Wanted: Clean Boats Crew volunteers

Another Clean Boats Crew (CBC) season kicks off next month, and program leaders are looking for people to join the effort. Volunteers will help prevent the spread of invasive species by talking directly with boaters, anglers, and others. Veteran crew member Greg Tselepis wrote in to tell us more about what it's like to be part of the team. 

I was a bit nervous when I first started out as a Site Leader on the CBC in the summer of 2012. I attended the training, studied the materials, and became well-versed in aquatic invasive species (AIS) and their impact on our freshwater environment. Even though I was prepared for the upcoming summer, I wasn’t sure how the public would react to our presence at boat ramps around Lake Michigan.

So on our first day, I was pleasantly surprised at how receptive boaters, anglers, and beachgoers were to our message. Most people loved the fact that we were out there spreading the word about AIS—mainly because recreationists are very passionate about the Great Lakes. There are some folks who know a lot about AIS—especially anglers—and there are some who only know the basic facts from watching the news. I’ve found that I enjoy talking with all people who just want to know more and are willing to pass on information to their friends and family. I truly believe that outreach and word-of-mouth has been a very powerful tool in slowing the spread of AIS.

One of the reasons that I continue to be a part of this project is that I’ve spent most of my summers enjoying the Great Lakes, and I’ll do anything to help protect them. It also helps that the folks behind AIS outreach are truly awesome people who genuinely care about the future and the sustainability of our native species.

If someone was curious about volunteering, I would tell them to expect a nice day close to the water where people are generally in great moods and looking forward to their time on the lake. Keep in mind that there are some who just don’t want to be bothered, so if you are unsure, feel free to ask one of the Site Leaders if you should approach them. We generally have an accurate gauge on the people who want to keep to themselves, and, of course, we respect them. It’s also pretty cool when they see us the following weekend and feel comfortable to stop by our table and grab a sticker and some info.

Looking forward to another great summer on the Clean Boats Crew!

Visit our Clean Boats Crew page for more information and a complete training schedule. 


Milwaukee River gets a little help from its friends

Over 200 bags of trash, some shopping carts, mattresses, and a port-o-let were removed from Milwaukee's Lincoln Park earlier this month during an annual river cleanup led by Milwaukee Riverkeeper. The event drew nearly 3,500 residents and local officials to rivers across the city. Almost 100 of these volunteers were members of the Friends of Lincoln Park. Formed last October, this cleanup was the group’s first outreach project, with many more slated for 2015.
Members of the Lincoln Park community first came together in response to ongoing efforts to rid the Milwaukee River bottom of legacy contaminants like PCBs and PAHs. Phase two of the Great Lakes Legacy Act project was underway, and with the river making up such a large portion of the park, the community was taking notice. With support from focus groups conducted by Caitie McCoy and UW-Extension’s Gail Epping Overholt, residents were inspired to create a way to voice their thoughts and concerns on the direction of the park. 

The result was the Lincoln Park Friends Group, who, in association with Milwaukee County Parks, the Park People, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, and Wisconsin Sea Grant, is now working to revitalize Lincoln Park in a way that brings together the surrounding community.
“Most members have grown up enjoying the parks,” said David Thomas, secretary for the Friends of Lincoln Park. “We all think of the parks as a valuable community resource.”
The group hopes to instill a similar sense of stewardship in other community members. Along with plans to clear out areas overgrown with invasive plants, some members have expressed an interest in creating youth groups to provide opportunities to learn how to fish or canoe and to get to know the park’s natural surroundings in general.
“There’s a ton of work to do, but we want to build organically,” Thomas added.  “We want to build it slowly, and we want it to be strong and sustainable.”
The next big event for the Friends of Lincoln Park is an open house on May 16, where there will be family activities, a bird hike, an invasive species walk, and displays and activities for fishing, gardening, river ecology, and recycling. Visit the group’s Facebook page for more information and to stay up-to-date on future projects.

