Great Lakes Center at SUNY Buffalo State Helps Sustain Healthy Ecosystem

By Mary Durlak, SUNY Buffalo State

For half a century, the Great Lakes Center at SUNY Buffalo State has been contributing to scientific understanding of the Great Lakes and its watersheds. Research scientists and faculty members have focused investigations on the plants, animals and water quality of the Niagara River, Lake Erie, Lake Ontario and their tributaries.

From the three-inch emerald shiner to the legendary six-foot lake sturgeon, researchers have studied many kinds of fish. “The emerald shiner, a native fish that’s about three to four inches long, is eaten by many of the sport fish and the fish-eating birds that nest or migrate along the Upper Niagara,” said Alicia Pérez-Fuentetaja, biology professor and research scientist with the center at SUNY (State University of New York). Pérez-Fuentetaja led a team of collaborators who investigated the fish’s habitat needs and migratory patterns. As she visited observation sites along the Niagara River, she met people fishing, paddling, or bird-watching. “These people love this river,” she said, “and it’s an important part of their lives.”

buffalo state emerald shiners
Research scientists seek out emerald shiners in the Niagara River at night. Credit: Great Lakes Center at Buffalo State

Invasive species—such as zebra and quagga mussels—have played a major role in changes to the benthic (bottom-dwelling) community in Lake Erie, according to Lyubov Burlakova, senior research scientist at the center. “The story of Lake Erie shows how profoundly human activity can affect an ecosystem,” Burlakova said.

Alexander Karatayev, director of the center and one of the world’s experts on freshwater mollusks, has promoted international cooperation in understanding this critical and threatened group of aquatic animals. “They are, in their way, like the giant sequoia,” he said. “They can live for 100 years. They are the largest and most beautiful of the aquatic invertebrates.”

The Great Lakes Center Field Station, located where Lake Erie flows into the Niagara River, houses offices, laboratories and a fleet of research vessels that includes the John J. Freidhoff and the Seiche. Mark Clapsadl, research scientist and manager of the field station, has been participating in the Great Lakes Observing System (GLOS) since 2012 by positioning a buoy located near Dunkirk, New York. The GLOS collects and provides data relating to water quality for scientists and lake managers. It’s also popular with the local fishing community, to help them find fish and decide if conditions are right for heading out on the lake, according to Clapsadl.

glos-buoy-lake-erie
Preparing to deploy the GLOS buoy in Lake Erie. Credit: Great Lakes Center at Buffalo State

Many Buffalo State faculty members are affiliated with the Great Lakes Center. Their research has included using drones to seek out water chestnuts, an invasive aquatic plant; contributing to fishery management by monitoring populations of specific species; and evaluating stretches of stream to identify promising areas for habitat restoration.

Such efforts benefit public policy and the next generation of scientists, because faculty members routinely involve undergraduate and graduate students in field and lab work. The Great Lakes Center has developed two graduate programs in Great Lakes Ecosystem Science, with certain common courses but different objectives.

The Great Lakes Center also houses and administers the Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management (PRISM) of Western New York. Under coordinator Andrea Locke, PRISM has at least 45 primary and collaborating partners. Individuals are invited to get involved with PRISM to stop the spread and reverse the damage that invasive species are causing.

From citizen scientists to world-renowned researchers, the Great Lakes Center at Buffalo State is deeply and demonstrably active in maintaining and improving the quality of Western New York’s waterways for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.

Editor’s Note: An IJC public meeting on Great Lakes progress is planned for March 28 in Buffalo, New York. You may register and comment at ParticipateIJC.org.

Mary Durlak is a senior writer at SUNY Buffalo State who covers the Great Lakes Center for the college’s news site.

Sault Ste. Marie Region Residents Urge Protecting Inherent Value of Lakes at First Public Meeting

By Sally Cole-Misch, IJC

st marys river
The listening session and public meeting were held in conference rooms along the St. Marys River. Credit: IJC

In Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, where the culture and long-standing heritage of First Nations and Tribes are a vibrant part of the region’s lifestyle and economy, the inherent value of the lakes stood out as the key message to the IJC at its first public meeting in 2017 on the Great Lakes.

The conversations began in the afternoon, when several representatives from the region’s Tribes and First Nations met with Commissioners and IJC staff. Several key issues were identified, including citizen participation in the Lake Superior Lakewide Action and Management Plan (LAMP), the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline carrying oil across the Straits of Mackinac, declining fish stocks and habitat, aquafarming, climate change, toxic contamination in fish, and invasive species.

tribes first nations
Representatives of Tribes and First Nations, right, speak with Commissioners and staff, left, during the listening session. Credit: IJC

Two participants active in the Lake Superior LAMP – Mike Ripley, environmental coordinator for the Intertribal Fisheries and Assessment Program representing the Chippewa Ottawa Resource Authority, and Aubrey Maccoux-LeDuc, environmental specialist for the Bay Mills Indian Community – said the LAMP has been successful overall but progress is hindered by the elimination of the Lake Superior Binational Public Forum, which provided the education and outreach functions of the LAMP process and advised governments about critical issues in the lake. Government funding to the Forum was cut by the Canadian government in 2011 and by the US government in 2015.

