and shipping chrysalises to facilities like the aquarium, farmers can earn a reliable income without resorting to destructive agricultural practices that threaten their country’s rainforests.

    And just in time for the holidays, the Tennessee Aquarium’s Butterfly Garden will reopen to the public Nov. 5. This warm, light-filled gallery in Chattanooga is once again filled with these jewel-like insects, which flutter in the air by the hundreds.

    “They have so many bright colors and intricate patterns that they’re kind of like living works of art,” said entomologist II Rose Segbers. “The butterfly garden is special because it’s completely immersive. There really aren’t any barriers between guests and the butterflies or the habitat.

    “You can see everything just like you would in nature, and a butterfly might even land on you.”

    Walking through the garden is like being whisked into the steamy, lush wilds of a Costa Rican rainforest. The interior of the gallery is always kept warm and humid — a welcome escape from the cooler, dreary days of autumn — and seemingly every leaf, blossom and branch serves as temporary resting spot for butterflies of every description.

    At any one time, the garden houses as many as 1,500 butterflies. These can come from any of more than two dozen species, from cerulean-winged blue morphos to enormous tawny owls with their tell-tale eyespots. 

    “You get a lot of variety in here,” Segbers said. “If you come here one week, you’ll see a certain variety of butterflies, but if you come back a week later, you might see completely different ones. It gives people a good excuse to keep coming back.”

    The cocoon-like chrysalises can be viewed hanging from racks through a special viewing window in the garden. Their shells often look drastically different from the butterflies within. Who would suspect that the familiar orange, black and white monarch butterfly would come from a gold-fringed, jade chrysalis or that leaf-like pink or green chrysalises are host to brilliant yellow cloudless sulfurs?

    Entomologist Rose Segbers pins Blue Morpho butterfly pupae to a hanging tray, where they will hang until they emerge in a few weeks time.Entomologist Rose Segbers pins blue morpho butterfly pupae to a hanging tray, where they will hang until they emerge in a few weeks time. Courtesy Tennessee Aquarium

  • Tennessee Aquarium floats citizen-scientist app to extend the reach of public research

    Black Crappie in the Tennessee AquariumA black crappie is seen in the Tennessee Aquarium. Citizen scientists across the region can now plug their fish findings into a new database. Courtesy Tennessee Aquarium

    So you want to be a citizen scientist? There’s a new app for that!

    The Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute wants to assess the status of various fish populations throughout the Southeast so it released a new app to help outdoor folks and anglers identify the fish they spot, report the sighting, and enter their discoveries into a regional fish database.

    The Freshwater Information Network (FIN) accepts and includes data for three major watersheds: The Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, and Mobile Bay.

    Tennesseans may be familiar with the two rivers, but may think of Mobile Bay as a distant place with no connection to them, but its headwaters touch Tennessee in the Conasauga River. With its geographic isolation, the Conasauga is home to species of fish found nowhere else in the world.

    Our region has more species of fish than any other part of the country, and the open FIN database and application includes information on nearly half the U.S. species of fish. When hikers, boaters or anglers spot a fish, they can participate by first photographing it and then uploading the photograph to the app.

    The app can help citizens themselves identify the fish, and when paired with GPS location data it becomes a part of the FIN database, which also includes museum records and interactive maps. The app also allows a user to enter their address to find their watershed and access a list of the fish that live there.

    FIN Watershed Map

  • Hai! It’s a summer baby cuteness boom at the Tennessee Aquarium

    The Tennessee Aquariums Gentoo Penguin chick weighs more than two kilograms at just 28 days oldThe Tennessee Aquarium’s Gentoo penguin chick weighs more than 2 kilograms at 28 weeks old. Casey Phillips/Tennessee Aquarium 

    Baby penguin, endangered turtles and puffer fish are the newest additions to the Tennessee Aquarium

    (Casey Phillips is a communications specialist at the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga)

    As any parent knows, kids tend to do whatever you least expect. In the case of an endangered four-eyed turtle hatchling at the Tennessee Aquarium, however, merely existing was — in itself — a huge surprise. 

    On July 11, a volunteer was tending an enclosure in a backup area of the River Journey exhibit. This habitat was only supposed to house a female endangered four-eyed turtle (Sacalia quadriocellata, a largely montaine species native to parts of China and Vietnam), but the volunteer soon discovered that the adult turtle wasn’t alone. Perched atop a layer of vegetation was a tiny hatchling that, by all accounts, shouldn’t have been there.

