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: July, 2014

Week 8

Last week was the eighth week of my internship. Last Monday, we made our seven-mile boat ride to the power plant to set up our nets for the week. We set a hoop net and a gill net at each of our four sample locations. During the week, we checked our nets twice a day and recorded the lengths and weight of the fish we sampled. For fish species that we have not sampled previously, we collected DNA samples from them to sequence in the lab. Additionally, at our four research sites we recorded physicochemical data. We did not sample any unique fish last week, just the more common fish species of the river. By the more common species, I mean longnose gar, river carpsucker, gizzard shad, channel catfish, smallmouth buffalo, etc.

On Tuesday last week, we went night electrofishing at the older power plant that I talked about in my first post. This coal-fired power plant is lacking vital technology to operate on a consistent basis. This facility is only in operation when extra electricity is needed, or when the other power plant is down for maintenance. The negative characteristics associated with the ancient power plant are large water intake, thermal discharge, absence of ash settling ponds, and a nonexistence environmentally efficient technology. When EPA’s Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT) is implemented in 2015, this facility will retire. While we electrofished, the power plant was in operation. Consequently, we were able to feel the direct effects of the thermal discharge that was well in excess of 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Unfortunately, we do not collect physiochemical parameters when we electrofish, so we did not know the exact temperature. That being said, we could feel the significant temperature change just by placing our hands in the water near the discharge. Once we finished electrofishing downstream of the power plant, we recorded the lengths and weights of the fish that we had sampled. We then motored upstream of the power plant and electrofished a designated research area and repeated our process of recording the lengths and weights of each fish. We stored the minnows from each location in separate containers for identification in the lab the next morning.

Electrofishing Beckjord

On last Wednesday, we processed our minnows from the previous night, checked our nets, and had a seminar with Erich Emery from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Mr. Emery is a biologist and water quality specialists at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. His talk focused on harmful algal blooms. These algal blooms are harmful and sometimes deadly to humans and their pets. They have also become more common in recent years and have lasted longer than usual. Mr. Emery discussed one instance of where a lake had an algal bloom that lasted over the winter. Water specialists such as Mr. Emery are trying to improve their understanding of these toxic algal blooms to prevent further harm to humans.

We pulled our nets from our four sample locations near the power plant on Friday for the last time this summer. When we brought them back to the field station, we cleaned them and put them in storage for the next group of interns. Additionally, last week we continued to work on the fossil and mulch bed projects in our spare time. These two projects are going to be continued and are set to be completed before we have our final presentations in August.

This week we are sequencing DNA samples, electrofishing, performing habitat assessments, analyzing our data, writing our standard operational procedures, and constructing our PowerPoint and poster presentations. Our final presentations are going to be held on Friday August 8th. On Monday, we went to the Cincinnati Museum Center to begin the first steps in processing our DNA samples. These steps included cutting our tissue samples into small pieces to increase the surface area, labeling each vial, pipetting a digestion buffer into each sample, and placing them on a hot plate overnight. The hot plate increases the rate of digestion. That afternoon, we went sampling and caught a blue sucker! This is a rare fish and is threatened in much of its native range. To get a sense of how rare it is in this area, it was only the third one to be sampled in the twenty-five years that this project has been conducted. Consequently, we handled this fish with great care and with a sense of urgency to return it to the water as quickly as possible.

Blue Sucker
Blue Sucker1

It is hard for me to believe that this internship is winding down to an end so quickly. However, it has been a great experience and I am certain the remainder will be as well.

Thanks for reading,


Conclusion of Week 6 and Week 7

Last week was the conclusion of week 6 of my internship on the Ohio River. Our research group was checking hoop nets, gill nets, and taking water quality parameters twice a day at our four research sites. Last Friday, when we arrived at our first gill net, we were greeted with a large American Paddlefish! This is a rare find on this section of the Ohio River. We recorded its length and weight and successfully released it back in to the water as quickly as possible to reduce the amount of stress on the fish. Paddlefish are an interesting fish that use their electroreceptor-lined rostrum to detect electrical impulses from zooplankton. The mouth of a paddlefish has long gill rakers that are adapted to filter out the zooplankton from the water. The paddlefish was once abundant in parts of the United States, but dams, development, and polluted waters led to a decline in population. Fortunately, greater awareness has improved water quality on some parts of the Ohio River leading to a slight increase in the paddlefish population.
Polydon spathula
Polydon spathula2

