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Great Lakes Article:

Floating guardian assays lake
Scientific findings vital to Ontario's health
By Corydon Ireland
The Democrat and Chronicle
09/25/03


ABOARD THE LAKE GUARDIAN - From two miles out in Lake Ontario, Charlotte looks like a thin gray stripe painted between wide water and big sky.

But for the scientists aboard this federal research vessel - the largest one plying the Great Lakes - miles out in the lake is the place to be.

The Environmental Protection Agency by Friday will wrap up an 8-day "analysis cruise" of Lake Ontario, the last in the chain of five Great Lakes, the smallest and, by some measures, the most polluted.

The cruise is the third of four scheduled this year for Canadian and American vessels in April, August, September and October. The U.S. trips, all on the Lake Guardian, will cost about $500,000, and are part of a twice-a-decade, binational intensive study of Lake Ontario. The EPA does annual reviews of each lake - available for review by scientists and policymakers - but the last large-scale one for Ontario was in 1998.

Since then, "we have no idea how things have changed," said Steve Lozano, a research scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Ann Arbor, Mich.

So researchers from the EPA’s Manhattan-based Region 2, along with university and Canadian scientists, are evaluating changes in the lake’s lower food web and its ability to support fish populations. The project is called the Lake Ontario Lower Aquatic Foodweb Assessment, or LOLA.

At about 30 sites across the lake, scientists on this month’s cruise are grabbing samples of water, bottom mud and the microscopic plants and animals that live in both.

This deep-lake world is populated by the plant and animal micro-organisms that sustain the life of larger fish. In the past 10 years, the lake has been under a lot of pressure from invading exotic species like zebra mussels. The effects on the food chain are little understood.

In the past 100 years, Lake Ontario and other Great Lakes have felt the heavy impact of well-known environmental pressures, including toxic sediments, industrial air pollution and the decline of shoreline habitats.

But in those terms, improvements have been dramatic. On lake bottoms, where higher species dine, the problems have been hidden and are just beginning to be studied intensively.

Ten years ago, said EPA researcher Fred Luckey, 80 percent of the biomass on the bottom of Lake Ontario - about 25 million metric tons - was diporeia. This microscopic creature was the chief food of white fish and other catchable lake varieties. There was so much diporeia that there were about 3,000 organisms in each cubic meter of mud.

Today diporeia have virtually vanished, except in remote Lake Superior, pushed aside by invading zebra and quagga mussels. These creatures, imported accidentally in the bilge of international ships, filter and consume the same rain of nutrients, falling from the surface of the lake, that used to feed diporeia.

The mussels "are impossible to control," said Luckey, who is the EPA’s chief regional environmental scientist. "We don’t understand what the long-term effects will be."

At risk, he said, is Lake Ontario’s commercial and recreational fishing industry, worth about $2.5 billion a year. Bigger fish depend on the lake-bottom food sources now being disrupted by nonnative mussels.

Taking telltale samples is a science. Aboard the Lake Guardian, researchers use a cluster of metal tubes called a rosette to draw in water samples from selected depths. Phosphorus in the water indicates nutrient levels. Silica measures the health of microscopic algae called diatoms, which use silica in their cell walls. And levels of chlorophyll indicate how much plankton (plant food) is present.

Researchers also use a box core, a device winched to the lake bottom to collect undisturbed cores of mud, which are frozen and analyzed. A single core can be a snapshot of 50 years of telltale microscopic life in vital sediments.

Data assembled from this year’s four research cruises - available soon to Canadian and U.S. scientists on a proprietary Web site - will take a while to digest and analyze, said Lozano. But it’s bound to lead to management decisions. "The question is: How can we stop the next wave of (species) invasions from coming in?" he said.

In the struggle to turn back invasive species, Great Lakes scientists have at least one success story to point to. In the last 50 years, sea lampreys, an exotic species, have preyed on catchable fish. But their numbers were decimated in the 1970s, with the introduction of chemicals that killed lamprey larvae.

Another team of scientists aboard the Lake Guardian uses radar and telescopes to count birds, the first attempt to quantify birds over the open waters of Lake Ontario.

On board the 180-foot-long Guardian with the federal scientists were students and professors from Clarkson University and researchers from Canada and Brazil. Many of them labored below decks in four laboratory "modules."

"We’re seeing the results of short-term thinking," said Catherine Masson, a water researcher at York University in Toronto. She was helping measure phosphorus levels in the lake, a legacy of land-based fertilizers and other chemicals.

"This is the next generation of Great Lakes scientists we’re teaching here," said Michael R. Twiss, an assistant professor of biology at Clarkson. Each day, he said, there are 10 hours of lab or classroom work, including a mandatory two-hour seminar after dinner.

"I couldn’t ask for a better education," said Masson, who’s studying "water ethics" in a master’s degree program.

Twiss and other Great Lakes scientists treasure their time on board the Lake Guardian. It’s one of four research vessels over 80 feet long on the Great Lakes, including the Limnos, a Canadian Coast Guard ship.

The scientists would like to see more big ships, with the stable power sources, range and roominess that scientific expeditions require. Most universities and research centers can only support small boats used for daylong research trips. A ship the size of the Lake Guardian costs about $1 million a year to operate, crew and maintain.

On the U.S. side of the lakes, the EPA has two large vessels. The National Science Foundation operates a third, based in Duluth, Minn.

"We’d like to see things change," said Steven W. Wilhelm, a microbiologist at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, on board to study toxic lake bacteria. "Aquatic research in the United States is very focused on marine (saltwater) systems - even though (the Great Lakes has) 20 percent of the world’s fresh water."

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