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2007-2009 Research Projects

The research projects below were selected for funding for 2007-2009. Watch our newsletter, the Seiche, for interesting results from these projects as they are completed. Minnesota Sea Grant is committed to supporting research and outreach projects that address a variety of concerns, locally, regionally, and on a national level.


Coastal Communities and Economies

Digital Oceans

Ecosytems and Habitats


Putting Oceans and Great Lakes into Digital Circulation: A New Curriculum

Project Summary

Water doesn't just sit in an ocean, estuary, or lake; it circulates. How it circulates depends on tides, storms, wind, and other forces. This relatively easy concept requires complex computer modeling to fully explain. One of these models is the numerical Regional Ocean Modeling System (ROMS). Researchers and educators will cooperate to take ROMS from realms of advanced research and deliver it to high school and university students. Project leaders will create a way for students to watch how digital renditions of Lake Superior, Lake Erie and the Chesapeake Bay respond to virtual winds, seasonal cycles, pollution spills and other events. Supporting materials and workshops will help educators integrate the software package into curriculums. High school students, undergraduates, and researchers who have not traditionally used numerical models in their investigations will be able to work with this new tool to understand water movement.

Developing Cost-Effective Ways to Produce a Pheromone that Controls Sea Lamprey

Project Summary

Previous Sea Grant-supported work led to the discovery of a migratory pheromone that lures the invasive sea lamprey. This project seeks to develop practical, cost-effective ways to produce a major constituent of that pheromone. Sea lampreys are currently controlled by a pesticide that sometimes kills other fish, so the Great Lakes Fishery Commission is pursuing less toxic alternatives.

Pheromones (chemical signals that animals use to communicate) are non-toxic and target specific species. Both male and female lampreys rely on this pheromone to migrate into spawning streams. The commission hopes to use synthetically produced pheromones to confuse or lure lamprey into traps before they spawn. Field tests have demonstrated that the pheromone can increase capture rates by six-fold in small streams.

The problem is that producing the pheromone is costly. Researchers hope to develop a process to synthesize the most important part of the pheromone (petromyzonamine disulfate) more efficiently so that it can be produced in the relatively large quantities necessary to sustain sea lamprey control programs.

Examining the Impacts of Antibacterial Personal Care Products on Lake Superior Bacteria

Project Summary

Many personal care products and prescription drugs contain antibacterial chemicals. The presence of low concentrations of these chemicals in wastewater and, ultimately, in lakes and rivers is a topic of recent scientific and media interest. However, not much is known about how these contaminants might affect the environment.

This project looks at one antibacterial chemical, triclosan, which is widely used in hand soaps, toothpaste, and deodorants and other consumer products. The researcher intends to determine the resistance of Lake Superior bacteria to triclosan by sampling bacteria from the Duluth-Superior Harbor and several nearshore locations in Lake Superior. The bacteria will be exposed to very low concentrations of triclosan in the laboratory to note if their growth rates are affected. The researcher also hopes to clarify if low concentrations of triclosan alter the composition of Lake Superior bacterial communities.

The results will be compared to previous studies of Mississippi River bacteria and can be extrapolated to other surface water bodies. The project will help natural resource agencies and scientists decide whether triclosan is an ecological threat that requires more comprehensive study, monitoring, or regulation.

Identifying the Role of Bacteria in Accelerated Harbor Corrosion

Project Summary

Steel is corroding more than twice as fast as expected in some areas of the Duluth-Superior Harbor. The Duluth Seaway Port Authority estimates that repairs to harbor steel could cost up to $100 million if the problem isn't addressed. To help determine corrosion causes, divers will scrape biofilm (the bacteria and microorganisms living on underwater surfaces) from highly corroded metal and from uncorroded metal within the harbor. Researchers will analyze these samples, looking for bacteria that are often associated with corrosion. Even if these iron-oxidizing and sulfate-reducing bacterial groups are not directly pitting the harbor's steel, this study could help to pinpoint why the corrosion has accelerated, and guide monitoring efforts by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, and the companies that operate docks and slips in the harbor.

Using Weather and Stream Data Animations to Increase Public Awareness About Factors Affecting Lake Superior

Project Summary

As many in the news business know, people are weather watchers. Researchers will capitalize on society's interest in meteorology to test whether television broadcast meteorologists can enhance their viewers' understanding of stormwater runoff and the ways it can damage water quality. Working with Northland's News Center (KBJR-TV3 and 6) and the Regional Stormwater Protection Team in Duluth, the researchers will create state-of-the-art visualizations to integrate real-time stream data and water quality information into local weather reports. They will also combine data imaging and mapping tools to develop vignettes ("data stories") to explain how the amount, type, and timing of precipitation influences water quality and quantity, and relate these to news stories about stormwater overflows, pollution, flooding, and climate change.

