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What's This?

Mooneye, shortnose redhorse, arrow darter, lake sturgeon, burbot, and grass pickerel. What do these have in common? Each of them names an animal—a fish—that, right now, swims in the great muddied, currently swollen mass of water slipping past us here in Louisville. Not all of them are to be found in the McAlpine Pool above the dam by Downtown, but we are connected to each by countless miles of continuous river channels, streams, creeks, and backwaters.

Etheostoma sagitta. (Brian Wulker / Flickr)
Etheostoma sagitta. (Brian Wulker / Flickr)

When I think of Louisville I think of the Ohio River. While our city has done much to embrace our waterfront over the past several years, I’d like to see a deeper connection both acknowledged and fostered. Of the proposals for the old Louisville Armory, building an aquarium is the one that instantly grabbed my imagination. I think we should build an Ohio River aquarium here in Louisville. An Ohio River Aquarium would enhance our reputation as the River City, be a unique one-of-a-kind aquarium attraction, promote knowledge of and pride in our local ecological heritage, and be an invaluable resource for conservation.

Polyodon spathula. (Joachim S. Müller / Flickr)
Polyodon spathula. (Joachim S. Müller / Flickr)

Aquariums can be wonderful places that attract both the young and old year round but there are already several aquariums within a day’s drive of Louisville and one right up the road in Cincinnati. Most of our current aquariums, however, focus on traditional exhibits. Though many have opened exhibits of American fish, the primary focus seems to be on tropical freshwater species and coral reef tanks featuring the largest sharks the aquarium can manage. Don’t get me wrong, sharks are awesome and I’ve personally been obsessed with them since I was four, but there are over 30,000 species of fish in the world. I believe an opportunity exists to create a new aquarium experience constructed around one ecosystem and showcasing under-appreciated yet still fascinating and gorgeous species. Louisville doesn’t need another standard aquarium but something as unique and bold as an Ohio River aquarium could be a tremendous asset to our city. I anticipate numerous questions in response to this proposal. Allow me to answer a few below.

Snubnose Darter. (Tim Lane / Flickr)
Snubnose Darter. (Tim Lane / Flickr)

Is one North American River really worth dedicating an entire aquarium to?

The Ohio River is more than deserving. With over 150 fish species in the main river channel and 350 in the drainage (plus 120 different mussels) there is absolutely enough variety both from a species and ecosystem/habitat standpoint to create numerous distinct exhibits. You may also wonder if our local fish are worth looking at. I’m aware of a strong perception that freshwater fish are bland and uninteresting. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our local fish come in bizarre shapes, gaudy colors, a wide range in sizes up to 6 feet long, and unusual life histories. Some are solitary ambush hunters, some roam open water in search of food, others dig in sediment, while still others travel in large glistening schools that we would more commonly associate with ocean fish. Carefully crafted exhibits could give a genuine feel for the different ecosystems encountered from the headwaters to the main river, allowing Louisvillians and our visitors a cohesive and immersive experience of the Ohio River watershed.

Moxostoma breviceps – Smallmouth Redhorse. (Brian Wulker / Flickr)
Moxostoma breviceps – Smallmouth Redhorse. (Brian Wulker / Flickr)

Aquariums and zoos have at their heart an educational focus; is the Ohio River worth learning this much about?

Ask yourself, how much do you know about life below the surface of our waterways? What do things look like? How much do our children know about it? The Ohio River and its tributaries comprise a phenomenal ecosystem, one that is part of our ecological, cultural, and economic heritage. It’s also an ecosystem under intense pressure from habitat destruction, altered flow regimes, pollution, overharvesting, and disruptive non-native species. Numerous species are absent from large portions of their historic ranges of officially endangered. We all use the Ohio, whether for recreation, sport, transportation, or sustenance as drinking water. A healthy river benefits us all and education is the first step in conservation. Beyond that, it is the dominant feature of our hometown. While our appreciation for the river has grown in recent years I don’t think we really grasp the potential richness of experience it could offer.

Shovelnose sturgeon (Scaphirhynchus platorynchus). (Heather Paul / Flickr)
Shovelnose sturgeon (Scaphirhynchus platorynchus). (Heather Paul / Flickr)

And finally, why the old Louisville Armory?

To that I answer, why not? One thing you can’t say about the Louisville Gardens, which is the name I knew it by as a kid, is that it hasn’t been a versatile space. I’ve been in the Gardens three times. The first was in middle school to watch an unsettling interactive performance of The Velveteen Rabbit in an upstairs room, the second as a player in the Louisville Invitational Basketball Tournament, and the last for my high school graduation. An aquarium dedicated to a big river is hard to picture without an enormous donut-shaped tank with circulating water to simulate the main river channel and house all the great fish that swim there. The large arena space would lend itself well to such an exhibit. As for the location, while the most obvious place to put an aquarium is directly overlooking the nearest body of water I think the location of the Louisville Armory makes its own statement. The Ohio River really does run through the heart of Louisville, so much so that the aquarium built for it doesn’t need to be pushed off on the edge of town. The Ohio River Aquarium belongs just as much on the corner of Sixth Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard as it does in Waterfront Park.

