image of National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium in Dubuque, Iowa

Destination Spotlight: National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium in Dubuque, Iowa

cover of LAND magazine summer 2018 issue
This article is featured in the summer 2018 issue of LAND magazine. Click here to subscribe!

The National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium’s vision is to become the world’s leader in interpreting and protecting the life, history and culture of our rivers, to create a more global, knowledgeable and engaged citizen. Among their many conservation efforts are citizen science programs, propagation of endangered species, promotion of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch and, above all else, education. 

Located in the port area of Dubuque, Iowa, the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium has become the most comprehensive river museum in the nation with a $50 million, 14-acre educational campus. It houses many programs and exhibits.

One program is their Living Collections division which contains multiple aquariums including the Main Channel, their largest freshwater aquarium. Containing more than 30,000 gallons of water, it houses some of the largest species of fishes that call the Mississippi River home, such as Alligator Gar, Lake Sturgeon and Blue Catfish. Within this aquarium, each species can choose among three distinctly different habitats: the nine-foot-deep Main Channel, the shallower Main Channel Border and a Wing Dam.

The River History department contains over 16,000 artifacts and 22,000 archival items in their historical collection. The Museum & Aquarium believes it is their duty as stewards to preserve and interpret this rich cultural, social and natural history of Dubuque, the Mississippi River and the rivers of America.

The National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium is one of only 230 worldwide zoos and aquariums accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). As such, their institution is committed to conservation efforts that protect threatened and endangered species. Through AZA’s SAFE (Saving Animals from Extinction) program, they collaborate with zoos and aquariums throughout the world to save species in the wild. Additionally, the Museum & Aquarium participates in AZA’s Species Survival Plan® (SSP) Program, working with a cooperative of zoos and aquariums, to ensure genetically diverse and self-sustaining populations of Wyoming Toads.

Conservation programs

image of Wyoming toads at the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium

Wyoming Toads

Since joining this U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and AZA Species Survival Plan® Program partnership in 2008, the Museum & Aquarium has sent over 41,000 Wyoming toad tadpoles for release in Wyoming. Additional progeny were held back for breeding or released at an older age.

The Wyoming toad (Anaxyrus baxteri) is found only in Albany County, Wyoming. The toad was first described in 1946 by George T. Baxter, a graduate student at the University of Wyoming. The presence of amphibians is often a key indicator of an ecosystem’s health. The population of Wyoming toads declined dramatically in the 1970s, and by the 1980s, the toads were extremely rare. The Wyoming toad was listed on the Endangered Species Act on January 17, 1984. In December 1996, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) approved a Species Survival Plan® (SSP) for the Wyoming toad.

Captive husbandry and reproduction of the Wyoming toad at the Museum & Aquarium, as well as six other locations nationwide, is of paramount importance to the recovery of the species. With the wild population in extreme peril, it is the responsibility of the institutions housing the remaining captive population to explore all options in order to not only significantly increase the overall numbers of Wyoming toads, but also to attempt to understand the unique and challenging physiological and environmental demands of this species.

image of stingrays at the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium

Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch

The Museum & Aquarium actively supports and endorses Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program and uses guidelines Monterey Bay formulated based on scientific research to better assist in their efforts to be seafood sustainable.

Seafood sustainability is the practice and management of harvesting or producing seafood with minimal impact to the environment. The Museum & Aquarium practices seafood sustainability when purchasing food for animals in their care. They also encourage visitors to the museum to participate in the program as well as through face-to-face engagement and education. Complimentary Seafood Watch pocket guides are available to guests free of charge at their box offices and can help visitors make informed decisions on their next seafood purchase.

For more information, visit SeafoodWatch.org

image of freshwater mussel

Freshwater Mussels

The Museum & Aquarium partners with local students on this program! From 2016–2017, 8,000 juvenile mussels were reared in SUPSY buckets maintained by local students. These students took growth and water quality data for use by USFWS in future management planning.

The Museum & Aquarium, in cooperation with the Genoa National Fish Hatchery, has been raising freshwater mussels for recovery projects since 2004. The mussels, which require the use of a fish to serve as a host for their parasitic larvae, are raised in floating culture cages placed in their nearby Ice Harbor in the spring and removed in the fall.

At the hatchery, mussel larvae are placed on their appropriate host fish and then transported to the Museum & Aquarium for placement in the cages floating in the Ice Harbor. Each cage is stocked with 20 to 30 host fish. The cages allow the mussels to develop and then drop off, concentrating them in that specific area for future recovery. The cage also acts to keep predators away from the growing juvenile mussels. The fish are released from the cages after about six weeks, in plenty of time for all the mussels to drop off. The cages are harvested in October, and the resulting sub-adult mussels are stocked in the Mississippi River and its tributaries ranging from the Quad Cities all the way up to the Twin Cities.

From 2010–2017, 60,000+ juvenile mussels were recovered from the culture cases in the Ice Harbor and released in local waters by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

SUPSY is an air-driven upwelling system made by nesting two small plastic buckets together with screened bottoms to allow water flow. Gentle aeration from an air pump creates flow through the system, bringing the mussels oxygen and food.

image of Loatian newt

Loatian Newts

Staff at the Museum & Aquarium bred this newt in 2011, 2012 and 2018! They are the only AZA institution to breed Laotian Newts in captivity.

Laotian Newts have seen continued declines in habitat quality and the number of mature specimens in the wild. Additionally, the Laotian newts have an extremely limited population radius.

These newts are in high demand for the international pet trade and lesser demand for medicine and food. So while captive populations are higher, Laotian newts have become endangered in the wild.


RiverMuseum.com | 350 East 3rd Street, Port of Dubuque, Iowa

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