***Photo credit: Friends of Lincoln Park


Breaking news: Michigan City buoy returns for fourth season

Swimmers, boaters, and anglers visiting Indiana’s coastline can once again learn about conditions in southern Lake Michigan with real-time data collected by the Michigan City buoy. The buoy, launched for the first time in 2012, returned to its post four miles from shore today to collect data on wave height and direction, wind speed, and air and surface water temperatures. 

The only one of its kind in the Indiana waters of the lake, the Michigan City buoy and its temperature chain helps anglers and boaters find fishing hot spots and identify the safest times to be out on the lake.  

Scientists at the National Weather Service in northern Indiana will also use wave height and frequency data collected throughout the season to better anticipate the locations of strong waves and currents that cause dangerous swimming conditions. Real-time data on nearshore temperatures and wave characteristics is also vital for research on fisheries and nearshore hydrodynamics

Data will be available on IISG’s website  until the buoy is pulled out for the winter in mid-October. The site shows snapshots of lake conditions—updated every 10 minutes—as well as trends over 24-hour and 5-day periods. Buoy-watchers can also download raw historical data at NOAA’s National Data Buoy Center

And starting later this season, our website will also relay data collected by a new environmental sensing buoy placed north of Chicago. In addition to allowing people to track waves and temperatures, the data collected by this buoy could also help officials warn beachgoers when contamination levels may make swimming unsafe. 


The fight against invasive species moves to Wonder Lake

The Wonder Lake Master Property Owners Association is reminding boaters, anglers, and water skiers to remove, drain, and dry after a day on the water to prevent the spread of invasive species. These Be a Hero—Transport Zero™ steps can now be found at 14 boat ramps around the Illinois private lake.

The signs were installed during the annual spring cleanup, one of many events hosted by the Wonder Lake Sportsman’s Club. And it's just the latest effort designed to raise awareness of aquatic invasive species and how they spread.

The recent surge of outreach at Wonder Lake is largely driven by concern over invasive plants like Phragmites, a species that’s spreading quickly across the Great Lakes region. Plant life along the lakeshore is limited now, but an ongoing dredging project is expected to change that. 

Randy Stowe, the lake manager, wants to make sure that the species that move in don’t pose a threat to habitats and recreation.

“We’ll be reaching out to those who own the land along the lake to educate them about invasive plants—how to recognize them, and what to do if you find one,” said Stowe. “We’re really trying to stay ahead of things.” 

Learn more about how you can fight the spread of invasive species at TransportZero.org

***Photo credit: Wonder Lake Sportsman's Club 


Website of the week: Get the scoop on cleanup projects

A closer look at web tools and sites that boost research and empower Great Lakes communities to secure a healthy environment and economy. 

Residents living near sediment remediation projects can now stay up-to-date on cleanup goals and milestones with GreatLakesMud.org. Developed by IISG, this comprehensive site provides information on waterways selected for cleanup and restoration through the Great Lakes Legacy Act.
At the heart of Great Lakes Mud are site-specific pages that identify contaminants of concern and outline plans for cleanup and habitat restoration. Here, visitors will find the latest on dredging schedules, truck routes, opportunities for community involvement, and more. 

The website also provides insight into how Legacy Act projects are chosen and designed and explains how cleanup strategies like dredging and capping are able to remove the dangers of contaminated sediment while improving aquatic habitats. 

Illustrative photos and videos bring these processes to life and help viewers understand how project components that often span several years fit together.  

The Great Lakes Legacy Act was passed in 2002 to accelerate sediment cleanup in Areas of Concern, waterways blighted by decades of industrial discharges and poor municipal sewage practices. Since then, the program has cleaned up nearly 3 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment and restored acres of habitat.

For additional information or to request that your waterbody be added to the website, contact Caitie McCoy.  


Submit your best photos to the "Water Is..." contest

From Lake Michigan to the Ohio River and the Wabash to the Mississippi, Illinois is a state defined by its waterways. Our rivers, lakes, and groundwater aquifers played a central role in the state's history and continue to shape our economy and culture. 

