Hirsh Kabaria

Senior Alexandria Scott attends a climate protest in downtown Tampa, where she spoke about the need for government action to address climate change. Scott volunteers at the Florida Aquarium, working with marine scientists to find solutions to the dangers that face Florida’s aquatic ecosystems.

Students and experts are fighting aquatic habitat degradation in Tampa

The rain plastered the leaves to the cement walkway. Undeterred, a few children wearing panda hats from the visitor’s center made their way passed cheetahs, sea lions and zebras to the Reptile House. There, an opportunity to meet one of the reptiles with a keeper awaited them.

They followed the elephant tracks painted in red paint that guided visitors through the zoo until they reached a small brick building. Inside, there are more than 250 assorted reptiles and amphibians. But not all of them are on show. Behind the glass cases of crocodiles and turtles, reptile keeper of 12 and a half years, Sara Hausenstab, helps a volunteer get ready to care for the salamander room.

The Smithsonian National Zoo is an integral part of the research conducted by the Smithsonian network, with facilities in the United States to Panama to Asia. The zoo grounds open for visitors don’t hold half of the animals researched and cared for by the extensive network.

Improving habitats

And this is for good reason. In recent years, habitat degradation has accelerated rapidly. Now, every country and each state in the United States has a list of threatened or endangered species. “We’re donating both time and money and resources to other conservation projects around the world even if we’re not specifically working on it,” Hausenstab said. “If we don’t house a species here, we might travel somewhere like Madagascar or Asia and help with turtle populations there. Different keepers have been involved in different projects whether it’s been research projects or traveling to somewhere like Fiji to help with the Fiji iguana surveys.”

Florida is no exception to this trend. In Tampa, organizations like the Florida Aquarium, American Fisheries Society and Florida Department of Environmental Protection have launched a series of last-ditch efforts to restore habitats in the Tampa Bay and coral reefs in the surrounding Gulf of Mexico. The damage is a result of a combination of three things: the introduction of invasive species, industrial pollution and rising sea temperatures.

“There are different laws and different levels of protection based on how the species are listed, threatened or endangered, most of them are due to habitat loss in the United States,” Hausenstab said. “It’s more complicated in Florida because of all the introduced invasive species, so you’re not only dealing with habitat loss due to human development and climate change, you have the biggest threat right now which is the threat from the invasive species.”

Consequences in the Tampa Bay

The consequences are particularly evident in the Tampa Bay Estuary, a longtime habitat breeding ground for endangered species. And for students like senior Alexandria Scott, these efforts can’t come soon enough.

“I’ve always loved animals and wanted to work with them in some capacity, and just by keeping up with various environmental issues in recent years I’ve seen how much danger the natural world is in because of man-made causes,” Scott said. “It’s a huge problem right now and it just feels like so many people shrug it off as something can’t do anything about, and the fact that the government and big corporations seem to only ever do the bare minimum to placate people on a surface level is immensely frustrating, so I do what I can to help make some change.”

Scott currently volunteers at the Florida Aquarium, raising awareness for environmental concerns and attending several yearly cleanups in Cotanchobee Park and Fort DeSoto. She also worked with marine scientists from the University of Florida and the American Fisheries Society over the summer to stabilize populations of endangered aquatic species.

A global initiative

Her efforts echo the global initiatives of the Smithsonian Zoo and other wildlife and habitat preservation groups. “There are species survival plans, which means that all of the zoos communicate, and we use computer programs that tell us the genetics of our captive population and how to best breed them to keep those genetics healthy,” Hausenstab said. “We don’t want to bottleneck these captive breeding populations, so we’re maintaining captive populations as healthy as we can for potential future release.”

Smithsonian houses an active population of Panamanian golden frogs, which are currently extinct in the wild because of a virus that destroyed their habitat. Hausenstab, along with her colleagues, wants to preserve populations in captivity so they are not lost.

The severity of the situation facing aquatic species is what motivates Scott to continue advocating for environmental protection. “Since the areas that common musk turtles live in are really susceptible to development and environmental destruction, they’re really important to protect,” Scott said. “We work on protecting various habitats in Florida. On my own, however, I regularly write emails and sign petitions to protect important environmental lands and I also hope to participate in more government advocacy in the future because that will be critical in the coming years to make some change.”

It’s also what motivates sophomore Lauren Nvorska. “The biggest problems facing aquatic conservation are pollution, overfishing and invasive species,” sophomore Lauren Nvorska said. “Pollution and climate change are changing the water levels, temperature and salinity of the water and kill a lot of animals. It really throws off the whole ecosystem.”

Preserving endangered ecosystems

Nvorska has volunteered with the Tampa Humane Society for the past two years, and beyond cats and dogs, has also volunteered to restore the fading population of clams and mussels in the Tampa Bay. “I did a project with Busch Gardens to put clams and mussels back into the Bay because they filter toxins and chemicals out of the water and make it cleaner,” she said. “We helped attach old clam and mussel shells to rocks to encourage new clams and mussels to attach and create colonies where water can be purified. The new mollusks attach to old shells and they serve as a shelter for the new.”

Despite the declining health of these habitats, Hausenstab believes that Tampa locals can still help alleviate the duress placed on marine ecosystems. “There are a lot of things that people can do,” she said. “There are just the basics of trying to cut down on pollution and recycling, reducing your energy usage, shutting your lights off, water usage is a big one especially when you have Hurricane season cutting off freshwater supplies.”

Although there has yet to be a drastic improvement in the overall health of Tampa habitats, Scott remains optimistic that the combination of her efforts and the efforts of organizations like the Smithsonian will make a difference.

“Species have evaded extinction because of government and zoo work, and they are really important in keeping certain species alive for possible reintroduction, and I have the utmost respect for the Smithsonian Zoo because I think it’s a great example of running a zoo that appeals to people but also cares heavily for the animals,” Scott said. “Climate change and environmental destruction are critical right now and just resigning ourselves to that will not accomplish anything. I’ve got to stay positive or at least keep working hard because more change occurs when you inspire other people rather than scare them into submission.”

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