Polydon spathula1

In my previous posts, I have talked a lot about collecting fish data, but I have not discussed data analysis. Once we have all of our fish data collected, we are going to calculate a biological index known as the Ohio River Fish Index (ORFIn). The Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO) developed this index. ORSANCO is a water pollution control agency that consists of eight states including Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia. Using the Index of Biological Integrity as a model, ORSANCO developed the ORFIn to examine fish data from the Ohio River. This index consists of 13 metrics used to determine fish community health. It is designed to have a maximum score of 65 with each metric having a max score of 5. A high score is reflective of good water quality and a healthy fish community. The ORFIn takes into account the number of species, the type of species, and the number of DELTs (Deformities, Eroded fins, Lesions, or Tumors). ORSANCO has developed expected scores based on three distinct habitat classes. A, B, and C are the designated habitat classes with A being the highest and C the lowest. We have not done habitat surveys, but intend to do them during our last week of fieldwork. However, I am excited to see if we will find a difference in our sample sites above and below the power plant.

This week is week 7 of my internship. It was also STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) camp week for forty high school students. We had groups of students visit the field station on Monday and Wednesday. On these days, our research group participated as mentors and took small groups of students out on our three research vessels to conduct a bioassessment of the Ohio River near the field station. This was completed by instructing them on the proper techniques for collecting water quality parameters, checking hoop nets, and boat electrofishing. Overall, the students had a great time at the field station and learned a lot.

On Tuesday, I had the opportunity to backpack electrofish during the day and boat electrofish that evening. We backpack electrofished a small stream near the field station with a professor that wanted to collect teaching specimens for the fall semester. Therefore, we did not have a set protocol for sampling; we just needed to collect various fish species. While sampling, we encountered darters, creek chubs, sunfish, catfish, and rock bass. The professor was content on adding these fish to his collection. On Tuesday evening, Mat Latos from the Cincinnati Reds came to the field station to go boat electrofishing. Fortunately, for us interns, we were able to go out sampling with him.

backpack electrofishingDarterLepomis megalotisMat Latos1

This week Dr. Lorentz has added a couple more projects for our research group to work on in our spare time. One of these tasks is a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for our bioassessment of the Ohio River. Dr. Lorentz intends to use this document to give to interns during their first week of the internship. He hopes that this document will have all the information needed for the interns to complete their bioassessment of the Ohio River. Another project that we began working on this week is a landscaping fossil project. Dr. Lorentz wants us to collect interesting fossils to display the rich geologic history of this area. To display these fossils we began to create a walkway that will have informative signs about the history of the fossils. This area of Kentucky is rich in marine fossils including brachiopods, mollusks, corals, and occasionally a trilobite. Many of the fossils that we have found have come from the banks of the Ohio River less than a mile away from the field station.

Next week we are going to continue our bioassessment of the Ohio River. This will include setting and checking hoop nets and gill nets, collecting water quality data, and boat electrofishing.

Thanks for reading,

Week Five

Last week was our week off, so I went home to visit family and friends. It felt good to be home and I was able to talk to them about what I had experienced thus far this summer during my internship. I also enjoyed spending time with my family on Independence Day. However, I was not too reluctant when I had to leave to come back to Kentucky because I was ready to start working again. I arrived back at the Center for Ohio River Research and Education on Sunday afternoon and spent the rest of my day unpacking and preparing for the upcoming week.

This week we are continuing to sample the Ohio River near the power plant with hoop nets and gill nets. We placed the nets at our four sample locations on Monday. As a reminder, our sample sites consist of two sites below the power plant and two sites above. While setting our nets on Monday, we ran into a multitude of issues. To start with, our main research vessel (the Sea Arch) was supposed to be out of the garage, but the mechanics did not finish the repairs on time. Consequently, we had to use our other research vessel (the Roughneck). We felt good about taking the Roughneck because it had recently been repaired and the engine was running well. When we began our seven-mile trek to the power plant, we immediately noticed engine malfunctions. We were able to conclude that the problem was a bad fuel line. Fortunately, the field station is not far from the nearest boat shop and Dr. Lorentz was able to purchase a new fuel line. With the new fuel line installed, we motored upstream to the power plant. When we arrived at our first site, we attached an anchor line, buoy line, and tree line to the hoop net and set it in the water. We repeated this process for our remaining three sites. That evening we checked our hoop nets and set a gill net at each location.

