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Teachers Study Lake Environment in EPA’s Floating Lab

July 15, 2008

By Paul Westmoore, The Buffalo News, N.Y.

Jul. 15–YOUNGSTOWN — Seventeen teachers found out on Monday the most efficient way to catch fish in the Niagara River is to shock them to sleep with an electrical charge.

The teachers, many from Western New York, are spending this week in Lake Ontario aboard the Peter Wise Lake Guardian, a 180-foot floating science lab owned by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

The vessel docked for part of Monday at the U.S. Coast Guard Station at the mouth of the Niagara River to give teachers a chance to see how government scientists collect and study live fish.

Michael Goehle, a fish biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, demonstrated how the “electro shocker, or electro fisher,” rigged to a smaller boat, sends out an electrical charge into the water that knocks out the fish within its range.

Goehle collected a couple smallmouth bass, a sucker fish and a yellow perch, all of which floated to the surface near the Niagara River shoreline.

“The trick is to stun them, but not hurt them,” Goehle told the group, with the goal to determine if they are healthy and how the lake environment is impacting them. The electro shocker “puts them to sleep involuntarily and they stay unconscious for a while.”

Helen Domske is a coastal education specialist with New York State Sea Grant component of the Cornell Cooperative Extension Service. She took the perch and showed how it is designed to be camouflaged under water with its dark green color and the even darker bars along its sides to resemble the vegetation its hangs out in.

Domske also showed the teachers the lateral lines on a small mouth bass and a sucker, which she described as “a sixth sense for fish.”

“If we had lateral lines, we’d never stub our toes,” she said. “We’d never bump into anything. They can sense things with them including temperature. It’s amazing.”

Domske said the fish demonstration was only a smidgeon of what the teachers would do through Saturday while working alongside the Lake Guardian’s scientists.

Described as the only self-contained, nonpolluting vessel on the Great Lakes, the ship will spend the rest of the week in Oswego and Clayton in eastern Lake Ontario helping collect and report data for appropriate state and federal agencies.

Plant and animal life will be studied, and teachers will analyze sediment on the bottom of the lake, the water in the lake and the air above it. Their work will help show how the environment is supporting life in and along the lake, and whether there are problems that should be addressed.

There is a lot of bad news around the world about what’s happening to the planet’s environment, but Domske said in the past 15 years that U. S. environmental laws have been responsible for reducing pollution in Lake Ontario by 90 percent.

The teachers on the ship this week hail from as far away as Wisconsin, Chicago and Syracuse, all traveling under the care of Captain Robert S. Christensen, who has commanded the Lake Guardian for the past 10 years. The ship isn’t scheduled to return to Lake Ontario for another five years.

Michelle Tabone, a seventh-grade science teacher at Buffalo Public School No. 197, said she was taking the program “to give my students a first-hand experience on [the study of the lake's environment] through me. I want to show them all the work the government does” to study and help preserve the lake.

She and Larry Grisanti, an East Aurora High School biology teacher, said that among other things they want to learn more about invasive species like the zebra mussel and round Gobi fish, which have changed the lake’s environment.

Kenneth Hull, a science teacher at Mill Middle School in Williamsville, said he teaches a unit called “Environmental Detectives,” which looks at the source of pollution. He wants to include the Great Lakes in that curriculum.

“This gives me the opportunity to work with researchers in their field and make the content more interesting and more relevant for my students. They can learn things through my first-hand experiences and the photos I bring back,” he said.

“Just the experience of being out there on the lake,” Grisanti said, “and to be able to bring back these important resources to our kids makes it worth it.”

pwestmoore@buffnews.com

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