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Six Projects, $1.5 Million ... What You Should Know

Male smallmouth bass defending the nest. Photo Credit: Dan Wilfond, MNDNR Fisheries Specialist

Erin Schaeffer holding a Muskie on Island Lake, just north of Duluth.

In July 2016, Minnesota Sea Grant awarded $1.5 million to support six research projects over the next two years. Our investment, which includes support for six Minnesota graduate students, comes through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Sea Grant College Program and is matched by the University of Minnesota. Here's what you should know about how these projects address economic and environmental challenges relevant to Lake Superior and Minnesota's inland waters:

  1. "Just don't die out there," said a member of the Minnesota Sea Grant Advisory Committee while reviewing Ted Ozersky's proposal Opening the Black Box of Winter. Ozersky is an assistant professor with the Large Lakes Observatory and the Swenson College of Science and Engineering at the University of Minnesota Duluth. He and his team will brave the depths of winter to understand how ice cover affects Lake Superior's physical and chemical dynamics and, in turn, the phytoplankton and zooplankton that live there. Team members will lean over the side of a small boat or stand out on the ice to measure light and temperature profiles, water chemistry parameters, and abundance and depth distribution of phytoplankton and zooplankton species. By examining winter water, an understudied facet of Lake Superior's annual cycle, they will advance a growing awareness of how changes in ice cover affect biological productivity and aquatic food webs. Listen to Ted talk about his research on The Sea Grant Files podcast.
  2. We might be a step closer to Solving a Biocorrosion Challenge in Freshwater Ports. Randall Hicks, a professor of biology at UMD, is investigating ways to reduce bacterial interactions responsible for accelerating infrastructure corrosion in the Duluth-Superior harbor and other freshwater ports. To do this, Hicks and his team began by fastening steel samples to sea walls below the waterline within the harbor. Some samples are untreated while others are coated with non-toxic antifouling biochemicals or antifouling bacteria. The samples will be scrutinized for evidence of corrosion and changes in their bacterial communities. The goals of this study are to identify non-toxic methods of impeding microbial attachment and growth or to modify existing microbial communities to reduce corrosion.
  3. Lian Shen, assistant professor at St. Anthony Falls Laboratory and Department of Mechanical Engineering, University of Minnesota Twin Cities, wonders: What if Oil Spilled into a Large Lake? Shen is running simulations to predict the way oil droplets might move within the water column of lakes like Superior. This study seeks to improve the accuracy of predictions by incorporating realistic wind and wave conditions, surface currents, turbulence and properties of oil into advanced computational models. Reflecting a more dynamic lake environment than standard models can, the results of this study could be useful in risk analyses and, should there be a spill, could help predict its trajectory.
  4. Andrew Bramburger, research associate with UMD's Natural Resources Research Institute, seeks to Understand Harmful Algae Blooms in Minnesota's Inland Lakes. He is examining relationships among environmental stressors and algal responses to reveal whether harmful algae blooms are increasing in frequency in Minnesota lakes. Think of him as a fossil hunter who is unearthing fossil pigments and other paleolimnological artifacts to determine historical trends. Bramburger and his research team are also examining modern algal assemblages and water quality characteristics to understand harmful algae bloom patterns. Their findings could guide regulatory actions and inform best management practices while shedding light on the usefulness of algae bloom monitoring and prediction networks. Hear more about this research on The Sea Grant Files podcast.
  5. Paul Venturelli, assistant professor of fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology, University of Minnesota Twin Cities, is Tracking Muskellunge in the St. Louis River Estuary. Venturelli and his research team are investigating if and how Muskies are occupying restored habitats in the estuary and if they might be using Lake Superior. They are following the movements and habitat use of Muskies in the estuary through stationary acoustic receivers and mobile tracking. Genetic analyses will help determine if fish from two stocked strains behave differently. This research is expected to also help refine population estimates. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which conducts a spring survey of Muskies in the estuary, has restoration targets and they expect that Venturelli's project will help define important habitats for a culturally, economically and ecologically important game fish.
  6. Minnesota and Wisconsin Sea Grant are collaborating to Understand Methylmercury Production and Bioavailability in the St. Louis River Estuary. Nathan Johnson, assistant professor in UMD's Department of Civil Engineering, is working with colleagues from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, UW-La Crosse and Gustavus Adolphus College to tease apart the processes that cause elevated mercury levels in sport fish within the diverse biogeochemical setting of the St. Louis River Estuary. Methylmercury, the bioaccumulative form of mercury, mostly comes from natural microbial activity in wetlands, soils and sediments. Its production reflects organic carbon, aquatic vegetation and sulfur concentrations. The researchers will collect water, sediment and biota from a variety of locations in the estuary and analyze them for total mercury and methylmercury. This work will inform decisions concerning beneficial use of dredged materials, habitat restoration and fish consumption advisories. John Myers, a reporter on the environmental beat for the Duluth News Tribune, did an enviable write-up on this research.

By Sharon Moen and Jennifer Gasperini
December 2016

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