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Scientists Challenged by Lake Superior and Each Other

Photo by Jack Kelly.

Like a chunk of amethyst from near Lake Superiorís Canadian shoreline, the Ecology of Lake Superior Conference held in Duluth, Minnesota, on May 3-5 was multifaceted, captivating, and colorful.

"You (Lake Superior scientists and managers) are the envy of the rest of the lake restoration and management community," said plenary speaker Jim Kitchell, the newly retired professor from the University of Wisconsin who received the prestigious A.C. Redfield Award from the American Society of Limnology and Oceanography in June for "field-changing contributions." He applauded the recovery of Superiorís historic lake trout populations after rapacious sea lamprey and overzealous fishing nearly extirpated them less than 60 years ago. Kitchell extended his thoughts on change and the lakeís ecosystem as he discussed climate. He suggested that the documented rise in Lake Superior's temperature, an "ecological master factor" for food web relationships, could favor the invasive sea lamprey, which he said have been growing up to 40 percent larger since the 1980s. "In a mad scientist's respect, the sea lamprey is a magnificent old creature with an amazing life history as a parasite and a predator," he said.

The conference spanned topics ranging from the physical and chemical aspects of the lake and its basin, through biological systems, to management and modeling. From Sea Grantís perspective, the conference showcased not only the programís collaboration in helping to organize a memorably successful three-day event, but also the programís contributions to making research possible on Lake Superior. Sea Grant was acknowledged in 30 percent of the 60 presentations and by Kitchell in his plenary address as well..

Photo by Jack Kelly.

Researchers discussed the limited amount of long-term data on the lake, and the sometimes conflicting nature of the data available. Many acknowledged a feeling that Lake Superiorís ecology, in some ways, remains tantalizingly enigmatic. Sea Grant researcher Bob Sterner, professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, said, "Iím going away scandalized by the lack of understanding of long-term chlorophyll dynamics."

Sterner ribbed other scientists by saying, "If you are thinking about diatoms or fish, you are on some ecosystem sidebar of Lake Superior. Microbes are responsible for the bulk of the production and material transfer." Sterner's research focuses on carbon cycling in Lake Superior. He reported that small algae populations have declined, that big algae species have all but disappeared, and that like Noel Urban, professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Michigan Technological University, said, there still are big unanswered questions about primary production in Lake Superior, in particular the ecosystem activity in the winter.

Jason Stockwell, a research scientist with the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, returned to Lake Superior for the conference to talk about his Sea Grant-funded work on the lakeís foodweb. He noted that there are two camps. "There are the Ďsmall is the new bigger' microbe scientists and the 'bigger is tastier' fisheries researchers," he said. He thought the Ecology of Lake Superior Conference was particularly meaningful because the microbe scientists were "crawling up" while the fisheries scientists were "drilling down." He suggested that lipids (fatty oils) should be the currency for calculating foodweb budgets.

The 150 or so scientists and managers in attendance left feeling like the conference was "a grand success" according to feedback collected by conference co-chairs Jack Kelly (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) and Mohi Munawar (Fisheries and Oceans Canada). The Lake Superior Binational Program and the Great Lakes Regional Research Information Network supported the conference, which crossed vast disciplinary and spatial scales.

Selected manuscripts generated from presentations delivered at the conference will fill two special issues of the journal Aquatic Ecosystem Health and Management. Additional information about the conference is online at the Aquatic Ecosystem Health and Management Society Web site: www.aehms.org.

Kitchell closed the conference and applauded the way participants demonstrated their interest in integrated science and adaptive management through their obvious respect for each other. He said, "This is the best meeting that I've ever attended." It must be true because he said it twice.


By Sharon Moen
July 2010

Return to July 2010 Seiche



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