The vignettes will be made available to news stations serving the Lake Superior Basin, on news Web sites, and on LakeSuperiorStreams.org. The researchers will evaluate the success of these new materials, and ascertain if television and Internet-based audiences gained a better appreciation and understanding of the role water plays in the environment.

Balancing Lake Superior's Carbon Budget

Project Summary

Something doesn't add up. Over half of the carbon moving out of Lake Superior cannot be attributed to a source. Theoretically, the rate at which carbon exits the system should equal its entrance. Researchers think the most likely factor boggling calculations is an underestimate of primary production, the rate at which photosynthesis converts sunlight and carbon dioxide into organic matter. This study will improve estimates of lake-wide primary production and also generate the first estimates of how much plant matter is eaten by grazing organisms. To better address the affects of climate variation, researchers will evaluate the relationships among Lake Superior's carbon budget, temperature, and light. Since all life depends upon the transfer of energy——and therefore carbon——this project will refine our understanding of how the ecosystem functions, mold future investigations by scientists, inform management decisions by natural resource agencies, and inspire public awareness about the role of large lakes in the global carbon cycle.

Determining the Potential for Harm to Human Health From Bacteria Found on Lake Superior Beaches

Project Summary

This project builds on previous Sea Grant research to identify the sources of high levels of bacteria on several Lake Superior beaches. While these sources are currently being identified, the potential for harm from the bacteria has not been determined.

This project will determine the pathogenicity (ability to cause diseases) of E. coli (Escherichia coli) and other bacteria present on two beaches in Duluth using new, high-throughput robotic technologies. The researchers will examine bacterial and sediment samples for the presence of genes that come from harmful bacteria. They will also determine whether the presence of these genes vary over short time scales. This will help the researchers learn whether there's a relationship between environmental factors and the level of harmful bacteria in waterways.

The results will be useful for pollution control, wastewater treatment facilities, and state health department personnel, and will have widespread application for other coastal areas of the Great Lakes. Results from these studies could lead to better wastewater release and remediation practices, and to more informed health advisories.

Forecasting Shifts in Water Quality as Land Use Patterns Change

Project Summary

Water quality usually deteriorates proportionally to increases in the amount of land sealed by roofs and pavement within a watershed. Thanks to the power of computerized mapping programs, land use (city or farm), land cover (bog or forest), and other spatial features can be quickly quantified. Associating such land information with aquatic data, researchers will determine how detailed mapping information must be to accurately predict water quality conditions in 18 North Shore streams. They will create a model for forecasting water quality based on landscape variables acquired through archived information and new data collected during field studies. After identifying which variables most influence the model, researchers will use the model to examine how various plans for building in the Amity and Lester watersheds of Lake Superior could affect water quality. The results of this investigation will help city planners, county zoning committees, resource managers, and citizens make decisions about land use with regard to water quality.

Measuring Trends in Lake Superior's Productivity Based on Two Centuries of Sediment

Project Summary

Residual bits of long-dead algae promise to reveal how Lake Superior's fertility has changed from the days when Ojibwe trappers and French voyageurs rendezvoused around its perimeter, through an era of logging, until now. Researchers intend to extract a history of plant productivity from six sediment cores retrieved from the bottom of the lake.

They expect that the compounds and atoms within the first foot of these cores will illuminate at least three things: how the lake's photosynthetic species responded to an influx of phosphorous before wastewater treatment improved, the origin of the nitrogen that has significantly increased in the lake over the past century, and a clearer understanding of how humans have influenced the base of Lake Superior's food web. This information will help federal, state, provincial, and tribal agencies responsible for managing the Great Lakes interpret current environmental conditions and better prepare for the consequences of local and global climate change.

Midges and Mayflies: Assessing Stream Conditions Through Insect Communities

Project Summary

Trout streams contain more than fish and water. They are the milieu for hundreds of species, including insects, which reflect stream quality through their presence and abundance. In this study, researchers will partner with volunteers to collect and identify the empty larval cases of midges from 12 trout streams running into Lake Superior through Duluth. They will investigate whether species in the midge community show more sensitivity to subtle stream differences, particularly those associated with increased urbanization, than do the traditional species used to monitor stream health (mayflies, stoneflies, and caddisflies).

