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Science Activities

Fish larvae as indicators of coastal ecosystem health

PI: J. Hoffman, US EPA

We are interested in how changes in the watershed, such as increased pollution, alter how the lake’s coastal ecosystems support coastal fish and fisheries. We know that Great Lakes coastal wetlands and tributaries and their associated vegetated, shallow, protected embayments support fisheries by serving as nursery grounds for migratory fishes (their young rely on these habitats for feeding and refuge) and by supporting a forage base for larger, predatory fishes. We also know that these same fishes often reside in the lake during other parts of their life. Yet, we don’t really understand what happens when these ecosystems are enriched with nutrients from waste water and run-off or fragmented by coastal development. This is critical information if we are going to understand how to protect and restore our coastal environment.

Since 2006, we have been studying a new kind of indicator of coastal ecosystem health – chemical biomarkers in fish less than two months old, or larval fish (they are called that because they lack some of the anatomical features of adult fish). Biomarkers are chemical information, or “signatures”, contained in the tissue of organisms. We use larval fish because they grow rapidly and therefore acquire chemical information from their environment very rapidly. We are using chemical signatures in the fish tissue to tell us about where that fish’s energy came from. Did it, for example, come from aquatic vegetation at the water’s edge, from algae in the water column, or from sediments? We look to see how these sources change from areas that are relatively healthy compared to those that are heavily impacted by humans to understand the effect on the ecosystem’s function. The chemical signatures we are looking at are called stable isotopes. For example, the amount of the stable isotope carbon-13 that is in the tissue reflects the source of the carbon providing energy to that fish. Carbon is important because it is the currency of energy used by life on planet earth. The amount of the stable isotope nitrogen-15 reflects whether the nitrogen is derived from natural sources compared to human waste or fertilizer, indicating potential nutrient pollution to an area.

For the Lake Superior Shipboard and Shoreline Workshop, the teachers onboard will help deploy a trawl net specially designed to catch larval fish. They will also help sort the sample onboard and have an opportunity to observe and identify fish larvae of a variety of Lake Superior species.

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Synthetic polymers: is plastic debris a pollution problem on the Great Lakes?

P.I.: Dr. Lorena M. Rios Mendoza, University of Wisconsin-Superior

Synthetic polymers are extremely useful for a wide variety of applications, and are used by everyone. The technology to make different kinds of plastic is excellent, but now we have a new problem…the plastics. Most plastics are non-biodegradable and practically indestructible in any reasonable time scale in our environment. Floating plastics have several negative impacts in the aquatic ambient affecting 86% of turtles, 44% of seabird, and 43% of marine mammal species by entanglement, ingestion (mimic food), and assimilation of endocrine disrupter pollutants.

The Lake Superior Shipboard and Shoreline Workshop will help me to survey the Lake Superior for plastic debris, especially fragment lower than 5 mm sizes. My research goals are:

  1. Classifying each fragment by type of plastic, color, size, and abundance
  2. Extracting, identifying and quantifying persistent organic pollutants (POPs) adsorbed onto these plastic fragments
  3. Studying the effect of these POPs on the estrogen response using QSAR (quantitative structure-activity relationship) concept to identified the possible endocrine disrupter characteristics (size, shaper, electron distribution, hydrogen binding, etc)

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Coordinated Science and Monitoring Initiative (CSMI)

The Coordinated Science and Monitoring Initiative (CSMI) is a binational effort between Canada and the US to jointly address the top science and monitoring priorities for the Great Lakes, on an individual lake level. The CSMI will provide environmental managers of each Great Lakes, their connecting channels and the international portion of the St. Lawrence River, with an enhanced science program that addresses their informational needs.

Each year, on a rotating 5-year basis, one lake will receive enhanced binational monitoring support, resources, and attention -- the so-called "Year of Coordinated Monitoring". For 2011, the chosen lake is Lake Superior. Starting in 2009, the Lake Superior LaMP, the scientific community, the Work Group, the Binational Forum, educational institutions, other federal, state, tribal and provincial agencies began a process for producing binational Monitoring priorities. These priorities were presented to the Lake Superior Management Committee and to the Binational CSMI steering committee for review and approval. Funding was sought through the new Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. A Lake Superior Ecological conference/workshop was held to review and discuss these monitoring priorities. A final list of priorities/actions were chosen with these actions being carried out this year.

In subsequent years (2012 through 2014), CSMI will focus on Lake Huron, Lake Ontario, and Lake Erie, respectively.

Projects are expected to be coordinated with state agencies, other federal agencies, and
universities to support public purposes under the GLWQA. Priorities are identified by the Lakewide Management Plan management committees, and coordinated through a binational CSMI Steering Committee.


Great Lakes Fish Monitoring and Surveillance Program

The Great Lakes Fish Monitoring and Surveillance Program (GLFMSP) is a long term monitoring program operated by the Great Lakes National Program Office.  The GLFMSP has been collecting and analyzing whole body top predator fish, such as lake trout and walleye, at the same time of year and in the same locations for over 30 years to determine the levels of legacy contaminants, such as Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) and dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT).  Recently, the program has started to incorporate the analysis of emerging chemicals, such as Perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), musks, and some pharmaceuticals in order to determine their presence or absence to aid regulatory agencies and State fish consumption advisory programs in decision making. 

In addition to chemical analysis in fish, Clarkson University and it’s research partners at SUNY Fredonia and SUNY Oswego, are collecting and analyzing samples at various trophic levels in the food chain in order to identify how contaminants are transferred up to the top predators.  They spent the week of July 11th collecting air, water, and phytoplankton samples for legacy and emerging chemical analysis and are relying upon the teachers from the COSEE Lake Superior cruise to collect and sort zooplankton samples for the same type of analysis.  The USGS collected forage fish, such as slimy sculpins and yellow perch, earlier in the summer to complete the collection of the Lake Superior food chain levels.  These types of collections and analysis will occur in each of the Great Lakes over the next 4 years to get a good look how contaminants pass through the system in the Great Lakes.

For more information please visit the GLFMSP website.

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Check out the links below for some Great Lakes science activities

For Educators:

  • Visit the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant website to access The Greatest of the Great Lakes Exit EPA Disclaimer – a free learning module containing 41 innovative classroom activities about ocean and Great Lakes topics designed to be used by teachers of grades 4- 10.
  • Visit the Centers for Ocean Sciences Education Excellence COSEE Great Lakes Curriculum webpage to access Fresh and Salt - a collection of 14 activities connecting Great Lakes and ocean science topics designed to be used by teachers of grades 5-10.
  • Connecting Your Classroom With Real Science, visit Teaching with Great Lakes Data, for the COSEE Great Lakes site that makes it easy to incorporate real scientific data about the Great Lakes into the classroom. This comprehensive resource covers physical, earth and life science content and includes three primary components: lessons and activities, data sets, and inquiry-based tools.
  • Visit the Centers for Ocean Sciences Education Excellence (COSEE) website Exit EPA Disclaimer for more resources for teachers, students, scientists including educator professional development through your local COSEE Center
  • Check out Water on the Web Exit EPA Disclaimer to find resources and curriculum for high school and college students. The site has many Basic Science lessons available as well as information on Water Resource Science.
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