Sedimentation Workshop--Harper's Ferry, West Virginia


By John E. Gannon,
Great Lakes Science Center,
Ann Arbor, Michigan

Background: The Great Lakes Science Center was established in 1927 and throughout its history has conducted research and long-term monitoring on Great Lakes fishes. Since the 1960's, the Center has been involved with the toxic contamination issue in the Great Lakes, including analytical chemistry of heavy metals and organochlorine contaminants in water, sediment, and biota. Because sediments is such a major source of in-place pollutants, the Center developed bioassays and toxicity-testing methods in the laboratory for addressing pollutanted sediments, and conducted field work on biological effects of contaminated sediments, especially in industrialized rivers and harbors. Some of this research was collaborative with the USGS/BRD Midwest Science Center.

Concurrently, the Great Lakes Science Center developed a limnological research capability with a strong emphasis on benthic organisms as indicators of water and sediment quality. Research has been instrumental in documenting the decline and subsequent recovery of benthos in response to water quality improvements in Lake Erie. With the inception of the National Biological Survey (now BRD), former National Park Service researchers in the Great Lakes region became affiliated with the Center, including expertise in benthic ecology and toxicology.

Today, the Center is phasing out of analytical chemistry and laboratory bioassays, but is maintaining a contaminants research capability with emphasis on chemical environmental behavior modeling and ecological risk assessment. The original benthic limnological program has evolved into broader research using benthic organisms to address issues of biodiversity, food web dynamics, and habitat protection and restoration. The latter requires an ecosystem approach to research and resource management. Consequently, habitat research is addressing both soft-bottom sediments and hard substrates (cobble shoals, submerged bedrock reefs, etc.). The Center still maintains a predominance of expertise in aquatic habitats but also has expertise in wetlands and coastal terrestrial research. Current research pertinent to this workshop include ecosystem health modeling, biodiversity and food web dynamics, and habitat research.

Ecosystem Health Modeling: The Great Lakes Science Center is engaged in modeling research to develop accurate screening tools for chemical property estimation and environmental fate determination based primarily on chemical structure. The application of screening models to detected (or suspected) environmental contaminants will focus increasingly scarce research funds on those compounds expected to be truly dangerous to the aquatic (or terrestrial) ecosystem. The studies range from simple correlations of bulk chemical with their environmental effects, to the application of sophisticated QSARs (quantitative structure-activity relationships) relating physicochemical characteristics, including esoteric quantum attributes, to molecular behavior. The most environmentally applicable QSAR has been found to be the Linear Solvation Energy Relationship, (LSER) for which the researchers have tabulated and expanded the "rules" for parameter estimation, extended the tool to apply to the entire periodic table, compiled a growing library of parameter sets for ~ 3000 compounds, and wrote predictive software ("PREDICTOX") that estimates chemical toxicities for a representative aquatic food chain.

Capabilities at the Center in ecological risk assessment as applied in the ARCS Program (Assessment and Remediation of Contaminated Sediments) included the following elements: Hazard identification of chemicals, determination of probable exposure pathways, determination of exposure point concentration, determination of contaminant intake/exposure, review/evaluation of existing chemical data, toxicity assessment, risk/hazard characterization, characterization of uncertainty, and evaluation of baseline risks to aquatic receptors. At present the Center's capabilities include information synthesis and modeling to conduct baseline risk assessments. A new emphasis is the evaluation of natural remediation of sites that have been impacted by chemicals. On-site field assessment of fish and benthic invertebrate populations in response to stressors is anticipated. Collaborative work is ongoing to evaluate sublethal effects of chemical stressors in the laboratory. Natural resource damage assessment activities using ecological risk assessment methods are anticipated to be conducted in collaboration with regulatory agencies.