    “The adult female hadn’t been with a male in over a year, so we did not check to see if she had laid this year,” says Bill Hughes, the aquarium’s herpetology coordinator. “To say the least, finding an egg, let alone a hatchling, was unexpected.”

    Tennessee Aquarium Herpetology Coordinator holds a recently hatched Four eyed TurtleTennessee Aquarium Herpetology Coordinator Bill Hughes holds a recently hatched endangered four-eyed turtle. Casey Phillips/Tennessee Aquarium

  • One town tried to eliminate waste. Plastic posed a problem.

    Kamikatsu Yuki Shimazu

    Kamikatsu, Japan, famously declared its goal was to go waste-free by 2020. It didn’t quite get there.

    This story was originally published in The Revelator

    One of the many unfortunate outcomes of the coronavirus pandemic has been the quick and obvious increase in single-use plastic products. After COVID-19 arrived in the United States, many grocery stores prohibited customers from using reusable bags, coffee shops banned reusable mugs, and takeout food with plastic forks and knives became the new normal.

    Despite recent scientific evidence that reusables don’t transmit the virus, the plastic industry has lobbied hard for a return to all things disposable plastic. Inevitably, a lot of that plastic will continue to flow into our environment.

    While COVID-19 has certainly thrown a wrench into the hard-earned progress we’d been making in reducing waste, eliminating plastic pollution entirely was always going to be challenging — with or without a pandemic. The jarring rise of single-use plastics is an expedited version of a familiar trend. Plastic production has been steadily increasing for quite some time.

    As a zero-waste advocate, I’ve seen how the tsunami of plastic continuously being produced and flooding our planet has made achieving zero-waste goals incredibly difficult. The sheer amount makes it hard to safely and efficiently dispose of plastic, no matter how hard we try.

    But as I examine the problem, and search for solutions, I keep coming back to one noteworthy example. 

  • Tennessee Aquarium and partners are stocking another East Tennessee mountain stream with imperiled Southern Appalachian brook trout

    Juvenile Brook Trout swimming into the water of their new homeJuvenile brook trout swim into the water of their new home during a joint effort to return the species to its rightful range in the Tellico River watershed in the southeastern Cherokee National Forest. Photo courtesy Tennessee Aquarium.

    In a virtuous cycle of life, native brookies return to Tellico River watershed in southeastern Cherokee National Forest.

    (The writer produced this original piece for the Tennessee Aquarium).

    Navigating through a thicket of branches while clambering across slick boulders in a rushing mountain stream is a difficult task in the best of times. Doing so while attempting to balance 40-pound buckets of water filled with imperiled fish takes the challenge to an entirely new level.

    A team of scientists from the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute drove to one of the lush, high-elevation streams in the southern reaches of the Cherokee National Forest. During a brief lull between rainstorms, they were joined by Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency representatives and the U.S. Forest Service to celebrate a homecoming for 250 long-lost residents of this gorgeous landscape: juvenile Southern Appalachian brook trout.

    Carefully navigating through a snarl of streamside vegetation, participants paused to release five or six trout at a time into pools with overhangs where the young fish could hide from predators and ambush floating insects that washed into the stream. The going was tough, but those involved in the effort to restock almost a kilometer of this pristine creek say the challenge was worth the reward of seeing Tennessee’s only native trout back in its ancestral waters.

    “The days when we release fish, especially brook trout, are really special moments,” said Tennessee Aquarium Aquatic Conservation Biologist Dr. Bernie Kuhajda. “We’re with these fish all the way from when we first bring adults into the Conservation Institute to spawn, to watching the eggs start to develop, to the juveniles that are just a few inches long and ready to release here.

    “It really is knowing that we get to help restore trout to the full circle of life. Days like today are the culmination of all that work to put trout back into the Southeastern streams where they belong.”

    Like many Appalachian streams, this tributary of the North River in the Tellico River watershed hasn’t hosted the brook trout for almost a century. Clearcutting of forests in the early 1900s made waters in the region too warm. Combined with the introduction of brown and rainbow trout, “brookies” were effectively lost from more than 75 percent of the waterways where they once thrived.