The researchers suspect that midges will be more sensitive indicators and also acceptable for use in projects monitored by volunteers. The researchers will also determine if there is a correlation between the stream insect community and the amount of impervious surface covering the stream watersheds. The information produced through this study will be made available online and translated into Spanish, Somali, and Hmong to reach minority audiences. The results will aid monitoring projects, especially those concerned with maintaining fishable streams.

Rapid Identification of Bacteria Sources that Lead to Lake Superior Beach Advisories

Project Summary

This project builds on previous Sea Grant research designed to pinpoint the sources of bacteria that contribute to beaches being "closed" (posted with "water contact not recommended" signs). Researchers will use two new genetic techniques (robotic-assisted gene probing and quantitative PCR) to more rapidly identify whether the sources of fecal bacteria at several Lake Superior beaches come from birds or humans. If the bacteria are from humans, the health risks may be more serious than if the sources are from waterfowl.

They plan to take sand, sediment, and water samples at several Duluth beaches to see if bacteria vary daily in response to natural and human activities, including outflow from the sanitary district. They will also test drainage pipes and stream outlets entering the lake near the beach sites.

Their findings will help agencies post more accurate water contact advisories, verify contamination sources so they can be removed, and to detect unsuspected sources of fecal contaminants. The techniques developed will have widespread applicability to other coastal regions and areas of the Great Lakes.

From Top to Bottom: Investigating the Daily Migration of Fish and Their Prey in Lake Superior

Project Summary

Where fish and their prey go in Lake Superior on a daily basis remains unclear to scientists. This project proposes to measure the top-to-bottom (vertical) migration of prey fish, predatory fish, and an important zooplankton species, Mysis relicta, in western Lake Superior over various seasons. Researchers will conduct day and night surveys on the research vessel Blue Heron in the deep trench off Taconite Harbor (Schroeder, MN) in May through late September. They will also work with the US Geological Survey and their research vessel the Kiyi to conduct day and night bottom and midwater trawls for fish.

Through diet and growth studies on fish caught during the trawls, researchers will examine how energy flows through the food webs in these locations. They also hope to evaluate food web linkages between the deep and shallow habitats in the lake. Understanding these linkages and migration patterns will help natural resource agencies better manage commercially important fish species such as ciscoes, salmon, and lake trout.

Mapping Deep Waters to Discover Lake Trout Spawning Grounds

Project Summary

Several miles from the harbor in Marquette, Mich., about the length of a football field down, a swath of lake floor might be the secret spawning ground of siscowet, a deep-dwelling strain of lake trout. Little is known about the life cycle of Lake Superior's siscowets. Presumably, they spawn over deep reefs but no sites have been identified. Michigan researchers discovered a clue to the location of the spawning grounds when they netted several egg-laden females during regular sampling.

This project seeks to map potential spawning habitat used by Lake Superior's abundant siscowet population using multibeam and sidescan sonar techniques to generate data and images reflecting the lake floor's composition. Approximately 25 square miles will be scrutinized for evidence of deep lake floor reefs and areas of cobble. This research should result in a clearer picture of a potentially important portion of Lake Superior's floor and of siscowet spawning habitat. The study and maps will benefit fisheries managers throughout the Great Lakes seeking to understand lake trout or restore these native fish to their former range.

Using Slimy Sculpins to Evaluate the Role of Genetics in the Success of Animal Reintroductions

Project Summary

Animal reintroduction efforts are likely to become more common due to habitat loss, fragmentation and degradation, coupled with the effects of climate change. Understanding what contributes to the success of these efforts will increase their effectiveness.

This project will use genetic testing to explore the survival and reproduction rates of slimy sculpin (Cottus cognatus, a small, bottom-dwelling forage fish) translocated into several southern Minnesota streams. The tests will determine if there's a match between the quality of the sculpin's original habitat and the success they have in their new habitat. Researchers suspect that fish from low-quality habitats (streams with extensive silt and little bank vegetation) do better in low-quality habitats than fish from high-quality habitats (streams with a rocky bottom and wooded or grass-covered banks) and vice-versa. The findings will help guide natural resource managers in their efforts to restore this and other species.

This project builds on methods used in previous Sea Grant-funded studies that compared the survival of offspring from steelhead trout that were stocked in Lake Superior streams.

See Also

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