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Lake Guardian: Great Lakes Studies A-Go on Governor's Island
By Paul F on Jul 24, 2013 at 11:00 AM

Lake and River Learning from SUNY ESF Researchers Studying the Ecosystem via a Remote Island, One of Few Inhabited in the Region's 1,800+ Chain

While docked in Clayton, N.Y. — located on the southern bank of the St. Lawrence River in one of the furthest northeastern sections of the Lake Ontario basin — the educators and researchers aboard the the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) R/V Lake Guardian (pictured below, [1]) took a reprieve from extracting and analyzing the Lake's water and soil samples. After the teachers talked with the media about what they've learned so far (see NYSG's related blog post, "Lights, Camera ... Clayton"), they visited one of the islands on this, the U.S. side of the region.

Just a five minute boat ride from the mainland in Clayton lies Governors Island  (pictured below, to the left, [2]), which is home to the State University of New York College of Science and Environmental Forestry's (SUNY ESF) Thousand Islands Biological Station (TIBS). To the right of Governors Island is Calumet Island, where a century-old 82-foot water tower from a now gone, once-celebrated castle still stands as a symbol of the Thousand Islands region's Golden Age. While not as large or ornate as Boldt Castle or Singer Castle, the castle of Calumet (which burned down in 1956) was the first grand estate of its kind to inspire other luxurious retreats built by wealthy industrialists spending summers in the Thousand Islands as it became known as a popular cottage colony.

After arriving on Governors Island via small boats provided by both SUNY ESF and Clarkson University, the educators were greeted by investigators Dr. John Farrell (SUNY ESF, Syracsue, NY), Dr. Michael Twiss (Clarkson U, Potsdam, NY) and a number of graduate, undergraduate and post-doctoral students conducting studies at TIBS for the summer.

Some of the R/V Guardian's teachers, such as Tonia Henry, a middle school teacher from Minnesota, were asked about their experiences at TIBS from both Your News Now reporter Carmella Mataloni (both pictured below, [3], with Calumet Island — and its historic water tower — in the distance) and WRVO/North Country Public Radio's Joanna Richards.

SUNY ESF's Farrell (pictured below, [4]) provided the group with an introduction to TIBS, where research studies are focused on the St. Lawrence River's aquatic ecology, emphasizing fisheries, coastal wetlands, limnology (freshwater science), invasive species, and ecological stressors (for details, see SUNY ESF/TIBS' "Research").

"Our efforts here at TIBS are aligned with a mission to conserve the area's aquatic resources through ecosystem-based science that informs decision makers, while providing high-quality educational opportunities," said Farrell, citing partnerships as a key factor to accomplishing this. Farrell recognized numerous organizations and agencies that have and continue to assist TIBS accomplish its mission goals, including: Save the River, the EPA and its Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, New York Sea Grant (NYSG), the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Great Lakes Fisheries Commission, Cornell University, Clarkson University and Thousand Islands Land Trust.

As the only natural outlet to the Great Lakes — it connects the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean, with a drainage basin of over 3/4 of a million square kilometers — the St. Lawrence River is the shared interest of TIBS and its partners. It's the 10th largest river in the world in terms of flow and its fish community contains a diverse array of fishes with nearly 50 species observed annually in surveys and around 85 species documented by TIBS and NYSDEC.

Farrell informed the group that the River is home to several popular sport fish, including: muskellunge, northern pike, walleye, largemouth bass and smallmouth bass. Popular panfish species (those game fish that usually doesn't outgrow the size of a frying pan) include yellow perch, rock bass, black crappie, and pumpkinseed and bluegill sunfish.

The ecosystem harbors a diverse array of aquatic and wetland plants and several NYS threatened and endangered species, including the Lake sturgeon, pugnose shiner, common tern, bald eagle, and Blanding’s turtle. In addition to the River's ecological diversity, Farrell said, "One reason it is so important to the Great Lakes is because it's become an artery for shipping." That hasn't been all good for the region — the emptying of ballast water from ships passing through in recent decades has brought with it many notable invasive species that have affected the ecosystem, including zebra and quagga mussels, sea lamprey, Eurasian frogs-bit and round goby (the latter of which anglers were using to bait sport fish, until the act of doing so was declared illegal because gobies are invasives).