“Without the Forum there’s a real gap because grassroots organizations aren’t participating,” said Ripley. Maccoux-LeDuc added, “We’re starting at square one again in terms of how to connect with people without the Forums, and we’re struggling to receive public input without the structure of the Public Forum.”

Several representatives said they had met with state and federal agencies to try to have the Enbridge Line 5 oil pipeline removed, which runs across the Straits of Mackinac. “We believe there is too large of a risk from an oil spill, which would be almost impossible to clean up it if did happen,” said Caroline Moellering, Great Lakes policy specialist for the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians. Transparency with respect to risks and potential impacts associated with the pipeline also were seen as an issue that needs to be addressed.

Despite large reductions in chemical concentrations in fish since the 1970s, continued contamination of fish from toxic substances is an ongoing concern, especially with the large percentage of the population that relies on Great Lakes fish to eat.  “In our area on the north shores of Lake Huron, contamination is still getting into the fish and affecting our people,” said Tammy Tremblay, environmental officer from Sagamok Anishnawbek in Massey, Ontario. “Smelt and pike populations are declining as well.”

Participants said the St. Marys River Remedial Action Plan (RAP) has helped to eliminate much of the pollution from direct sources in the Sault Ste. Marie area such as the steel mill and other industries, but massive amounts of contaminated sediments remain on the bottom of the river, mainly on the Canadian side.  The group agreed that pollution, habitat loss and invasive species continue to affect population abundance of commercial fish species, which in turn has impacted the Tribes’ commercial fishing industry.

The effects of climate change also are clear. “Moose are more stressed with warmer winters,” Ripley said. “Birch trees are disappearing, other plants are weakening, and the emerald ash borer and other invasive plants and insects are killing native plants.”

sault ste marie evening public meeting
The evening public meeting was attended by about 70 people. Credit: IJC

During the evening public meeting, these issues were emphasized again by participants after three presentations about local initiatives. Catherine Taddo, engineer for Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, outlined improvements in the city’s sanitary and stormwater infrastructure and the resulting significant improvements in water quality in the St. Marys River. Mike Ripley explained how fisheries and habitat are being restored as a result of the Little Rapids restoration project as part of the river’s RAP. Joanie McGuffin of the Lake Superior Watershed Conservancy presented their project to create six interconnected water trails surrounding the lake, and one in particular along the north shore that will be part of the trans-Canada trail to be completed in time for the country’s 150-year anniversary this summer. The water trails include access points in communities around the lake, easy launch docks, high quality composting toilets, and signage that link people to the trails, local stories, and the lake.

Patrick Egan of Oil and Water Don’t Mix and others expanded on comments in the afternoon about the need to focus attention on the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline.   In his view, the Straits are the worst place in the world to put a pipeline because of the currents.  “We are at risk in the Great Lakes of becoming an oil transporter with very little reward,” Egan said.

Other concerns raised at the public meeting included the lack of accountability for best farming practices, the effects of toxic contamination on local residents, boil advisories for First Nations, protecting the lake bottoms, and stopping the nuclear repository on the north shore of Lake Huron.

“My family, like a lot of others here, has been here for centuries,” said Cassie Baxter. “We’ve made our living from the lakes, so I was raised with a deep respect for Lake Superior and the Great Lakes. When Lake Superior is sick, you feel sick. When that’s your playground, your ancestors’ burial ground, it’s shocking when others don’t respect it in the same way.”

Councilwoman Jennifer McLeod of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians echoed the perspective of others in the afternoon and evening session when she said, “We regard water not as a resource, but in a very sacred manner as a living entity that has a spirit and is alive. We have teachings about what to do when Mother Earth is sick. And what it all boils down to is to stop doing what you’re doing and she can heal herself. That is an entirely different way to looking at water – not as an asset to be used, but as an entity to be respected and a part of us.”

Sally Cole-Misch is the public affairs officer at the IJC’s Great Lakes Regional Office in Windsor, Ontario.

Five More In-Person Opportunities to Provide your Thoughts on the Great Lakes – Please Join Us!

An essential part of the IJC’s assessment of progress to restore the Great Lakes is to hear from you, the region’s residents. What has improved in the lakes around you, and what concerns you? What did the IJC get right in its draft assessment report, and what recommendations should it make to Canada and the United States to accomplish the Agreement’s goals?

Please join us at the following public meetings and roundtables to share your views by clicking on the links below. Or, go to ParticipateIJC.org to add your thoughts to the ongoing conversation and submit formal comments until April 15.

Tuesday, March 21: Detroit, Michigan, and Windsor, Ontario, Roundtable and Public Meeting
Michigan Department of Natural Resources Adventure Center, 1801 Atwater, Detroit, Michigan
Roundtable discussion from 1-4 p.m., public meeting at 6-9 p.m.