Biodiversity and Food Web Dynamics: There is much concern in the Great Lakes as elsewhere in the world about loss of biodiversity. Yet, the list of known invertebrates in the Great Lakes is woefully incomplete. Research is underway that has greatly added to the knowledge of aquatic insects and micro-crustaceans in the Great Lakes. A combination of benthic sampling for immature stages and emergence traps for adults has proved effective for aquatic insects. In addition, collection of forage fish and examining their stomach contents for prey items has been successful in obtaining invertebrates associated with hard-bottom substrates that are otherwise notoriously difficult to sample. Besides aiding our understanding of biodiversity, research on the lower food web of many species of Great Lakes fishes is being used in investigations and modeling of fish bioenergetics, analyses of year-class strength, and food web pathways for bioaccumulation of toxic contaminants. An especially versatile aspect of the Center's research capabilities is the combining of fieldwork with experimental ecology and behavior studies in the Center's wet laboratory. For example, field studies on population characteristics and food habits of ruffe in western Lake Superior have been augmented by thermal preference, predatory-prey, and food competition experiments in the laboratory to better predict the probable geographic spread and impact of this exotic fish species on native communities.

Habitat Investigations: Aquatic habitat research at the Center has included polluted harbors and connecting channels, the coastal zone of the Great Lakes, and offshore reefs. Physicochemical and biological samples of soft sediments have been collected with bottom samplers such as the Ponar grab, whereas information on the mix of soft and hard-bottom substrates associated with historically important fish spawning reefs is being obtained with side-scan sonar and a remotely operated vehicle fitted with still and video cameras for groundtruthing. Our benthic organism studies and habitat assessment research has been important in documenting the recent recovery of the burrowing mayfly, Hexagenia, in Lake Erie and the lake trout in Lake Superior. Moreover, a combination of field studies and laboratory experiments have provided critically important information on zebra mussels and their impact on native communities. Currently, the Center is focusing research on native unionid clams... the group of organisms most adversely affected by the zebra mussel infestation.

Coastal wetlands research has used a combination of extant biological community analyses and paleoecological techniques to determine the effects of water-level fluctuations on the diversity and quality of wetland communities in the Great Lakes. These studies have provided important information concerning deliberations on water-level control regulations in the Great Lakes and on predicting the effects of global climate change on Great Lakes wetland communities. Wetland structure and function, including physical analyses of soft sediment and biological community structure, is being investigated. Moreover, information on nearshore sediment transport processes is proving critical in understanding coastal wetland habitats and developing methods to protect or restore them.

Summary: The Center has long been collaborating with State geological surveys on wetland research and receiving valuable information. More recently collaboration and cooperation is developing between the Center and other USGS divisions on aquatic research. The complex problems we are facing require breaking down barriers between physical and biological research. Moreover, there is need to breakdown the artificial boundaries between aquatic and wetland habitat research. Habitat protection and restoration is emerging as one of the top resource management issues in the Great Lakes. An ecosystem approach to research and management is required that addresses both soft and hard-bottom substrates, using physical and biological techniques and approaches being developed in the disciplines of restoration ecology and ecological engineering.


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John E. Gannon, Ph. D., is presently the Science Coordinator at the USGS/BRD Great Lakes Science Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is a limnnologist and fisheries biologist with broad interests in aquatic ecology, fisheries, and water pollution biology and specific intrests in Great Lakes limnology, zooplankton ecology, environmental communication, and habitat protection and restoration. He has authored over 80 papers on the limnology and fisheries biology of the Great Lakes and inland waters of the Great Lakes basin and on field-oriented approaches to environmental education. Specifically, concerning sediment research, he developed bioassay techniques that demonstrated the toxicity of Great Lakes harbor sediments that lead to the practice of confined disposal facilities. Currently, he is leading research efforts on artificial and incidental habitat issues in the Great Lakes, and is overseeing the development of large river habitat sampling protocols in assistance to the USGS National Water Quality Assessment Program (NAWQA). Bottom-substrate Research at the Great Lakes Science Center - Accomplishments and Capabilities.

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