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2009-2010 Research Projects

We recently chose seven research projects involving Lake Superior and inland waterways for funding. The award money, which is provided by the National Sea Grant College Program and matched by the University of Minnesota, collectively totals $509,800. The funded projects and researchers for 2009-2010 are:

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

See Also


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