Wednesday, March 22: Sarnia, Ontario, and Port Huron, Michigan, Public Roundtable
Lochiel Kiwanis Community Centre, 180 North College Ave., Sarnia, Ontario
1:30-4:30 p.m.

Thursday, March 23: Toledo, Ohio, Public Meeting
University of Toledo Lake Erie Center, 6200 Bay Shore Road, Oregon, Ohio
6-9 p.m.

Tuesday, March 28: Buffalo, New York, Roundtable and Public Meeting
WNED-WBFO Studio, 140 Lower Terrace, Buffalo, New York
Roundtable discussion from 1:30-4:30 p.m., public meeting at 6-9 p.m.

Wednesday, March 29: St. Catharines, Ontario, and Niagara Falls Public Roundtable
Alumni Hall, St. Catharines Rowing Club, Henley Island, Henley Island Drive, St. Catharines, Ontario
1:30-4:30 p.m.

Major Expansion Coming to Lake Superior State University’s Aquatic Research Lab

By Gregory Zimmerman, Lake Superior State University

center-freshwater-research
Conceptual view of the proposed Center for Freshwater Research and Education outdoor educational park. Credit: LSSU staff

Since 1977, Lake Superior State University’s Aquatic Research Lab in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, has been a center for research and outreach around the ecology of the St. Marys River and other aquatic habitats, as well as a focal point for student training in fisheries. The lab is probably best known for its Atlantic salmon hatchery program, in which it raises Atlantics for release into the river and Lake Huron system. Thanks to the lab, the experience of fishing for Atlantics in the St. Marys Rapids is cherished by locals and by visitors from around world.

The hatchery operations are impressive. Lake Superior State University (LSSU) is one of only a few universities that offer students direct work experiences in a hatchery that releases fish into public waters – but the lab does much more. Research projects in the river and Great Lakes, inland lakes, streams and wetlands advance science and provide information for improving the management of our resources.

releases salmon
Richard Barch of Ann Arbor releases a ceremonial portion of the 37,000 Atlantic salmon yearlings that Lake Superior State University stocked into the St. Marys River on June 2-3, while LSSU mascot Seamore the Sea Duck and community members look on. Credit: LSSU staff

Outreach activities inform residents and visitors about the importance of conserving our natural heritage. One example of outreach is the lab’s popular online “fish cam.” The lab is also a model of collaboration between the university, resource management agencies such as the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment Canada, Cloverland Electric and other local organizations. Recent lab activities include a partnership in the Little Rapids Restoration project, the Great Lakes Coastal Wetlands Monitoring Program, sturgeon research, and more.

Now the lab is slated to take a big step in expanding its work. The facility will move from the current, rather cramped, space in the east end of the Cloverland Electric Hydro Plant to much larger space in the former Edison Sault office space on the west side of the plant. The lab will have about three times the space it currently has and be renamed the Center for Freshwater Research and Education (CFRE). The move has been in the works for several years, ever since Edison Sault donated the previous office building to the university. Plans include much-expanded research space for fish culture and fish health, space dedicated to public outreach, a K-12 discovery room, office space for researchers, and an outdoor educational park.

Two major sources of financial backing are moving the plans into reality. Last July, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed an appropriations bill adding CFRE to the state’s capital outlay plan. The state would provide 75 percent of the funding with the university responsible for covering the rest of the costs. Then, this past December, Dick and Theresa Barch donated $500,000 to lead the way in helping the university raise its share of the estimated total of $11.8 million needed to build the Center.

For more information about the lab, visit www.lssu.edu/arl. For information about contributing to CFRE, contact LSSU Foundation Director Tom Coates at (906) 635-6670 or tcoates@lssu.edu.

Gregory Zimmerman is a professor of biology at Lake Superior State University. His research interests include control of invasive plant species in wetlands.

Editor’s Note: You can comment on issues raised in this article as part of the IJC’s public comment period on the Progress Report of the Parties and Triennial Assessment of Progress. Go to ParticipateIJC.org.

Wetlands Face Major Threats, Though Efforts to Help are Underway

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

wooded wetlands
Wooded wetlands, like the one in the Mountsberg Conservation Area Wetland in Ontario inland from Lake Ontario, are vulnerable to changes in the groundwater table and land development. Credit: Bill Barber

Wetlands have been landscapes of concern since the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement was first signed in 1972, providing critical habitat for wildlife and a natural filter for nutrients. While there has been some progress toward restoring regional wetlands to health, they still face threats from land-use practices and invasive species.

