My Summer on the Ohio River

This blog is about my summer internship with the Center for Ohio River Research and Education at the Thomas More College Biology Field Station. My internship consists of conducting a bioassessment of the Ohio River.

Month: June, 2014

Week Three

Last week started similar to the previous week. However, the focus of last week was to collect tissue samples of fish species for DNA sequencing this week. On Monday morning, we put our gill nets and hoop nets out at our four sampling locations by the power plant. That evening, we checked our nets and recorded the lengths and weights of the fish that we caught. We also took tissue samples from each different fish species that we netted. This process of checking nets, recording lengths and weights, and taking samples for DNA sequencing continued for the rest of the week with the exception of Wednesday morning.

On Wednesday morning, thirty high school students came out to the Thomas More College Biology Field Station for an educational field trip. Before they arrived, Dr. Lorentz took us out electrofishing to collect fish to show them. While shocking, a five-foot paddlefish came thrashing to the surface and was gone in the blink of an eye! Paddlefish are prehistoric fish that have remained relatively unchanged for the past seventy five million years. However, they are not as common as they once were. When the students arrived, they were divided among the different intern groups for an hour each before rotating. The interns at the field station were able to instruct the students about their summer research projects. For instance, my intern group and I went with Dr. Lorentz and instructed the students how to boat electrofish, take water quality data, check a hoop net, and sample for zooplankton. We took two boats, Dr. Lorentz in the electrofishing boat and two interns and I in the second boat that focused on water quality, zooplankton sampling, and checking the hoop nets. The boat ride began with a short discussion of the importance of water quality and the meaning of each parameter. We also discussed the range of parameters a healthy river system should possess. Next, we let the students use the necessary tools to collect their water quality data and record their findings. We also encouraged them to make general observations about the current weather because the weather can significantly affect fish movement. When we checked the hoop net, they were all excited to see a longnose gar in the net.

On Wednesday afternoon, I went with Dr. Lorentz to take more students boat electrofishing. Dr. Lorentz informed the students of the importance of electrofishing. It is a widely used process and is one of the best methods to sample fish because it does not discriminate; it targets all fish species. Furthermore, it does not harm fish it only temporarily tetanizes them. Additionally, fish do not have pain receptors, so they cannot feel pain. While we were electrofishing at the confluence of a small tributary of the Ohio River, two silver carp came hurdling out of the water and one landed in a student’s net! This was an interesting revelation because silver carp are an invasive fish. These carp were used in ponds to reduce the algae and zooplankton. However, they first entered the Mississippi River when the farm ponds flooded. They eventually moved north into the Ohio River and are continuing to move north today. The controversy with silver carp (pictured below) is that they are detrimental to freshwater systems and they out compete native fishes such as the American paddlefish. Both of these fish have robust gill rakers used to filter out zooplankton, but when they are placed in the same system the silver carp will out compete the paddlefish.

 

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For the remainder of the week, we continued to check our nets, take tissue samples, and we volunteered for River Sweep and Paddle fest. We did not find any rare or unique fish in the nets this week. On Friday, we pulled the nets and once again began the tedious process of mending and pressure washing them. River Sweep was Saturday and I was in charge of driving a boat to transport volunteers to nearby sections of the Ohio River. This turned out to be a lot of fun and we were able to remove a decent amount of trash. In total, 21,000 participants volunteered for the Ohio River Sweep. The most interesting item that was found from the volunteers near the field station was an old wagon wheel hub that was estimated to have been from the late 1700s or early 1800s. On Sunday, the largest paddling event east of the Mississippi River occurred; Paddle fest. For this event, the U.S. Coast Guard closed commercial and powerboat traffic for an eight-mile section of the Ohio River from Coney Island to Cincinnati. Over 1,400 canoes and kayaks entered the river for this occasion. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend this event because I was out of town with a colleague.

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This week we will be performing DNA sequencing and boat electrofishing at night. We started the first few steps of preparing our tissue samples for sequencing today at the Cincinnati Museum Center. This consisted of taking our tissue samples and cutting them into smaller pieces to increase the surface area. Next, we used a micro pipet to insert a digestive buffer into each test tube. We added another agent and placed the test tubes at 60°C until tomorrow morning. This process creates a soup like mixture that exposes the DNA for extraction.

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Currently, I am preparing to go boat electrofishing tonight!

Thanks for reading,
-Luke

Week Two

This past week we began sampling for fish. This was accomplished by using gill nets and hoop nets. On Monday, we placed a gill net and a hoop net at each of our four sample sites. It is not a very complicated process, but location and positioning of the nets is critical. We attached the hoop net to a tree line and then anchored it to the riverbed with the opening of the net facing downstream. We also tied a buoy line to the hoop net, so we would know the exact location of the net. Next, we tied a tree line to the gill net with an anchor and buoy attached at each end of the net. This process was completed for our two experimental sites downstream of Zimmer power plant and our two control sites upstream of Zimmer. Once these nets are in the water, they need to be checked twice a day. Consequently, we came back that evening to check the nets. While we are checking the nets, we also collect physiochemical data at each location. We had an additional project that evening, which consisted of collecting water samples for a toxicity test. A toxicity test is conducted to determine the degree to which a substance can damage a living organism. In our case, the substance that we are going to be testing is the effluent of the Zimmer power plant to our control water upstream of the power plant. While we were collecting physiochemical data from the effluent samples, we noticed the water had a warmer temperature and a much higher conductivity than the control samples. The organisms that we are using in our toxicity test are fathead minnows. A toxicology test is an interesting tool that can be integrated to help determine the overall water quality. It is a biological test to compare how the fathead minnows live in the experimental and control water samples. When the time is up for the toxicity test, the surviving fathead minnows are dried and weighed to see if they grew while living in each water sample. If the minnows survived and grew it means that the water quality is adequate for the minnows to live. Currently, the test is not finished.