Now you can show others what water means for you and your community with the "Water Is..." photo contest. Hosted by the Illinois Water Resources Center (IWRC), amateur and professional photographers alike are invited to submit photos until May 21. 

Winning images will be featured in IWRC materials promoting the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy, a new state plan designed to improve local and regional water quality.

The contest is open to the public, including state employees.

A panel of judges will select first place and honorable mention winners for amateur and professional categories. 

Find more information and submission instructions on IWRC's website


Friday Foto: The light to the city

The Chicago Harbor Lighthouse we see today is actually the most recent in a line of lighthouses that helped transform the city into one of the world's busiest ports in the 1800s. The oldest was built in 1832 and stood near where the Michigan Avenue Bridge is today. But early harbor developments moved the river entrance further into the lake, triggering a need for a second lighthouse just two decades later. 

The current structure has directed traffic into the river harbor for more than a century. When it was first constructed in 1893, it stood at the end of a jetty extending from the river mouth. It wasn't until 1917 that it was relocated to the outer breakwater. 

Learn more about Chicago's rich maritime history at chicagowaterwalk.org


Species spotlight: Least bittern

Where we take a moment to explore some of the unique and impressive species that call the Great Lakes home. 

Sun-gazer. Squirrel of the marshes. Smallest heron in the Americas. Measuring about a foot in length and weighing in at less than 4 oz., the least bittern is widely spread but rarely seen. 
Least bitterns make their homes among the reeds of dense wetlands. Even with a migratory range from southern Canada to northern Argentina, this threatened bird remains elusive, making it hard for wetland managers to get an idea of their numbers. 

Migrating to the Great Lakes each summer to breed, least bitterns fly only at night. And as if that didn’t make visual identification difficult enough, they also prefer to flee from predators and approach their nests on foot. On top of it all, least bitterns are well camouflaged. When threatened, the bird will freeze and point its head upward, exposing vertical striping on its throat that allows it to blend in with its surroundings—thus the nickname "sun grazer." They will even sway in the breeze to match the motion of the reeds. 

Elusive as they are, least bitterns are more often heard than seen—a low cooing from the males and a ticking from the females is the best way to "spot" them. Nests are made by constructing platforms of reeds above the water. Even these are camouflaged. A canopy of surrounding marsh plants is crimped in place above the nest. 

But the 4-5 eggs laid every season won’t be in the nest for long. Over the span of roughly 50 days, the chicks will hatch, fledge, and leave the nest to start hunting on their own.

Like squirrels leap from branch to branch, least bitterns walk among the reeds 2-3 feet above the water, allowing them to hunt in areas well outside the wading range of larger birds. Balancing on a reed, they strike down with their long bills to catch their prey. Their diet consists of fish like minnows and perch, insects, frogs and other small amphibians, invertebrates, crayfish, and even mammals like shrews and mice. 

We'll have more species spotlights in the coming weeks. In the meantime, check out our spotlight on lake sturgeon


Great Lakes ice coverage has its ups and downs

With spring in full swing, ice cover on the Great Lakes is down to about 20 percent. But it wasn't that long ago that the news was abuzz with the possibility that 2015 would break a record held for nearly four decades. In the end, coverage this winter topped out at roughly 89 percent—not enough to beat the 94-percent record set in 1979. 

But that isn’t to say that this wasn’t a record year. In fact, it was the second winter in a row that more than 80 percent of the basin was under ice. That hasn’t happened since the 1970s.

What makes this record even more surprising is that it ended decades of declining ice cover. The culprit for the switch was a persistent weather pattern that brought colder-than-normal temperatures to the eastern U.S. 

“The last two years are a great reminder of the role seasonal variability plays in total ice cover,” said Molly Woloszyn, IISG extension climatologist. “Warmer global temperatures could mean less Great Lakes ice cover overall, but there will still be winters with higher-than-normal cover thanks to seasonal changes.”