According to Matthew Child, physical scientist at the IJC Great Lakes Regional Office, some wetlands have been degraded due to invasive species like Phragmites, an invasive plant also known as common reed that can crowd out native species and reduce wildlife habitat values. Phragmites is continuing to spread throughout the basin, moving northward into the Lake Superior region after spreading virulently around the other four lakes.

abbaye-peninsula
Wetlands along the Great Lakes, such as this one in the Abbaye Peninsula on the Michigan shores of Lake Superior, are vulnerable to sedimentation from inland land use. Invasive species like Phragmites also can choke out native wetland plants and ruin habitat for wildlife. Credit: Jim Hodgson/US Fish and Wildlife Service

Wetlands also are under threat from development and water management. Child said wetlands typically rely on water levels significantly changing over time, not just annually but over periods of decades or centuries. Shoreline development and drainage “improvements” to rural and urban lands have altered wetland hydrology along the Great Lake coastlines and more frequently inland along other waterways, he said. Agricultural drainage projects have reduced the threat of flooding and increased the productivity of agricultural lands, but also lower the groundwater table needed to sustain wetlands.

“A lot of our habitat is in the watersheds inland, and they aren’t always picture perfect,” Child said. “Wooded swamps in poorly drained clay soils found in many locations around the lower lakes are a common wetland type really affected by those drainage improvements.”

Additionally, sediment coming through runoff from urban and rural watershed sources can build up at river mouths once they reach the Great Lakes, burying wetlands there.

Efforts from federal, state, provincial and local agencies, along with community groups and non-governmental organizations have made efforts to turn that tide. Child said agricultural landowners have been involved in voluntary or incentive-driven programs to hold water on their land and effectively restore wetlands – or convert existing farmland into it by keeping water from draining out and away. This in turn raises the water table, allowing wetlands to be revived.

Ontario and several US states have protections in place to help safeguard wetlands from development, as well as contending with Phragmites infestations. While traditionally the reed has been removed using controlled burns and mechanical removal, Child said several jurisdictions are using effective herbicide treatments. Research indicates the disbenefits of herbicide treatment are more than offset by improved wetland condition over the longer term, particularly when combined with other removal methods.

The IJC recently signed Plan 2014, which will implement management changes to water levels and flows on Lake Ontario, where water levels can be influenced through dams on the St. Lawrence River. Plan 2014 is expected to foster the conditions needed to restore 64,000 acres (26,000 hectares) of coastal wetlands and improve habitat for fish and wildlife. The new Order of Approval  is more adaptive and will increase water level variability, a situation that benefits wetland conditions. Lake Ontario’s water levels are still affected more by input from the upper lakes, precipitation and evaporation than by water level control, but Plan 2014 will provide more variability for those wetlands.

Dr. Li Wang, biological scientist with the IJC Great Lakes Regional Office, said Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funds have been used on the US side to help restore wetlands; 7,000 acres of Great Lakes coastal wetlands were protected, restored, and enhanced in 2015 alone. Environment and Climate Change Canada used money from the Wildlife Conservation Fund in 2014 to support protecting and restoring habitat, with around 39 projects taking place in the basin. Wang added that effectively using limited resources requires identifying which wetlands are degraded, which are in need of protection, and what are the highest priority locations. The majority, he said, are somewhere between pristine wetlands needing protection and degraded ones in need of restoration.

Nevertheless, the challenges facing wetlands in the Great Lakes basin are significant, and though there have been success stories in management, Child said they remain imperiled and overall have not seen a dramatic improvement in the past few decades.

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An inland wetland at the Hinckley Reservation in Ohio, located near Hinckley Lake south of Lake Erie. Credit: Dustin Jamison

Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.

Great Lakes Quiz: Are You Smarter than a Fourth Grader?

By Jeff Kart

students crowley
Students learn about weather from MSU Extension instructor Mark Crowley aboard the GLEP schoolship. Credit: Michigan Sea Grant

On TV, there’s a game show called “Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?” But what about fourth graders? When it comes to science literacy, the Great Lakes Education Program has been helping teach these youngsters about unique features of the lakes for 27 years.

The program includes a combination of classroom learning and hands-on experiences, and is designed to help students understand their role in protecting freshwater resources. They learn about geography, history, biology and physical sciences, and concepts such as the aquatic food web and water cycle, the roles of oxygen and carbon dioxide, and the effects of invasive species. The international nature of the lakes also is discussed along Lake St. Clair, the Detroit River and upper Lake Erie.

How well would you do in the program? The quiz below is on some of the same subjects taught to students.

The Great Lakes Education Program is a project of Michigan Sea Grant and Michigan State University Extension, in partnership with the Huron-Clinton Metropolitan Authority. Support comes from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, US Environmental Protection Agency, Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Macomb and Wayne counties. More than 110,000 students, teachers and adult chaperones have participated since the program’s inception.

For more information about the program, see the Michigan Sea Grant website. But not before you take the quiz:

wows students
MSU Extension instructor Sue Moutgalias wows students as they test for dissolved oxygen. Credit: Michigan Sea Grant.

The Welland Ship Canal connects which two Great Lakes?

A) Superior and Huron
B) Huron and Michigan
C) Huron and Erie
D) Erie and Ontario

The St. Marys Falls Ship Canal connects which two Great Lakes?

