Redefining the Classroom

LSSU studying 'health' of St. Mary's River through EPA grant

Posted: May 28th, 2005

SAULT STE. MARIE, Mich. – Faculty and students from Lake Superior State University will be in the field in the coming weeks to collect samples important to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant that will allow the researchers to study the ‘health’ of the St. Mary’s River.

Nine faculty and staff and 25 students from LSSU’s School of Biological Science and Department of Chemistry and Environmental Science will eventually be involved in the three-year, $715,000 project. LSSU’s Aquatic Research Laboratory will also be involved in the study.

The study, titled, “Biotic Integrity and Habitat Assessment within the St. Mary’s River Area of Concern,” is designed to assist the International Joint Commission (IJC) in evaluating problems in the environment of the river. The study will look especially at coastal marshes to determine man’s impact on the habitat and the wildlife that use it. The researchers will take biological samples and perform chemical analysis of samples taken from the water and bottomlands.

The IJC identifies 14 “beneficial use impairments” (BUI) in its areas of concern around international waterways. The St. Mary’s is one of three Areas of Concern found on international waterways, with the others being the Detroit and St. Clair rivers. Nine of the 14 detriments to living things in the watershed are identified as being present in the St. Mary’s. The study will produce data that will determine if the river is still being affected by the already-identified BUI.

The nine BUI listed by the international panel in the St. Mary’s include: restrictions on fish and wildlife consumption; degradation of fish and wildlife populations; fish tumors or other deformities; degradation of benthos (organisms associated with the river bottom); restriction on dredging activities; eutrophication with undesirable algae; beach closures; degradation of aesthetics; and loss of fish and wildlife habitat.

“With the data we hope to gain from this project, we’re hoping to help support the BPAC remediation process,” said Marshall Werner Ph.D., director of the LSSU grant project, referring to the Bi-national Public Advisory Councils that facilitate remedial action plans in IJC Areas of Concern. “We’re looking at environmental issues that affect many outdoor activities enjoyed by people in this area.”

Werner said the study would examine four of the nine BUI identified in the river: restrictions of fish and wildlife consumption; degradation of fish and wildlife populations; degradation of benthos and loss of fish and wildlife habitat.

Werner, his colleagues and students will be in the field beginning May 31 to start taking biological samples. The crews will work at 10 sites from above the rapids to the north end of Neebish Island.

“To assess the biotic integrity of any system, you need reference sites and sites that are seeing an impact from human behavior,” Werner said. “We’ll be looking upstream from local industrial sites as our reference sites.”

The two reference sites are above the rapids, with the remaining eight scattered from the rapids to the north end of Neebish, including coastal marshes near Mission Creek, Baie de Wasai, Lake Nicolet, Charlotte River, Cook Island and Churchville Point. All are in U.S. waters.

Survey crews will be setting four fyke nets and one 100-foot gill net as part of their assessment of the wildlife use of the St. Mary’s River. Nets will be set for 24 hours at each of the 10 sites in June and then again in August. Fish caught in the fyke nets will be released. Fish caught in the gill net will be used for chemical analysis, Werner said.

Read more about the netting part of the survey at

“We’ll take a look at what’s using the habitat. Besides fish, we’ll be measuring invertebrate and terrestrial insect populations, amphibian populations and bird usage.”

LSSU will also look at population genetics of lake herring, yellow perch, walleye and Atlantic salmon, four species that are of great interest to the river’s anglers. The study will explore the genetics of the fish to see whether populations are specific to the river system. Werner said a recent research project by LSSU alumnus Dave Caroffino of Midland indicated that there appear to be genetically distinct populations of walleye in the river, especially on the Canadian side of Lake George, that are not affected by stocking practices.

“We want to expand on that study and look at the other species where very little is known about their migratory patterns,” Werner said.

In the chemical analysis of the wildlife habitat, students and faculty will examine water quality, including turbidity, dissolved oxygen, pH value, hardness and more. At each site, the research crew will take water and sediment samples to examine them for metal and organic contaminants, specifically polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are typically derived from fossil fuels, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which were banned in the late 1970s but are still persistent in the environment.

As part of the habitat analysis, LSSU will look at the plant communities and plant productivity, also.

Following the data collection this summer, faculty and students will work over the next 18 months at presenting the data in a way that is meaningful for those using it to manage the river.

“We’ll develop indices of biotic integrity to help assign meaning to the data,” Werner said. “An index of biotic integrity will tell us about the ‘health’ of certain sites compared to our references or minimally impacted sites.”

The sites will be scored to reflect the impact of contaminants upon them.

Besides its benefits to the community, the study will provide paid research experience for LSSU students, the majority of which will use the experience to develop senior research projects, a requirement for their graduation.

Werner said he expects the study will be continued in the future.

“This is just a single snapshot in time. It will give us some information, but it’s not the whole picture. We’re hoping to repeat the study every four years. Over time, we’ll be able to see how things change in relation to issues such as the rise and fall of Great Lakes water levels.”

For more information on the study, contact the LSSU Public Relations Office, 906-635-2315 or For information on LSSU degrees in the sciences, visit –LSSU-