The recent spike in ice cover has had major economic and environmental repercussions. Thick sheets of ice continuing into spring hinder shipping, as the icy traffic jam on Lake Superior last week proved.

Ice also slows down evaporation, leading to higher spring and summer water levels. Due to this year’s extensive ice coverage, the Army Corps of Engineers predicts that Lake Michigan will be 14 inches higher this summer than last year—8 inches above its historical average. And the story is similar on the other lakes.

It’s too early to tell whether there’s another icy winter in our future. Perhaps the biggest unknown centers around El Nino. If this global weather event occurs in 2015, we can expect higher temperatures and less ice. Otherwise, we may be looking at year three of more than 80 percent ice cover. 

Learn more about the impact of winter ice cover and what to expect this summer in the latest Quarterly Climate Impacts and Outlook report.  


High school anglers join the fight against invasive species

Last weekend, high school anglers from across the state gathered at central Illinois’ Clinton Lake to battle for one of the top honors in competitive bass fishing—the Big Bass award. But the teams participating in the Illinois Bass Fishing Club High School Open  walked away with a lot more than awards and prize bags. The 150-plus competitors and coaches also left with "how-to" tips for stopping aquatic invasive species (AIS) in their tracks.

AIS prevention has become a fixture at this annual tournament, one of few in the state that allow students to hone their skills and learn about ways to carry their love of bass fishing into college. During the tournament’s four-year history, IISG specialists have joined teams at the Mascoutin Recreation Area to talk about the threat of invasive species and what anglers can do to halt their spread. Frequent announcements from Illini Bass Fishing Club members each year also remind students and parents alike of the importance of “leaving the lakes better than we found them.”

“No one cares more about Illinois’ fisheries than fishermen,” said Luke Stoner, former Illini Bass Fishing Club president and tournament director. “It’s our job to keep them as healthy as we can, and that includes fighting the spread of invasive species.”

This is not the only event where conservation has taken center stage. In fact, in the last decade, groups like the Shawnee MuskieHunters and Illinois Bass Federation have expanded their interest in casting technique, water safety, and fishing etiquette to become leaders in invasive species prevention.

Tournaments and club events give young anglers a chance to practice easy steps that prevent AIS from hitchhiking to new habitats and wreaking havoc on food webs and recreation. For example, removing plants, animals, and mud from all equipment, draining all water from your boat and gear, and drying everything thoroughly with a towel after a day on the water will help keep waterways clean and healthy. Throwing any removed plants and unused bait in the trash is also a simple way to join the fight against aquatic invaders.  

“To be really effective, these practices have to become routine—the first thing you do after leaving the water,” said Sarah Zack, IISG’s aquatic invasive species outreach specialist. “That’s why it is so encouraging that Illinois anglers and boaters are learning these practices early and are being encouraged to share them with their friends and family.”

Learn more about IISG’s invasive species prevention program, Be a Hero – Transport ZeroTM, at TransportZero.org. And for more information on Illinois high school bass fishing tournaments, visit www.TheFutureFishesHere.org

***Look for this story in the April 3 edition of Illinois Outdoor News


Friday Foto: It's time to get out and see the sights!

Nearly 47 million domestic travelers visited Chicago in 2014. And many likely snapped a few photos at the "The Bean." Cloud Gate—as it's formally known—is one of the region's most popular attractions, but it's far from the only one. In fact, southern Lake Michigan and its communities provide rich opportunities for outdoor activities for visitors and residents alike. 

Whether you're interested in boating, fishing, swimming, or walking along Chicago's lakefront, be sure to check out our new Recreation page. 


DNA tools help biologist find elusive species

In the Great Lakes region, the word “eDNA” is never far from “Asian carp.” And for good reason. The technology was originally applied by Notre Dame scientists in response to the federal government’s need to discover—and ultimately control—the spread of this voracious invader.