A) Superior and Huron
B) Huron and Michigan
C) Huron and Erie
D) Erie and Ontario

Which river connects Lake Erie and Lake Ontario?

A) St. Marys River
B) St. Clair River
C) Niagara River
D) St. Lawrence River

Which river connects Lake Superior and Lake Huron?

A) St. Marys River
B) St. Clair River
C) Niagara River
D) St. Lawrence River

Which of the following is NOT a function of Great Lakes wetlands?

A) Provide habitat for aquatic animals
B) Build beaches
C) Act as a pollution filter
D) Provide for groundwater recharge

Which of the following is NOT a type of Great Lakes wetland?

A) Marsh
B) Mangrove swamp
C) Bog
D) Vernal pool

Which of the following non-indigenous species was intentionally introduced into the Great Lakes?

A) Zebra mussel
B) Sea lamprey
C) Coho salmon
D) Alewife

Which of the following is NOT a carnivore in the Lake St. Clair food web?

A) Phytoplankton
B) Walleye
C) Bass
D) Water snakes

Which of the following is NOT a step in the process of drinking water purification?

A) Filter the water
B) Allow sediment to settle
C) Add disinfectant
D) Add flavoring

Zooplankton in the Great Lakes can eat

A) Phytoplankton
B) Other zooplankton
C) Fish
D) A and B

Answers: d) Erie and Ontario, a) Superior and Huron, c) Niagara River, a) St Marys River, b) Build beaches, b) Mangrove swamp, c) Coho salmon, a) Phytoplankton, d) Add flavoring, d) A and B.

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Michigan Sea Grant Extension Educator Steve Stewart shows students images from an underwater camera. Credit: Michigan Sea Grant

Jeff Kart is executive editor of the IJC’s monthly Great Lakes Connection and quarterly Water Matters newsletters.

Some Cyanobacteria Can Ruin the Mood for Invasive Mussels

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

quagga-mussels
Quagga mussels, pictured here after being exposed to serotonin to induce spawning, can have their spawning efforts stymied by certain kinds of cyanobacteria. Credit: Anna Boegehold

There’s something in the water that can spoil a quagga mussel’s romantic evening, according to a recent research project that found some species of cyanobacteria – known more commonly as toxic blue-green algae – can keep quagga mussels from successfully reproducing.

According to Anna Boegehold, a Ph.D. candidate at Wayne State University in Michigan, quagga mussels typically reproduce using what’s known as the broadcast spawning method, where males and females release sperm and eggs at the same time into the water. When some species of cyanobacteria – like Microcystis or Anabaena, are in the area, these spawning attempts are more likely to be unsuccessful. One specific species, known as Aphanizomenon, seemingly prevents the mussels from attempting to spawn at all – a behavior that could potentially help control the invasive species in the future.

The research project was funded by the US Geological Survey (USGS) and Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and based on the premise that spawning can be induced in marine mussels and sea urchins by feeding them nutritious phytoplankton species. Boegehold and her collaborators were interested in seeing if the opposite was true for freshwater invasive quagga mussels by exposing them to toxic or cyanobacteria with little nutritional value. Between the 2014 and 2016 summer spawning seasons, the team, including Drs. Donna Kashian and Jeffrey Ram at Wayne State University and Dr. Nicholas Johnson at USGS, exposed quagga mussels to 13 different cultures of cyanobacteria largely from the Great Lakes region at concentrations below those found in harmful algal blooms.

In total, seven of those cultures prevented successful fertilization and reproduction to varying degrees compared to a control group of quagga mussels that had no cyanobacteria at all. In some cases, spawning was reduced by 52 percent when exposed to cyanobacteria species and fertilization by 44 percent. The study results were recently submitted for publication. Boegehold  is now testing how cyanobacteria impact veligers – the free-floating larval form of quagga mussels – and is interested in following up on her research to help figure out what Aphanizomenon is doing that keeps quagga mussels from attempting to spawn.

“We want to isolate what specific chemical in that cyanobacteria culture is responsible for preventing the spawning response,” she said. “Clearly, we don’t want to promote toxic cyanobacteria blooms in the lakes, so we want to pick out what chemical is doing that.”

cyanobacteria and quagga mussel samples
Boegehold checks on cyanobacteria and quagga mussel samples in the lab. Credit: Anna Boegehold

Invasive sea lamprey are already controlled in a similar manner by management officials with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the Great Lakes Fisheries Commission, who will periodically use a lampricide to kill the parasitic predators in their larval state. The lampricide breaks down within days and doesn’t bioaccumulate up the food chain, giving it a minimal impact on the environment. Boegehold also highlighted research being done at USGS by Johnson that would help control lamprey with synthetic pheromones that alter their behavior. If a chemical from Aphanizomenon could be isolated, it could potentially be used similarly in water bodies where quagga mussels are found to reduce their numbers, though how it would be distributed and used is unknown at this time. No testing has been done yet to see if how, if at all, the presence of Aphanizomenon impacts the reproduction of invasive zebra mussels and native mussels and invertebrates, though Boegehold hopes to do so if a chemical can be isolated.