 

 

 

 

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Over the next four days, we continued to check the nets twice a day. After the first day, Dr. Lorentz let us go out on our own because he felt that we are an experienced group that works well together as a team. For each fish that we sampled we recorded the weight (in grams), total length (in cm), and standard length (in cm). Once these parameters were recorded, we released the fish back into the river. The only occasions that we were unable to check our nets this past week were Tuesday evening and Wednesday evening. Tuesday evening we could not go out on the water because of strong thunderstorms and Wednesday evening we had a seminar with Dr. James Lazorchak. Dr. Lazorchak is from the U.S. EPA and his seminar title was “Comparing Single Species Toxicity Tests to Community-Level Effects of Excess Total Dissolved Solids Doses Using Model Streams.” This interesting presentation looked at different organisms used in toxicity testing and how it relates to different levels of total dissolved solids. On Friday, after we checked the nets we had to pull them out of the river because we cannot leave them in over the weekend. Once we arrived back at the Center for Ohio Research and Education, we began preparing the nets for next week. This task consists of pressure washing the debris from the nets and mending the holes in the net. Mending the holes in the nets is a very tedious process that took several hours to complete. Some of the fish species that we have sampled thus far are walleye, river carpsucker, silver redhorse, smallmouth buffalo, longear sunfish, white bass, striper, channel catfish, blue catfish, longnose gar, gizzard shad, etc. The most common fish that we have been catching in our nets is the longnose gar. However, the most interesting fish in the net was a lamprey. Unfortunately, it was able to work its way out of the net before we were able to get it on the boat.

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This past week I was able to take advantage of a few opportunities in my spare time. I went fossil hunting and found interesting fossils unique to this geological region. We were searching for trilobites, but were unsuccessful at finding one. I was also able to explore Fort Thomas, which was a U.S. army post in 1890. To conclude this week, my research team and I were allowed to take one of the research vessels downstream to the Riverbend Music Center and listen to the Zach Brown Band.

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Next week, we are going to continue sampling for water quality parameters and fish with our hoop nets and gill nets. However, on Thursday we are going to boat electrofishing for the first time. Additionally, next Saturday is the Ohio River Sweep, which is one of the largest river cleanup days in the country in terms of participation.  

Thanks for reading,

-Luke

First Week

Today is the conclusion of the first week of my internship on the Ohio River in Kentucky. I arrived here in California, KY last Saturday after an eight-hour drive from Pennsylvania. California, KY is approximately a half hour from Cincinnati, Ohio. The housing arrangement here is similar to the Raystown Field Station at Juniata College. There are three student houses, a lodge, and the Lock House that are all overlooking the mighty Ohio River. However, the Lock House (picture below) is the most interesting building. It was constructed in the early 1920s to serve as 1 of 51 lock and dams on the Ohio River. Eventually, the wooden wicket dams were replaced with 20 dams that are more technologically advanced. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers manages these dams to control the flow of the Ohio River. Thomas More College acquired the Lock House in 1967 and has since renovated it. Currently, the Lock House consists of a classroom, aquatic lab, mussel lab, and aquaculture lab. The Lock House is also known as the Center for Ohio River Research and Education. Numerous interns are working here this summer. The intern research groups are the aquaculture crew, stream assessment crew, environmental educators, work-study crew, and the Ohio River bioassessment crew. The Ohio River bioassessment crew is the research team that I am working with this summer.

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This internship is part of a long-term study that began in the early 1970s to determine the potential impacts of the coal-fired Zimmer Power Plant and to document trends in the Ohio River. The objectives of this study are to collect biological, chemical and physical characteristics of the Ohio River ecosystem near the power plant, conduct a bioassessment of the fishes near the plant, and to collect fish tissue samples for DNA sequencing. To sequence our DNA samples we will be using the DNA sequencer at the Cincinnati Museum Center. Our study area consists of two sites upstream of the power plant and two sites downstream of the power plant. The upstream sites represent our control sites and the downstream sites represent our experimental sites. We will also be sampling near the Beckjord plant as well, which is a dinosaur of a coal-fired power plant and will be soon reaching retirement.

We will be using various sampling techniques in order to complete our bioassessment. Our data collection of physiochemical parameters consist of dissolved oxygen, pH, conductivity, temperature, turbidity, habitat, and river levels. Our biological data collection will consist of fish, zebra mussels, and toxicity studies. Fish data will be collected using gill nets, hoop nets, and boat electrofishing.

This week has consisted of training and orienting the research group to the equipment that we will be using for duration of the summer. We also prepared the equipment to make sure all the gear is fully functional for next week when we begin sampling. Our research group toured the Cincinnati Museum Center’s DNA sequencing lab to become familiar with the equipment. In addition, each member of our group practiced driving the research vessels that we will be using this summer. In my free time this week, I have enjoyed fishing and exploring the banks of the Ohio River.

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I will post again next week.
Thanks for reading,
-Luke