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Great Lakes Basin to get Checkup

Mayfly

Minnesota Sea Grant is participating in a $6 million research project that will offer a comprehensive checkup on the health of the U.S. part of the Great Lakes. The research grant, awarded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to the Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI) of the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD) is the largest ecological grant ever awarded by the EPA’s Science to Achieve Results research program, and the largest ever received by both institutions.

The four-year project, headed by NRRI’s Gerald Niemi, will identify, evaluate, and recommend a portfolio of environmental indicators to measure the condition of the Great Lakes. These assessment tools will help maintain the lakes’ integrity and long-term sustainability. Like medical doctors who start with vital signs and then move on to specific diagnostic tests, the 27 scientists involved will closely examine the health of the Great Lakes.

Just as the human body has many different systems that must work together, so does the environment. The Great Lakes Basin, home to 36 million residents, contains approximately 18 percent of the world’s surface fresh water. Whatsketch of frog by Mike Lacklore happens in one system, wetlands, for instance, can affect other systems such as the fishery or water chemistry.

Leopard Frog.

Environmental indicators are biological, chemical or physical attributes of an ecosystem that can be measured and monitored to provide insight on the study area’s condition. For example, mayflies (Hexagenia) are indicators of good water quality in the Great Lakes. These insects spend most of their lives as larvae in lakes or streams. They emerge as winged adults to spend a short time - from a few hours to a couple of days - on land before dying. They were abundant before the 1950s, when industrial and urban development negatively impacted mayflies. Recently, mayfly populations have increased due to pollution control efforts, especially in the Lake Erie area where their numbers area actually a nuisance, causing slippery roads and brownouts when they sometimes interfere with power transformers.

In addition to researchers at NRRI and Sea Grant, the project will include experts from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Cornell University (New York), University of Windsor-Canada, John Carroll University (Ohio), and University of Michigan. Scientists from the EPA’s Mid-Continent Ecology Division in Duluth and research station in Grosse Ile, Michigan, are also major cooperators. “One of the challenges of this project is to get the information to the people who need it,” said Carl Richards, Minnesota Sea Grant director.

“One of our missions is outreach. We will work with the other Great Lakes Sea Grant programs to listen to community groups and help refine the selection of indicators.”

Minnesota Sea Grant Director Carl Richards, discusses aspects of a comprehensive project to develop indicator species for the Great Lakes with Gerry Niemi (NRRI), Steve Bradbury (EPA), and Lucinda Johnson (NRRI) at a press conference.

Minnesota Sea Grant Director Carl Richards (center), discusses aspects of a comprehensive project to develop indicator species for the Great Lakes with (from left to right) Gerry Niemi (NRRI), Steve Bradbury (EPA), and Lucinda Johnson (NRRI) at a press conference.

Study sites will span the U.S. waters of the 200,000-square-mile basin. Research will be broken into five major components:

  • Water quality and diatoms (microscopic algae)
  • Fish and macroinvertebrates (aquatic insects, crustaceans and worms)
  • Wetland vegetation
  • Birds and amphibians
  • Chemical contaminants

The scientists will be testing at least 80 existing indicators identified by the EPA and hope to develop some new ones.

“At the end of the four-year period, we will provide recommendations to the environmental community on what indicators are their best bets for future monitoring efforts,” said Niemi. “The EPA has provided a wonderful opportunity to critically examine which indicators can be used to determine the health of the U.S. Great Lakes coastal and near shore regions.” NRRI director Mike Lalich agrees that the importance of this project reaches beyond northeastern Minnesota. “Results of the research will provide a context that will assist resource managers and leaders to make sound environmental and economic decisions relating to the Great Lakes ecosystem in the future.”

Sketch of salamander by Mike Lacklore.

For more information on the project, officially titled Ldquo;Development of Environmental Indicators of Condition, Integrity, and Sustainability of the Great Lakes Basin,” contact Sea Grant Director Carl Richards at (218) 726-8710 or crichard@d.umn.edu.


By Brenda Maas and Marie Zhuikov
April 2001

Return to April 2001 Seiche



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