For more, see New York Sea Grant's eight-page fact sheet, "Invasive Species of Lakes Erie and Ontario" (pdf). Additional information on invasive species can be found at

Farrell was a co-principal investigator of a 2006 NYSG-funded research project that studied ecological control of Eurasian frogs-bit, a non-native, invasive, free-floating aquatic plant that is widely distributed in the wetlands of eastern Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. He says that understanding frogs-bit ecology is important, noting that removal of its nearshore dense mats, which have a negative effect on native submerged plants, do not guarantee control of the invasive plant. This is because the plant produces longer roots as the water level increases. In the cattail stands, where light levels are low, it was found that frogs-bit produces numerous winter buds that can help sustain the population. Farrell and the other investigators concluded that this finding is important to consider for managers determining the most cost effective means of control.

For more on Eurasian frogs-bit and other aquatic invasive plants, see "Non-Motorized Boaters: Raise Your Paddle Free of Debris," an article from New York Sea Grant's 2012 Launch Stewards program. The program has expanded in 2013 (see related news item). More publications and news from NYSG's Coastal Community Development Program can be found at

Another issue of concern: Viral Hemorraghic Septicemia (VHSv), a fish disease that has been found in a wide diversity of Great Lakes species, including the muskellunge. "Our goal is to perpetuate them as a viable, self-sustaining component of the fish community in the St. Lawrence River," said Farrell, "and to provide a quality trophy fish." For more on a NYSG-funded VHSv research study that featured Farrell as a co-principal investigator, go "Under the Microscope with VHS" (NYSG's NY Coastlines newsletter, Fall 2010). Also, check out the VHS news section of NYSG's Great Lakes Sportfishing resource site. There's also additional info on SUNY ESF/TIBS' "Muskie Management Programs."

A series of public hearings have begun this summer that address another matter: lake levels. At these hearing, The International Joint Commission (IJC) is presenting their water regulation plan and welcome comments. IJC claims that "fluctuating water levels are necessary to maintain dynamic, diverse and healthy coastal wetlands."

"We're very interested in the effects that has on aquatic ecology," said Farrell. For example, northern pike need to reach critical habitat through determining when some of these nearshore areas are inundated. Because the early life history of northern pike is wetland dependent, TIBS' simulation studies have provided a sensitive process-based indicator for IJC to judge water level plan effects on this important species. For more, see SUNY ESF/TIBS' "Northern Pike" Studies. And, for more on water levels, see IJC's "History of Water Regulation in the Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Basin."

Clarkson U's Twiss (pictured above, [5], holding a smallmouth bass, a popular Lake Ontario sport fish; below, [6], with educators from the R/V Lake Guardian), has been an investigator on several NYSG-funded research projects.

In one of these studies, Twiss and his team of researchers examined the impact that thallium, a heavy metal, has on the Lake Ontario ecosystem. Soluble thallium can be taken up by phytoplankton, then zooplankton, and so on up the food chain, creating a domino effect of ecological problems. For more, see "Emerging Pathways" (pdf) (NYSG's NY Coastlines newsletter, Fall 2005).

In a more recent study, Twiss examined Lake Erie, the Great Lake most impacted by summer hypoxia (the loss of oxygen at the bottom that affects fish and other living communities). “Lake Erie, the shallowest of the Great Lakes, is warmest in summer and coldest in winter,” he says. “These extremes make it a good environment to predict how the lakes will change with global climate change.” A feature article on this study will be included in the Summer 2013 issue of NY Coastlines. Be sure you are on the list to receive NYSG's newsletter at

Farrell (pictured below, [7-10]) led a module on wetland floral biodiversity, showing the educators different native and invasive plant species. These included various macro algae species [7, 9, 10], and cattail [8], a native coastal wetlands plant.