Chain Pickerel. (Phil’s 1stPix / Flickr)
Chain Pickerel. (Phil’s 1stPix / Flickr)

Is the construction of a state-of-the-art aquarium in the old Louisville Armory a lofty goal?

Absolutely, but I think much of what gives Louisville its special character is that it offers unique experiences that you can’t quite duplicate in a similar city. This would further strengthen our city’s unique vibe and identity. And perhaps creative ways could be found to increase revenue. While a museum restaurant is a classic move, a 21C-style hotel with fish tanks for room walls would be a novel offering. If the aquarium found needed roles to fill in conservation and research perhaps it could be the recipient of academic or federal funding.

Since I was a kid I’ve had a dream of creating an aquarium that would share, celebrate, and bring to light Louisville’s greatest heritage and intangible resource. So many mysteries lie beneath the surface of water. When it comes to the water in our proverbial front yard, I think it’s time we gave ourselves, and the world, a window to look in.

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Chris Erickson

Chris Erickson

A Louisville native, Chris recently moved back to the city after several years away. He is a writer, landscaper, amateur naturalist, and general outdoor enthusiast who believes our cities and communities can become happier, more fulfilling places if we invite more wildlife into them. You can read about his experience transforming his backyard into animal habitat at killyourlawn.org.
Chris Erickson

10 COMMENTS

  1. Great idea, but honestly the armory is just too small to fit a decent aquarium in, it is WAY better suited for a city market and could easily be converted into such. Like I commented before, build a brand new massive aquarium that rivals the Georgia aquarium on Shippingport island, it would fit perfectly and be appropriately located on the waterfront. Call the aquarium:

    “The Louisville Aquarium,
    rivers and oceans”

    and dedicate half the aquarium an ohio river specific exhibit and the other half exhibits from around the world. Tie in a pedestrian walkway across the 14th street bridge from phase 4 of waterfront park to the aquarium and then on to the Falls of the Ohio state park and you’ve got a MAJOR tourist/educational attraction not a minor league only-visit-once and done aquarium. This would be a home-run and a win for both sides of the river. Heck, get Indiana and Kentucky to work together and take half ownership. Aim higher Louisville, and quit chasing low hanging fruit.

  2. Well obviously I don’t know the inside of the building really well, only having been in there a few times. If the Armory is too small then so be it. My real passion is for building an aquarium that, if it’s not exclusively Ohio River fish, is mostly focused on the river and its watershed. I really want to see an aquarium focus on a river system with an ecosystem approach that delivers a cohesive feel for the different components, from little headwater streams to marshes and main channels. Also, when it comes to creating tourist destinations if we build something conventional (coral reefs, sharks…) then we have to do it better and bigger than everyone else to be truly destination worthy. If we do something entirely unique then it’s one-of-a-kind from the start. That’s partly my thinking.

    But I love your suggestion of connecting it to Falls of the Ohio, that’s an awesome idea.

  3. I should have emphasized, I love your idea about having the ecosystems and ohio river specific exhibit. That would be awesome and unique. Having both exhibits would set it apart from any other aquarium and give future generations an appreciation for our river and environment. And yes, I agree if there was to be sharks, a coral reef and all that jazz as well we would have to go big or go home. We’d have to out do every other aquarium in the country (or the world) in my opinion. And I really think we could do it especially if IN & KY worked together. Just like the bridges 😉

  4. I have been to aquariums that feature local aquatic life. They have a limited audience. Ohio river fish are not going to draw out of town visitors. Aquariums are very expensive to build and run, so it would need to generate alot of revenue.

  5. I like the idea of an Aquarium. But, not in that location at all. It should be a little closer to the actual river and be something innovative. The Old Louisville Armory needs to keep the front of the building, but tear the rest of it down. I think it should be a huge tower or another apartment building. There are residential spaces all around it almost. A tourist attraction will not help move people into that area of downtown. I say make it a part of WaterFront park. Something the park can draw money from, instead of depending on state funding.

  6. We love this article and the attention it brings to the diverse Ohio River ecosystem. A great read! To help protect these animals and the people who are already connected to the river, Kentucky Waterways Alliance is encouraging citizens to comment against dumping toxic mercury into the Ohio River. There are current proposals that would allow industry exemptions to pollution limits and citizen support is crucial to fighting for the future health of the Ohio River and its’ wildlife. Please submit comments today at http://www.kwalliance.org

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