Freshwater specialists keep fresh waters ... fresh

Contact: Paula M. Davis
Aug. 24, 2016

Read more about WMU researchers and their ongoing work in the WMU Magazine.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Using a remotely operated underwater vehicle, an ROV, John Lutchko helps explore the subsurface waters around Traverse City, including in Grand Traverse Bay, a bay of Lake Michigan.

Photo of Alexis Lee and John Lutchko piloting a submarine.

WMU student and NMC staffer, John Lutchko, center, explains the finer points of piloting one of the community college’s remotely operated submarine vehicles in the West Arm of Grand Traverse Bay in Traverse City. WMU senior Alexis Lee, left, has her hands on the controls as fellow student Sarah Ballard looks on. They used the sub to view quaggi mussels, an invasive species in the Great Lakes.

“Research is so fascinating, and there’s plenty to be done,” says Lutchko, who this summer will be the first graduate of a joint degree program in freshwater science and sustainability offered by WMU and Traverse City-based Northwestern Michigan College.

The linked degrees, an associate from NMC that leads to a bachelor’s from the University, prepare students to become the next wave of professionals who will solve problems related to freshwater quality, availability and use.

Lutchko has been a top student in both schools. This year, he was named WMU’s environmental and sustainability studies Presidential Scholar, a designation that is the highest academic honor the University bestows on undergraduates. And after earning his associate degree, NMC hired him as its marine technology lab coordinator and primary ROV pilot.

“These two programs have been so engaging,” he says. “Whether it’s watershed science at NMC, where we do field work, or freshwater ecology, or (WMU Professor Charles Ide’s class on Human Impacts on the Great Lakes), getting out and doing work. That’s the way you learn for sure.”

Viewing invaders

Photo of Dr. Hans VanSumeren and students on a boat.

Dr. Hans VanSumeren, head of NMC’s Great Lakes Water Studies Institute, explains to WMU students the workings of the remotely operated submarine vehicle shown in the foreground.

On a sunny Saturday morning in June, as part of the human impacts course, WMU students took turns learning how to pilot an ROV while aboard the Northwesterner, NMC’s 56-foot research vessel.

Research and monitoring dives in Traverse City underscore what a gem Michigan’s freshwater lakes are and, importantly, such excursions reveal some of the invasive species that threaten them, including quagga mussels, gobies and other invaders.

In the West Arm of Grand Traverse Bay, not far from the community college’s Great Lakes Campus, students searched for the Nyord, a boat that sank in the 1970s.

Intently gazing at a screen that displayed live video from an ROV, WMU student Sarah Ballard followed Lutchko’s directions for remotely “flying” the vehicle, her hands operating what looked like a joystick.

“Don’t use the up thruster,” Lutchko advised. “Thrusters kick up debris. Let it float up.”

Ballard complied.

“Now go back and forth.”

Soon enough, the murk cleared, uncloaking life some 50 feet beneath the surface of West Bay. Lutchko gestured to a tiny fish that darted into the frame.

“See the goby?”

“I see the goby … right … there,” a rapt Ballard responded slowly, trying to discern shapes on screen.

Indigenous to the Black and Caspian seas, gobies are not welcome in Michigan’s Great Lakes and inland waters, as these bottom-dwellers eat the eggs of native fish and compete with native species for food and habitat.

The point of viewing the shipwreck that day was to see firsthand the proliferation of quagga mussels, a habitat-destroying invader that students learned is profuse in the Great Lakes Basin. About the size of a quarter in adulthood, the bivalves came over in ballast water of transoceanic ships.

“These organisms have very few natural predators here and they just thrive,” says Ide, the biological sciences professor who teaches the human impacts course.

Quaggas, and the also-invasive zebra mussel, filter feed, which increases water clarity. This may sound beneficial, or even benign, but clearing subsurface waters like this allows algae to grow at increasingly greater depths.

Students found that the Nyord is caked in quaggas, one example of a widespread problem. 

“There’s a quadrillion quagga mussels (in the Great Lakes Basin), and they’re here to stay,” Lutchko says.