Over the past few days, we have continued to check our nets in the morning and evening, collect water quality parameters, and process our DNA samples. So far, we have sampled longnose gar, gizzard shad, silver redhorse, blue catfish, river carpsucker, smallmouth buffalo, blue gill, longear sunfish, skipjack herring, and several other fish species in our nets this week. In the lab, we have finished sequencing our DNA samples. This is important because it enables us to check for correct fish identification, fish hybridization, and provides samples for an online database for researchers known as the Fish Barcode of Life initiative (FISH-BOL). The FISH-BOL database is a global effort to develop a reference library for all fish species. In theory, a handheld device will be constructed that will have the ability to be a barcode reader of tissue samples. Once the device reads the tissue sample, it would be relayed instantly to the FISH-BOL database. The database would then respond with the specimens name, photograph, and description. This type of technology would be beneficial to any potential user. On Wednesday, we were scheduled to have Dr. Erik Pilgrim from the US EPA give a seminar about DNA Barcoding and other genetic tools used in aquatic ecology. Unfortunately, Dr. Pilgrim was not feeling well and the seminar has been rescheduled for a later date. We are going to finish this week with pulling our nets and preparing them for the next time we use them.

Thanks for reading,

Week Four

Night electrofishing was a great experience last Monday. We headed out on to the river just as the sun was going down. The reason we boat electrofish at night is that fish become more active and move closer to the surface of the river. It was still day light out when we arrived at the power plant, so we reviewed safety precautions and proper techniques until the sun had completely sank below the horizon. We motored over to our sample location downstream of the power plant and filled our live wells with water. Next, we fired up the generators, turned on the electrofishing unit, lowered the electrodes into the water, illuminated the bow of the research vessel, and positioned ourselves to net the tetanized fish. Our sampling consisted of a reach of 1200 seconds beginning at our sample site downstream of the power plant. In our research vessel, one intern regulated the voltage of the electrofishing unit, one intern placed the netted fish in to the live wells, and four interns netted fish from the bow of the research vessel. Once we finished our designated reach, we recorded the lengths and weights of the fish and released them back in to the river. We kept the minnows for later identification and for tissue samples.


Tuesday entailed identifying the minnows we sampled the previous night and a behind the scenes tour of the Newport Aquarium. We used dichotomous fish keys to correctly identify the minnows. Next, we grouped the minnows together by species and recorded their weight. Later that day, we drove to the Newport Aquarium for our behind the scenes tour. An employee at the aquarium talked us through his daily routine and the various tasks that need to be completed for the aquarium to function properly. The most interesting exhibits we toured consisted of the shark rays, Amazon fish (including a few arapaima), and the paddlefish.


On Wednesday, we went to the Cincinnati Museum Center to further process our DNA samples and we also went night electrofishing that evening. At the Museum Center, we continued the process of extracting the DNA from our samples so that we can eventually run our samples through the DNA sequencer. This involved multiple steps using the centrifuge for twenty-minute intervals. Once completed, our samples were ready for the DNA sequencer. However, that step will not be completed until we have our other samples processed to the same phase. That evening, we went electrofishing above the power plant for a reach of 1200 seconds. While electrofishing, we were able to net four Asian carp. Dr. Lorentz stated that we have been shocking more Asian carp this year than he has in previous years on this section of the Ohio River. When we finished the reach, we completed our usual routine of recording the length and weight of each fish that we sampled.


The week concluded with our research group identifying minnows on Thursday and having the day off on Friday. With our day off on Friday, a colleague and I went on a canoe adventure on Elkhorn Creek. It was a beautiful stream with a diversity of fish. However, the particular fish that we were seeking was the smallmouth bass. We caught a few on our fishing rods and released them back into the creek. Overall, it was a good day.

Thanks for reading,