Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Great Lakes – Today’s Issues and Tomorrow’s Concerns

As part of the course requirements for FOR797, Environmental Career Strategies for Women, students share responsibility for reporting on  WiSE Professions Events.   The following was prepared by Becki Walker, a MS student in the Graduate Program in Environmental Science.  Becki's studies are focused on Environmental Communication and Participatory Processes.

On Tuesday, March 25, 2014, members of the ESF campus community listened in fascination as Professor Helen Domske described a truly “hands on” experience with one of her research subjects – a sea lamprey.  Her lecture, “The Great Lakes – Today’s Issues and Tomorrow’s Concerns,” was part of SUNY ESF’s Women in Scientific and Environmental Professions Spring Seminar Series.

In order to learn more about the invasive eel-like creature from a parasitized fish’s perspective, Domske submerged her arm in a tank of cold water for twenty minutes (in order to mimic the body temperature of a cold-blooded creature) and had an associate place a lamprey on her arm.  “You could see the indentations from each of its individual teeth!” Domske said, with the excitement in her voice that is the hallmark of a scientist truly immersed in her research.   Sea lamprey were only one in a parade of invasive creatures Domske discussed in her presentation.  

The Great Lakes are a special ecosystem, but they are threatened by a number of factors.  Invasive aquatic animals such as quagga and zebra mussels, round gobies, and water fleas (as well as the aforementioned sea lamprey) are wreaking havoc in the ecosystem.  Invaders compete with native species for food and habitat, and are even capable of altering the nutrient composition in the Lakes. 

Some of the emerging threats to the Lakes are thanks to another species – humans.  A recent study of water quality in 139 streams conducted by the US Geological Survey identified 82 contaminants in the water column.  Contaminants included a number of prescription drugs, ranging from anti-seizure medications to estrogens from birth control pills.  Personal care products such as face and body washes are also part of the problem – many of these contain tiny plastic “microbeads.”  Because these microbeads appear similar to eggs, many fish may consume them by mistake.  Microbeads also tend to attract other contaminants, posing additional problems for aquatic species.

Domske’s presentation wasn’t all doom and gloom, though – she provided some concrete ways we can all work to protect the Great Lakes.  We should remember we all live in a watershed, and avoid flushing any prescription medications that could wind up downstream.  She also suggested seeking out natural alternatives to personal care products containing plastic microbeads.  Through relatively simple actions such as these, we can help to insure that the Great Lakes remain worthy of their name.

Helen Domske is a Senior Extension Specialist for New York Sea Grant/Cornell Cooperative Extension and Associate Director of the Great Lakes Program at the University of Buffalo.  She is also the Education Coordinator of New York Sea Grant and the New York leader for the Center for Great Lakes literacy. She holds an MS degree from SUNY Buffalo, and has completed post-graduate coursework at Ohio State University and the University of Buffalo.  Her lecture was sponsored by the Great Lakes Research Consortium and the ESF Women’s Caucus. 

For more information about the WiSE Professions Speaker Series, please visithttp://www.esf.edu/womenscaucus/speakers.htm

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