But in the six years since, environmental DNA has become a commonly used tool for detecting fish and other aquatic organisms. Biologists in the UK use it to locate crested newts, Kentucky scientists use eDNA to monitor salamanders, and a city in Washington state even plans to use the technology to track an invasive snail threatening salmon habitats. And scientists see even greater potential on the horizon. 

Think of eDNA as forensic detective work. When a silver carp, salamander, or other aquatic animal shed skin cells, they leave behind traces of their DNA. Using the method developed at Notre Dame, scientists can run water samples through a fine-meshed filter, separate DNA from any other microscopic particles, and determine whether any of the genetic material matches the species they are looking for.

“The importance of the method lies in its ability to detect the presence of recluse species or ones with population levels that make catching them difficult,” said David Lodge, a Notre Dame biologist and director of the team that developed this forensic method.

Most of the testing done so far has focused on finding the genetic material of a single species. But Lodge, Notre Dame professor Michael Pfrender, and their team are working on an approach that would allow scientists to map the aquatic life of an entire habitat by sequencing all the genes in a water sample. Although it wouldn’t replace the more time-intensive field studies, this strategy could help natural resource managers know where to target conservation efforts. Lodge received funding to develop a metagenetics approach from the Department of Defense and the National Science Foundation after early results of IISG-funded research revealed ways to strengthen eDNA sampling.

Despite its growing use, eDNA testing is not without controversy, especially when it comes to Asian carp. And the approach does have its limits. eDNA doesn’t tell scientists how many fish there are or whether they are alive or dead. The genetic material found in the water could also come from other sources. There could be feces from birds that fed on Asian carp elsewhere. And boaters and anglers could unknowingly be transporting DNA from one waterway to another.   
These possibilities cast some doubt on eDNA results. In fact, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources has said they no longer react to these results alone and are instead looking for entire fish. 

Still, supporters say the technology has huge potential.

“Nothing is as sure as holding the fish in your hand,” Lodge said, “but the repeated findings and patterns of Asian carp eDNA make the alternative explanations for how the material got there less plausible.”   


Cultivate healthy, beautiful landscapes with natural lawn care

Residents across Illinois and Indiana are taking advantage of the warmer weather to plan garden and yard projects. Adrienne Gulley shares some with easy tips for keeping your lawn green and the water clean. 

Nothing is more appealing than fresh flowers and green grass. But the chemicals we put on our lawns each year can end up in our lakes and rivers, where they lower water quality and harm aquatic ecosystems. Fortunately, you don't have to give up your beautiful landscape to protect our waterways. This summer, take the Lawn to Lake pledge and adopt these natural lawn care practices: 
  • Mow at a 3” or higher. Longer grass shades out weeds and retains moisture better.
  • Leave grass clippings on the lawn. They're a natural fertilizer. 
  • Aerate soil to reduce compaction.
  • Water deeply, slowly and infrequently to build healthy root systems.
  • Test your soil to determine your fertilizer needs. 
  • Fertilize with a thin layer of compost in the spring and fall.
If you aren’t practicing these tips already, it may be a good idea to simply focus on one tip at a time. Understanding the impact of nutrients from our lawns is the key to keeping our waterways healthy. 

I will be sharing these and similar tips with members of the Illinois Lake Management Association during their Point of Discussion educational series tonight in Springfield. Visit www.ilma-lakes.org for more information. 


The trouble with aquaponics

Imagine a way of farming fish with plants that has little to no impact on the environment—no runoff, soil loss, no need to even develop land. That’s aquaponics. And while it seems ideal, there’s a reason why current operations are small, few, and far between.

As its name suggests, aquaponics is a  a combination of aquaculture and hydroponics. Like with hydroponics, plants are grown with their roots directly in water. But where hydroponics introduces necessary nutrients artificially, aquaponics takes advantage of a symbiotic relationship between aquatic animals, bacteria, and plants. Normally aquaculture tanks need to be filtered to prevent waste byproducts from reaching harmful levels, but with aquaponics, bacteria convert these byproducts into the necessary nutrients for healthy plant growth. The plants are fed, and the water is filtered.