Since algal blooms are trending toward taking place earlier in the year, overlapping with the mussel spawning season, and while there haven’t been any determinations on how effective cyanobacteria are at limiting successful quagga mussel reproduction in the wild, that growing gap could reduce any potential effectiveness. Isolating the chemicals found in some of these cyanobacteria could allow water managers to mitigate that trend.

quagga-mussel-eggs
Quagga mussel eggs, pictured here about three hours after being exposed to sperm, have a harder time being fertilized when exposed to cyanobacterial species like Microcystis and Anabaena. Dashed arrows in the photo represent eggs that have not been fertilized. Credit: Anna Boegehold

Quagga mussels and zebra mussels have inflicted massive ecological damage wherever they’ve been found by gobbling up the phytoplankton that make up the bottom of the food web in North American freshwater bodies, leaving less food for other predators, moving nutrients further nearshore and in turn causing a knock-on effect throughout the food web. The mussels also clog water intakes, causing additional costs for water treatment and electricity generation plants. Only a few species, such as the invasive round goby and the rare lake sturgeon, feed on the invasive mussels, but not to the degree that their numbers are being naturally controlled. Since their initial detection in the Great Lakes in the 1980s, they have spread to smaller inland lakes across the region, stretching as far west as Montana and California. While control efforts have been limited to simply trying to keep people from inadvertently moving them between water bodies, a way to prevent them from spawning would be a powerful tool in the fight.

Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.

Pacific Salmon Fisheries Face Food Web Changes, But Walleye Are Thriving

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

chinook salmon lake ontario
A Chinook salmon returns from Lake Ontario to the East Don River in Ontario to spawn. Officials in the province and New York state are cutting back salmon stocking for 2017 amid a decline in alewife, their preyfish. Credit: Green Raven Photography

The makeup of Great Lakes fisheries could change in coming decades due to invasive species and the effects of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, as popular stocked Pacific salmon species are numerically surpassed by native fish like walleye and lake trout.

“Although the fisheries have been good over the past two or three decades for salmon and trout in particular, we’re seeing the effects of a variety of invasive species coupled with nutrient reductions … on preyfish populations,” said Dr. John Dettmers, Fishery Management Program director with the Great Lakes Fisheries Commission. While on the whole fishing in the Great Lakes is good right now, Dettmers said there are warning signs that the more popular fisheries in the lakes over the past few decades may be nearing the “end of their life” as the food webs in the lakes come into a new equilibrium.

Lake Huron has been a bellwether for these trends. Pacific salmon species like Chinook or coho are stocked in the Great Lakes to prey on alewives, an invasive species that caused major ecological havoc in the mid-20th century prior to the salmon stocking. The alewives would overpopulate and cause mass die-offs, fouling beaches, until the salmon were introduced in the 1960s. Around 2003-2004, the alewife population crashed in Lake Huron, bringing down the salmon populations with it. Alewives have not made a comeback in the lake since then, and fishery management officials dramatically reduced their stocking of Pacific salmon into the lake.

Dettmers said managers in Lake Ontario and Lake Michigan also have reduced their salmon stocking targets for 2017 in an attempt to prevent a crash like the one in Lake Huron. Pacific salmon are a popular recreational fishing target, but they are by no means the only ones.

Native species fisheries on the rebound

Native fish species like walleye, lake trout and yellow perch may be looking at a recreational comeback in the coming decades, Dettmers said. In Lake Huron, those species have bounced back, and both walleye and yellow perch populations have been stable in Lake Erie. Lake trout, historically stocked within the basin after sea lamprey devastated their numbers in the first half of the 20th century, are reproducing naturally at measurable levels in several lakes, and managers are beginning to cut back on stocking.

juvenile-lake-trout
Juvenile lake trout have been stocked into the Great Lakes for decades in an effort to shore up the native species’ numbers after they were decimated by sea lamprey in the mid-20th century. Credit: Jorge Buening/US Fish and Wildlife Service

According to Jay Wesley, Lake Michigan basin coordinator with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, invasive zebra and quagga mussels have been an ongoing problem in recent decades. By eating phytoplankton and other bases of the food web, mussels will filter-feed nutrients out of the water column and sequester them near the shore and at the bottom of the lake, away from where preyfish traditionally find their meals. Coupled with the phosphorus fertilizer runoff reductions taking place under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, Wesley said Lake Michigan is facing an “historic low of biomass of prey in the lake.” Alewives, smelt and bloater chub – fish that prefer to stay in the water column – are all on the decline, while other species like the lake herring, walleye or lake sturgeon – which prefer to hang out near the lake floor – are taking advantage of this nutrient move.

