No matter how useful it will eventually be, sometimes science just looks silly. In Dr. Suzanne Gray’s lab at The Ohio State University, a fish in a cylindrical tank slowly swims in circles as it follows the black and white panel rotating around the outside of the glass.
Gray and her Ohio State collaborators, Dr. Jeremy Bruskotter and Eugene Braig, are studying how well fish can see both prey and predators underwater, and how that ability is influenced by changes in water clarity. They hope that the research will help Lake Erie fisheries adapt to algal blooms that reduce underwater visibility, which is important to visual hunters such as Walleye. Those important sport fish, along with prey fish like Emerald Shiners, are the current focus of the project.
“We wanted to integrate this really basic science – visual physiology – with the people who are out there catching the fish,” Gray said. “Walleye fishing in Ohio is close to a $1.8 billion industry, and Walleye are going to be influenced in some way by changes to the visual environment that happen with the algal blooms in the late summer and fall.”
PhD student Chelsey Nieman already completed a pilot study for the project at Stone Lab, working out details like setting up tanks for various experiments and taking care of the fish used in the study. Her two months at the lab were funded by Ohio Sea Grant’s Small Grants Program, which provides up to $10,000 in research support to applicants.
“Chelsey will be the first graduate student working on this project,” Gray said. “She actually has a Master’s degree that is interdisciplinary, so it included fisheries, but also incorporated a social science component. So she’s really excited about using her expertise for the citizen science work on this project as well.”
That work will focus on Lake Erie charter boat captains who regularly take clients out to fish for the species of interest to the project. The researchers will use surveys and interviews to draw on the captains’ expertise in selecting lures, based on years of fishing experience, and test those lures in the lab setting to provide science-based data for anecdotal knowledge of what lures work best for which fish under varying conditions.
“Our goal is to create a citizen science project associated with fishing success, with different colors or types of lures, under different turbidity conditions,” Gray explained. “We’ve had a positive response from the fishermen, who want to do anything they can to understand the fishery better. Which makes sense; it’s their livelihood and these blooms are potentially harmful to their business.”
The project also received letters of support from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Sandusky Fisheries Research Unit, which helps manage fisheries in Lake Erie, and Ohio Sea Grant Extension, which educates the public about sustainable local fisheries.