“You can’t just go and kill them all because you’re going to kill a lot of other things in the process. There is nothing we can do; but we have to keep an eye on what’s going on. That’s where the monitoring comes in.”

Holistic and hands-on

Like this weekend in Traverse City, along with classroom-based instruction, freshwater science and sustainability students get direct experiences in some of the ecosystems they are learning about and may go on to encounter in watershed management, environmental consulting or the other fields they will be prepared to pursue.

“Building a cohort of good scientists who have multidisciplinary skills is what this is all about,” says Dr. Hans VanSumeren, director of NMC’s Great Lakes Water Studies Institute and
co-founder of the community college’s freshwater studies degree, the first associate degree of its kind in the nation when it was established in 2009.

Several years ago, NMC and WMU officials began talks about joining forces in a program of study that could lead from a two-year degree at NMC to a bachelor’s degree at WMU. The program launched in 2014.

“The program covers biology and ecology, but it’s also got policy, data processing, oceanography, climate (science), business and communication. It’s holistic. Industry wants people who know how to do a lot of stuff,” VanSumeren says.

With its surrounding Great Lakes containing 20 percent of the world’s surface freshwater, “Michigan would have to be the best place in the country, and maybe in the world, to study freshwater,” says Dr. Steve Kohler, professor of biological sciences and director of WMU’s Environmental and Sustainability Studies program.

“One, there’s the quantity. But the other reason is the diversity of systems. The diversity of types, both the lakes and rivers, is outstanding. You have different ecosystems to study. We can’t show students tropical systems, but we can show them just about everything else.”

Students who want to complete all of their freshwater science and sustainability studies in Traverse City may enroll at NMC and earn an associate degree, then transfer to WMU-Traverse City to complete the final two years of coursework required for a bachelor’s degree.

Students also may enroll in the bachelor’s-only version of the program offered on WMU’s main campus in Kalamazoo.

A desire ‘to keep fresh waters ... fresh’

Photo of Dr. Hans VanSumeren Zack Ladwig.

WMU biology major Zack Ladwig helps VanSumeren retrieve a submarine.

Taking Ide’s class was an eye-opening experience for Sierra Porter, a sophomore majoring in freshwater science.

The course is based on Ide’s years of research funded by Environmental Protection Agency grants. In addition to invasive species, his students learn about how pollutants, such as polychlorinated biphenyls—PCBs—in the Great Lakes and inland waters impact ecosystem and human health.

Each student had a capstone project; Porter’s presentation was on persistent organic pollutants, such as PCBs. Though production of these industrial chemicals has been banned in the U.S. for almost 40 years, they persist in the environment.

“Now, more PCBs come into Lake Michigan from other parts of the world through weather,” Ide says. “They come over the lake and get rained down. So, it’s like a global problem.”

PCBs have been found in animal tissue, including that of eagles, water fowl and game fish. The contaminant is one of the reasons state government issues advisories on how much and what type of fish are safe to eat.

As an example of just one ill effect, for a developing fetus, high concentrations of PCBs can interfere with receptors that tell the brain and muscles how to use calcium.

“If your brain isn’t using calcium right, in human development, the brain doesn’t develop properly,” Ide explains

So, a child may be born with learning disabilities and low IQ.

“The PCB contamination has really opened my eyes,” Porter says. “I want to get more in depth and learn about what other contaminants aren’t being brought to the surface. Why aren’t they being talked about? Why isn’t anything being done about these?”

When she completes her degree, Porter hopes to “work toward keeping our fresh waters, just as they say, fresh.

“I’m not sure where that’s going to take me in life, but being in science is always a thrill, and to study in this program has already given me many opportunities to meet other scientists with the same dream as mine.”

For more information about freshwater science degree options, go to wmich.edu/academics/undergraduate/freshwater or contact Dr. Steve Kohler at steve.kohler@wmich.edu or (269) 387-2987, and NMC’s Great Lakes Water Studies Institute at (231) 995-3333 or visit nmc.edu/water.

Read more about WMU researchers and their ongoing work in the WMU Magazine, which is published quarterly by WMU's Office of University Relations.