Matt Preisser, Lake Michigan coordinator with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s Office of the Great Lakes, said round gobies, another invasive species in the lakes, also play a role in that nutrient shift. The bottom-dwelling gobies eat mussels and their populations have surged in recent years. Many researchers believe gobies are now a major prey fish in all of the lakes except Superior. Predator fish with more diversified diets and broader foraging behavior, such as lake trout, are benefitting from this improved prey source. Meanwhile, fish like Chinook salmon that don’t like going to the bottom to feed are worse off.

With more than 180 non-native species in the Great Lakes basin, Wesley said that managers are aware that as long as the Great Lakes are connected to global commerce, the risk of new species entering and disrupting the food web will remain. However, steps taken by Canada and the US to close off invasive pathways have led to only one confirmed new invasive species in the lakes since 2006. Dettmers added that fishery managers are still mindful that Asian carp species, especially bighead carp and silver carp, could migrate from the Mississippi River into the Great Lakes, upsetting those efforts to find a new equilibrium for the food web.

Contaminants and climate change harm fisheries and communities, too

There are other challenges facing fisheries aside from invasive species. Legacy contaminants like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), mercury and dioxins can still be found in fish from the Great Lakes, though Wesley said trends indicate those materials are still declining. Primarily trout and salmon are the targets of fish consumption advisories, with members of high-risk populations like children and women of childbearing age being advised to not consume any affected fish in their area. The rest of the populace is generally asked to limit consumption and avoid fattier portions where these substances can collect. Canada and the United States have named PCBs and mercury as Chemicals of Mutual Concern in the Great Lakes basin.

Lake Superior is unique when it comes to fisheries management compared to the other lakes, Preisser said, as its fishery is “much more natural” and in better shape than the other four lakes. This is partially due to Lake Superior seeing less shipping traffic over the decades, and partially due to the comparatively limited development around it compared to the other lakes. It also means that managers are focused on preventing invasive species from getting a strong foothold in the lake and guarding against contaminants, while other lakes are primarily being restored.

And while climate change may not be having any noticeable impact on Great Lakes fisheries yet, Wesley said warming lake conditions would likely impact the tributaries some species spawn in first, as well as shallow spots like Green Bay. Some tribal governments around Lake Superior are shifting their fisheries from cold-water species to cool-water species due to warming temperatures in area waterways.

You can comment on the issues raised in this article as part of the IJC’s public comment period on the Progress Report of the Parties (PROP) and Triennial Assessment of Progress report (TAP). Go to ParticipateIJC.org.

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Walleye fingerlings getting ready to be stocked in a pond near Lake Superior. Credit: US Department of Agriculture

Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.

It Takes a Village to Adapt to Climate Change

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

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Ice cover, like these slabs on Lake Superior, has been on a downward trend due to warmer winters since the 1970s, from a long-term average of 60 percent maximum coverage in 1975 to closer to 40 percent in 2015. This could lead to new climate challenges for communities looking to adapt. Credit: Sharon Mollerus

Climate change adaptation is a major challenge for the Great Lakes region, and researchers, officials and other leaders have been coming together to share experiences and ideas on how to prepare.

One hub of collaboration has been the Great Lakes Integrated Sciences + Assessments program (GLISA), which includes Michigan State University, the University of Michigan, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s integrated science and assessment programs, the Northeast Climate Science Center and the Midwest Regional Climate Center.

“There is a lot of really great work going on across the Great Lakes region at the state, local and regional levels,” said GLISA Program Manager Dr. Jenna Jorns. “What we need to move forward are … ongoing collaborations to draw on each other’s strengths and move all of our projects forward together.”

GLISA hosted a second biannual Great Lakes Adaptation Forum in 2016 to provide an opportunity for people to get together and share their work and strategies. The event included 150 registered attendees from the United States and Canada, representing universities, nonprofits, First Nations and tribal governments, federal agencies, and state and local officials.

Climate in the Great Lakes region has become warmer in recent decades, with relatively more of the warming during the cooler times of year, said GLISA Co-Director Jeff Andresen. While not all climate models agree on whether or not the region will get wetter or drier as a whole, he said most models suggest somewhat more annual precipitation in the future, with most of the additional precipitation coming during the winter months, and in extreme events. These conditions can impact water management, businesses and natural resources.

Since climate predictions and trends are a constantly moving target, he said it is trickier for infrastructure planners to know what to expect. Since those government officials have to plan for extended timeframes, a shifting climate introduces a new variable that’s harder to prepare for. For example, some communities in the Great Lakes region still use combined sewers that move storm water and wastewater through the same pipes. These pipes need to be built to withstand flows up to specific recurrence intervals – like a 50-year or 100-year storm – but due to climate change the pipes could see stronger storm events more frequently.

According to Alex Bryan, climate scientist and postdoctoral fellow with the Northeast Climate Science Center, the unique interaction between the Great Lakes and the atmosphere has its own effect on the region’s climate – as evidenced by “lake effect” snowfall. With shrinking ice cover due to warming temperatures, the warmer, more open waters could lead to an increase of lake effect precipitation, Bryan said – possibly in the form of lake effect rain.

