Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Fighting Back

Having worked on the Great Lakes for a decent chunk of my young career I am all to familiar with invasive species and the devastating effects they can have on an ecosystem.  Unfortunately most of the news concerning invasive species is negative and in systems like the Great Lakes it seems as though someone left the front door open for invasive species to swim on in.  In fact, it's probably one of the major reasons I wanted to moved on from working on the Great Lakes.  Invasive species are depressing and the situation never seems to improve.  That is not to say the marine environment doesn't have its own invasive species problems, as we've seen from the invasion of lionfish.

But the news isn't all bad.

It seems as though Lake George in New York has had success in turning back invasive species.  When Asian clams were discovered in the lake scientists quickly mobilized to eradicate the threat.  The location of the clams in the lake was identified, and mats are being laid over the top to "snuff" out the tiny invaders.
But it doesn't end there.

Lake George has had past success in avoiding invasive species.  Eurasian watermilfoil has been contained in the lake using barriers, and zebra mussels were wiped out by volunteer divers who picked them off of rocks.  It's pretty incredible when you think about it.

Granted Lake George is a smaller system so it is probably easier to contain and eradicate invasive species than in larger systems.  However, I think it speaks to the importance of long term monitoring and having proactive user groups that these threats were quickly identified and dealt with.  Hopefully Lake George has the same success with the Asian Clam.  

Friday, April 15, 2011

Phosphorus in Wisconsin

I was reading a post at the Sierra Clubs Great Lakes Program blog and found the reference to this article about Wisconsin potentially allowing increased phosphorous releases into state waters pretty interesting.  I'll briefly explain the political issues (as far as I can understand them) before getting into the science but you should definitely read the article for yourself.

For those following the Wisconsin budget situation, it is common knowledge that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is heavily backed by the Koch brothers, the libertarian billionaires known for their philanthropy and support of the tea party "movement".  The brothers own most of Koch industries which encompasses Georgia Pacific lumber which has paper mills in Wisconsin.  Phosphorus is one of the by products produced by these plants, the phosphorus is usually disposed of by discharging into   nearby waterbodies.  Essentially, Scott Walker and his colleagues have been working to delay legislation that would limit phosphorus emissions, presumably with the goal of getting rid of this legislation all together.  Many questions have arisen about Walkers motives because the Koch brothers back Walker and have a lot to gain if Walker is successful in delaying this legislation (read the article for more detail).        

So why should we care if more phosphorus is added to the environment?

Primary production is the conversion of the suns energy to organic material, usually by photosynthesis.  In addition to sunlight, phosphorus and nitrogen are needed for primary production.  In freshwater environments phosphorus is a limiting element.  This means that regardless of the amount of nitrogen in the environment if there is not enough phosphorous primary production will be limited.  In aquatic systems primary productivity can be viewed as algal and aquatic plant growth.  The more phosphorous in the system the more plant growth we should see.  Many freshwater systems have extra phosphorous added to them from outside sources (like paper plants), which increases primary productivity, this is known as eutrophication.   

That's good right?  We want more primary productivity don't we?  Zooplankton eat algae and fish eat zooplakton.  If there is more algae we get more zooplankton and more fish...Right?  This is somewhat true (see Onondaga Lake and Lake Erie), eutrophic lakes (whether it's natural or artificial eutrophication) seem to support a lot life.

But there are plenty of negatives.

Increased primary production can lead to visible algal and vegetation mats in the water that can emit odors and are just plain unsightly and can be a nuisance to boaters, swimmers, fishermen and other recreational users. 
From a fisheries perspective eutrophication can lead to fish kills.  At night algal respiration can use up  dissolved oxygen in the water, which decreases the amount that can be used by fish, and other organisms.  Also, oxygen is used by microbes that break down dead algae and plants on the bottom of rivers and lakes, this can cause reduced oxygen in locations.

It's pretty clear that eutrophication can have some devastating effects on the environment, and that eutrophication can be caused by increased phosphorus input.  While many restrictions have been put on what can be dumped into waterways, it seems like we are constantly on the brink of these regulations being relaxed because it's "good for business".  In the current political climate I am sure industry will lobby hard for relaxed environmental regulations in the name of progress, and if they don't get there way I would be willing to guess that layoffs will follow (gotta keep those profits up).  It comes down to one simple question; Should private industries be able to pollute/destroy public resources so they can maintain higher profits?

I hope the answer is a resounding no. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A little more on Carp

It's been a fairly busy/interesting/hectic/scary/informative couple of weeks; I wrote a statistics paper (lame!), I presented at our schools research and creative achievement week, I got a crash course in how to trouble shoot ICP-OES, Dr. Norman Halden, one of the worlds experts on mass spectrometry came for a visit, I defended my proposal (at long last), and had some fun with chemistry

Needless to say I haven't posted anything in a while.  However, I have been following some of the recent developments in the potential invasion of the Great Lakes by Asian carp.

Less than a week ago the army corps of engineers activated a new electric barrier on the Chicago sanitary and ship canal to deter the upstream movement of Asian carp into Lake Michigan.  This brings the number of electric barriers on the canal to three.  To my knowledge the original barrier was supposed to crap out around 2007 or 2008 but has kept on chugging, and I am sure repairs have been made since then.  At the same time the original barrier was supposed to bite the dust a second barrier was being added just downstream of the first.  The newest barrier is slightly downstream of the other two.  The multi-barrier array allows for repairs to individual barriers and is a safe guard if for some reason fish are able to bypass one barrier.  The barrier design works in this portion of the canal, because it is a relatively narrow section and the barriers can span the entire width. 

While the barriers appear to work in preventing fish from moving upstream, they may not be as effective in preventing the movement of fish downstream.  A fish moving downstream may become stunned by the electricity and simply drift with the current passed the electric barriers, waking up on the other side.  Also, the Des Plaines river, which runs parallel to the canal may serve as a passage for Asian carp.  During flooding events the Des Plaines River spills into the canal upstream of the electrical barriers.

Today, I read about anglers in Canada advocating permanently breaking the connection between the canal and Lake Michigan.  While this may seem a extreme, I support this idea.  Shipping traffic in the canal is not nearly what it used to be (at least that's what I'm told), and this seems to be the only way to prevent invasive species from naturally moving between the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes. 

It's an interesting debate, and there are many stakeholders from multiple U.S. states and Canada.  Many questions remain as to the best way to keep the carp out of the Great Lakes, whether they could actually survive in the lakes, and what impact they could have on the lakes.  I am certainly interested in how this plays out.