Chasing minnows, after dark, with a crappy light, in the winter, in a foreign country, after a fourteen-hour drive…and such
Ya know what would be a really unfortunate ailment to have as a fisheries biologist? Sea sickness. Working ten hours straight on a cramped boat with one other dude, picking dead fish out of nets is enough fun without your head swimming around asking your stomach how it feels about the situation.
“Not great but thanks for asking,” said the stomach.
As a proud member of the Sea Sick Biologists Society, I generally stick to bodies of water I can walk around in; after all, you can’t get sea sick on land, right?
As I discovered during my most recent visit to the river I’m conducting my graduate research on, if you go to the river at night, limit your field of view to the small illuminated area of a headlamp, and stare into the moving water, you can beautifully replicate the conditions needed for sea sickness. Something about focusing on a small area swirling with oceanesque little rivulets and tides really puts one back onto that rickety rowboat watching pond detritus try to decide if it’s too high-class to incorporate a little vomit.
Luckily, I was able to choke down that TV dinner and carry on trying to catch small, juvenile trout in the shallows illuminated by the light of my inadequate headlamp. In the Lardeau River of Canada, as in many larger rivers, fish spend most of their day in deeper waters to avoid the hawk-like eyes of a hawk that might want them for dinner. Once it’s dark however, many fish move into the shallows where the current isn’t as strong. Hence, a biologist outfitted with adequate light can use a minnow net to scoop up little fish just by walking along the bank and moving slowly.
We were trying to catch these little fish so as to tag them with a little flurorescent tag that snorkelers could identify the next night. Thus, by comparing the number of fish we tagged to the number the snorkelers saw, we could get an idea of the percent of all fish in the river that the snorkelers counted. Spread across many reaches on several nights, snorkelers would cover a good percent of the Lardeau River’s length and biologists could determine how many juvenile trout live in the river. At least that’s the idea. My dad and I, with our Sportsman’s Warehouse discount headlamps captured one fish for every dozen, or so, the Canadian biologists captured. Luckily, we were not critical to the operation, just tagging along to watch how this unique procedure was carried out. Come to think of it. That might be the best kind of work…watching other people do it.
In all seriousness, observing professional biologists work in-the-field and asking them lots of questions about how and why they are doing what they are, is one of the quickest ways to learn about your field of study. In the Lardeau River, the snorkeling survey was previously conducted on a very small reach of the river with poor estimation of the percent of fish observed. Chatting with the biologists there and asking about why they were conducting the survey in the current manner, and how that fit into the larger picture of trout management in the basin, allowed me to better understand the context of my own study.
It’s said that making mistakes is one of the best ways to learn. I’m glad I am able to talk with the experienced biologists who can share what has and hasn’t worked in the past. That way, I can at least avoid the mistakes that have already been made. Lord knows, I’ve got plenty of my own unique mistakes to make during the course of this project.
Diana Crow has written a lovely piece about learning from mud:
Yay! Our paper in Environmental Science and Technology has been selected as the ACS Editors’ Choice due to the ‘potential for broad public interest’.
So far I have been contacted twice to discuss ‘Chem Trails’. Sigh.
We’ve had two papers come out recently that strongly imply phosphorus is entering lakes though atmospheric pathways and that this flux has been increasing in recent decades. If you don’t know why you should care about phosphorus in lakes, here is an internet hole for you.
Though both papers are circumstantial they are provocative and hint at an undocumented pathway for one of the most important ecosystem nutrients. In the first paper, “Is atmospheric phosphorus pollution altering global lake stoichiometry?” we compare measured deposition chemistries from mountain environments around the world to lake chemistries in the same regions. Mountain lakes are really good indicators of atmospheric nutrient deposition because their catchments tend to be small, steep, and lack vegetation. This means the rainwater that ultimately ends up in the lake has very little time to take up nutrients from the catchment. As a result, lake water in these lakes looks like the regional rainwater. If phosphorus emissions are increasing due to human activity (e.g. desertification/biomass burning/oil and gas operations), then we would expect to see greater deposition rates of phosphorus, and, greater lake water phosphorus around regions where this type of human activity occurs. That is what we found, but correlation does not equal causation, which is why the title has a question mark.
In the second paper, “Continental-scale Increase in Lake and Stream Phosphorus: Are Oligotrophic Systems Disappearing in the United States?“ data from 1000’s of rivers and lakes in the continental US were examined for changes in chemistry though three sampling periods over the last decade. The lead authors at the EPA noted that the lakes and rivers that changed the most, were the lakes and rivers that were the least impacted by human activity in their watershed. If the phosphorus is not coming from human activity IN the watershed, perhaps it is coming from OUT of the watershed? i.e. from the atmosphere. However, there is another potential explanation. Even though rainfall has not increased, rain intensity may have increased, which can lead to greater erosion rates in the catchment increasing the flux of phosphorus to these systems. A lack of monitoring data prevent us from determining what is the primary cause of increasing phosphorus concentrations. Perhaps it is both?
Though neither of these papers provides a smoking gun for the atmospheric pathway, they indicate that more research and more data are needed. Many government organizations around the world collect wet deposition, but do not measure phosphorus. Many organizations measure atmospheric aerosols, but only the fraction smaller than 10 micrometers, which may not increase during a dust even, and aerosols that are collected at any size are also rarely analyzed for phosphorus content. There are reasons for these omissions, for example, dust is hard to measure, samples are often contaminated with bird poop, and soluble reactive phosphorus will start to disappear into biological organisms in your sample as soon as it is collected. But there are some obvious solutions to these challenges. Given the importance of phosphorus to aquatic ecosystems, this is clearly an issue that should be investigated further.
Here are links to two articles written about these papers:
Our paper on dust emission increases throughout the western USA is receiving a lot of press! My long held dream of being in National Geographic and Discover has finally come true (sort of). Also checked off the academic bucket list is being accused of ‘alarmism’.
Discover: Blowin' in the Wind: More and More Sickening Dust
National Geographic: American West Becoming Increasingly Dusty