Finding time and money to take regular water quality samples in a space as large as Lake Erie’s western basin can be difficult for even the most dedicated researchers. But sometimes, help shows up on a lab doorstep and is too good to turn away.
That was the case in 2012, when a group of Lake Erie charter boat captains approached the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA) to ask how they could help monitor and improve water quality in the lake on which their businesses depend. They had seen the impact the severe 2011 harmful algal bloom (HAB) had had on their fishing charters and on other Lake Erie businesses, and wanted to contribute to improving the health of the lake.
OEPA had already trained 12 captains in how to collect water samples, before Stone Lab staff took over coordination of the sampling program in 2013. Managed by Stone Lab Research Coordinator Dr. Justin Chaffin, the program currently works with about 10 captains in the western Lake Erie basin to collect weekly water samples during their regular charter fishing trips from April through October. Captains are recruited with help from the Lake Erie Charter Boat Association (LECBA) and currently hail from five different Ohio marinas, all located between the city of Oregon and the village of Marblehead.
“Charter captains will grab a water sample for us after they’ve finished fishing, and then my staff picks it up and processes it,” said Chaffin. On those weekly runs to pick up samples and drop off clean sample containers, staff members also provide the captains with data sheets on previous weeks’ water quality results. That way, captains are able to provide their fishing clients with science-based information on Lake Erie water quality. Yearly training also ensures that captains have a basic understanding of how harmful algal blooms form and what can be done to reduce the blooms’ impacts on Lake Erie in general and on their fishing clientele in particular.
“To solve this HABs problem, we need a lot of public outreach, and I believe citizen science can help with this,” Chaffin said. “If we’re training captains to collect samples, and we also give them accurate information about HABs, they can help us spread that information. But we’re also getting a pretty good dataset in return, so this project is really a science, education and outreach project.”
The data the captains have collected has been used in NOAA research to confirm bloom observations via satellite and by researchers from the University of Toledo who were comparing different sampling methods. A current project at NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory is developing a model to predict microcystin concentrations in Lake Erie, and charter captain samples help assess the accuracy of those predictions.
In addition, Stone Lab outreach events often incorporate the trends shown in the water samples into their programming, giving adult tour groups and other visitors a chance to see how citizen science projects like this contribute to larger research and monitoring efforts that help safeguard Lake Erie water quality.