While another Great Lakes Adaptation Forum isn’t happening until 2018, Bryan said the event is coordinated with the National Adaptation Forum, which will take place in Saint Paul, Minnesota, from May 9-11, 2017. In the meantime, lessons learned from the 2016 workshop are helping communities work together to locate resources and strengthen adaptation efforts in the United States and Canada.

Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.

Editor’s Note: This article was updated on March 30, 2017, to correct the dates of the National Adaptation Forum.

Recommendations Aim to Control Tiny Plastics Before They Become a Bigger Issue

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

Plastic items — from bags and bottles to clothing fibers — are finding their way into the Great Lakes and its tributaries, degrading into tiny pieces and potentially impacting the environment and human health. While the US and Canadian governments have taken steps to deal with some of these microplastics in the form of microbeads, the IJC has made additional recommendations to get the problem under control before it becomes a bigger issue.

The recommendations stem from a 2016 IJC workshop held in Windsor, Ontario, and attended by 33 experts from both countries. Coupled with public comments gathered in October and November, the IJC developed four major recommendations for Canadian and US officials to consider, starting with a binational plan to prevent the plastics from getting into the lakes in the first place. That plan should reflect on the three themes from the workshop: focusing on pollution prevention, education and outreach, and scientific research and monitoring.

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Microplastics, microfibers from clothes and plastic microbeads are potentially hazardous to ecosystems and human health across the globe. Credit: Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

There is no silver bullet that can keep plastics out of the Great Lakes, so the recommended binational plan should have multiple approaches and tools. The IJC has suggested that it include policy- and market-based instruments that use scientific research as a starting point, along with education and outreach to the broader public. A solid plan also would include measurable targets and goals to gauge progress, along with periodic reviews and the flexibility to make adjustments as needed. To make sure the plan is successful, the IJC also suggests that Canada and the United States engage with relevant organizations and industries as well as state, provincial, local, First Nation and tribal governments when putting an agreement together so it can lead to more “informed and innovative” solutions.

Those solutions will need a solid baseline. The recommendation for additional scientific research and monitoring is a necessity given that microplastics haven’t been studied as heavily in freshwater environments – and the Great Lakes more specifically – as they have in marine systems. For starters, there is no agreed upon, defined size for microplastics, though the IJC is recommending a widespread adoption of a particle less than five millimeters in size –the size defined by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Still, NOAA’s sampling methods don’t include particles smaller than 0.333 mm, and there is an outstanding need to develop methods to analyze sizes that small and standardize the analysis and sampling methods across the basin.

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Attendees at the IJC’s microplastics workshop in Windsor work on coming up with solutions. Credit: IJC

There also are gaps in scientific knowledge of the sources, abundance and distribution of microplastics in the Great Lakes, how they get transported into and around the Great Lakes (from pathways such as runoff, boats, wastewater), and details of how quickly different types of plastic degrade. There also are questions on how microplastics could bioaccumulate in the food web and what sort of toxic impacts that can have on wildlife and human health. This information could help to develop new methods of manufacturing to reduce the amount of microplastics finding their way into the lakes, and new disposal and recycling processes to capture these plastics before they enter the water supply. It also could be helpful in researching alternatives to traditional plastics and what sort of impacts those have on the environment and human health.

Moreover, the IJC is recommending that the governments fund research to compare and analyze the most effective methods and policies to reduce and prevent plastics in the Great Lakes. A variety of programs from several organizations and governments already exist to try to manage and reduce plastics from entering water systems. Most notably, the American Chemistry Council and Canadian Plastics Industry Association are involved in national and international programs to contend with marine plastic pollution. Effective programs from throughout the globe could be compared and brought to bear on the Great Lakes region and its own microplastics battle.

The IJC suggests the governments look into the effectiveness of a mandatory extended producer responsibility program, which would make producers either physically or financially responsible for products from the manufacturing stage through their end-of-life disposal. This can be done through incentives to design a product to reduce waste and improve its recovery, recyclability and reuse. As a side benefit, better product management also could help other forms of pollution throughout the region.

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Microplastics and organic debris found in the Milwaukee River in Wisconsin. Credit: Austin Baldwin, USGS

Outreach and education programs also may provide an effective avenue to deal with the problem. Better education on disposing and recycling plastic materials and the impacts of consumer choices can help people find ways to reduce their plastics usage and disposal. Understanding how microplastics can get into the environment through wastewater or stormwater also can be helpful as a way to keep trash out of areas that could lead to plastic to entering the water system.

Educational programs could start by adding microplastics to the environmental curriculum taught to children from kindergarten through high school. Shoreline cleanup programs such as Adopt-a-Beach and the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup also could provide a critical avenue to spread this information throughout communities, and provide citizen science research, identifying and prioritizing waste prevention and strategies communities that might work elsewhere. The IJC hopes with its recommendations that people’s behaviors will change to help reduce the amount of plastic – and thus, microplastics – that enter the waters of the Great Lakes.

Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.