Cladophora, a common filamentous green algae that, while non-toxic, has been known to grow in large amounts, ultimately resulting in increased decaying plant matter in some areas of the Great Lakes. This decomposition can create an oxygen-deprived (hypoxic) environment that is suitable to, for example, the bacterium that produces the Type E botulism toxin that is responsible for extensive waterfowl and some fish kills. For more, see the "Botulism in Lakes Erie and Ontario" resource site,, a partnership of Sea Grant programs in New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

And for more on Lake Ontario's algae issues, see NYSG's related blog post, "Safety First: But, Are They Harmful?"

As Farrell showed the group, the way to identify non-native cattail species is by examining the flower portion of the plant. Non-native cattails have a gap between the male and female parts of the flower. He is seen here explaining this for WRVO/North Country Public Radio reporter Joanna Richards.

In one of TIBS' wet labs, several of Farrell's SUNY ESF graduate students offered the educators (and reporters including WRVO/North Country Public Radio's Joanna Richards) some highlights of the River system's large native game fish — walleye, bass, pike and muskellunge. They informed the group that, for example, as the largest member of the pike family, muskellunge grow to be 30-46 inches long and are held in high regard by anglers who mostly practice catch-and-release fishing. Also, like northern pike (which can grow to be about 25-36 inches long), muskies use their large, needle-sharp teeth to capture their food.

The grad students also shared their research studies to help improve the struggling muskie population, noting that they recently released 5,200 juvenile muskies into the River. Another way TIBS is helping the preserve the species' population in the St. Lawrence River: Through a partnership with Save the River, TIBS sponsors a "Muskie Release Award." The release of fish ensures a future supply of naturally reproduced muskies as well as larger trophies for years to come. Since the inception of the muskellunge release award in 1987, over 500 muskies have been successfully released. To encourage this practice, anglers who release a muskie 48'' or larger during the fishing season (third Saturday in June through December 15) are eligible to receive a signed limited edition print, St. Lawrence River Muskie! by St. Lawrence River artist Michael Ringer.

Some of the species on display in the wet lab: banded killifish [11], round gobies ([12], held by New York Sea Grant Coastal Education Specialist Helen Domske), brown bullhead (catfish), alewives [14] and smallmouth bass [15]. In addition to checking out these live species in the tanks, the educators also examined some preserved fish [13, 17-19]. These included juvenile northern pike, the invasive quagga mussel and crayfish.

While a debate continues as to whether the alewife is native to Lake Ontario, there is little doubt that this species gained access to Lake Erie (and, hence, the other three Great Lakes) following the construction of the Welland Canal, which bypasses Niagara Falls. The alewife has been intentionally introduced by some state agencies into inland lakes to increase the forage (prey or bait) base for popular sport fish. The problem with this, though, is that alewives compete with native species zooplankton, a limited food resource in the lakes.

For more on alewives, see "Alewife: Unlocking Unknowns of a Key Species," (pdf) a NY Coastlines article on a related NYSG-funded research project. More fisheries articles found in NY Coastlines, NYSG's newsletter, can be found in the "Archives" section under "Related Links" at

An issue that continues to raise concern is the Great Lakes involves the movement of contaminants up the food chain. It begins with zebra and quagga mussels, aggressive filter feeders that remove substantial amounts of phytoplankton and suspended particulate from the water. This poses a challenge to zooplankton, consumers and processors of these plant-based energy sources, that then serve as a resource for consumers on higher trophic levels (including fish).

So, these invasive mussels, which colonize rapidly, threaten the balance in aquatic food webs. Their intense filtration also make them vessels for the water's contaminants. And when predators like the round goby consume them, they 'inherit' those contaminants, passing them on to species higher up in the food chain, like smallmouth bass, as mentioned earlier, a key sport fish for anglers in the Great Lakes.

The graduate students also gave a demonstration of the different nets they use in their fisheries studies, which include a seining net (pictured below, [16]).

After leaving TIBS for the mainland at Clayton, the educators made their way back on the R/V Guardian and out onto Lake Ontario, where they'll next head to the Port of Oswego. They'll continue their water and soil sampling at various stations on the Lake as they travel between the two ports. More on the journey in our next blog post.
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