But there’s one important problem. For an aquaponics operation to be successful, it has to turn a profit. Most operations occupy a niche market in urban centers where fresh fish and veggies are either expensive or hard to come by—the Virgin Islands, Tucson, Chicago, and St. Paul to name a few. Tilapia and basil are a typical combination—tilapia because they’re hardy and easy to grow, and basil because of its high value. But as hardy as tilapia is, it’s still a tropical fish, meaning operations in colder climates have to cope with high energy costs to keep water temperatures warm. And while basil may be a high-value plant, the profit margin is still slim. Some operations have sought to circumvent these high energy costs by resorting to yellow perch and lettuce, but to little avail.

Operations in warmer climates like the ones in Tuscon and the Virgin Islands tend to see more success than those farther from the equator. Higher average temperatures help maintain stability in systems that are inherently unstable, giving operators more leeway as they try to balance the water chemistry. And its this stability that’s key for an operation to be economically viable. 

The issue of stability is tricky enough to work out on a small scale. But to be profitable, producers must attempt larger operations, complicating something that was fragile and complex to begin with. That's the catch-22 of aquaponics. Producers are faced with two options: either have a working system and watch the operation go bankrupt, or go bankrupt figuring out how to make the system work. And until this dilemma is resolved, aquaponics will continue to struggle to break into the mainstream.  

For more information on aquaponics, contact Kwamena Quagrainie. Interested producers can also learn about practices that can improve the chance of success in this video created in partnership with Purdue Extension


Friday Foto: Let's get this party started

Although pockets of ice buildup may hinder navigation for a few more weeks, another shipping season has begun on the Great Lakes. 

The region is a vital conduit for companies in a wide range of industries—from grain producers to steelmakers to salt miners. The lakes also make it possible to safely transport over-sized cargo like wind turbines and machinery that would otherwise have a much longer journey on congested highways. Altogether, more than 160 million metric tons of U.S. and Canadian cargo are delivered by Great Lakes vessels each year, generating roughly $35 billion in business revenue and directly supporting nearly 230,000 jobs. 


Wanted: Organizations, communities for survey tool pilot project

University of Illinois Extension is looking for communities and organizations to pilot a new online tool that makes it easier than ever to conduct science-based, IRB-approved surveys. 

In addition to hosting editable surveys on a wide variety of topics—from recreation, to community development, to local government—the Community Survey Tool provides an overview of research methods and access to e-learning modules related to survey design. 

Communities and organizations can customize surveys and export them to Survey Monkey or other hosting sites. Extension specialists are also available to help communities integrate the tool into a decision-making process. 

The Community Survey Tool was developed by University of Illinois Extension, the Illinois Water Resources Center, and IISG. 

Contact Corey Buttry at buttry2@illinois.edu or 217-244-8696 for more details. 


Common herbicide may be linked to cancer

The cancer-research arm of the World Health Organization recently announced that the world's most widely-used herbicide is 'probably carcinogenic to humans.' Adrienne Gulley wrote in to clarify some of the details of the announcement and the research behind it. 

"Glyphosate is the most commonly used herbicide in the world. It's found in over 750 different products, including Roundup. And, like most lawn care and agricultural chemicals, it doesn't stay on the ground. Scientists have found glyphosate in nearby water supplies and food grown in areas where the chemical was sprayed. 

Evidence of a connection between glyphosate and cancer in humans is limited, and past studies are often contradictory. For example, several American and European studies have shown that people who work with the herbicide have an increased risk of non-Hodgkin's lymphomas. But a U.S. study that began monitoring the health of thousands of farmers and their spouses in 1993 has found no such link. 

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) noted all of this in their report in March. But other evidence, primarily from animal studies, was seen as enough to warrant the 'probably carcinogenic' classification.

It is worth noting that IARC classifies compounds on a multi-point scale: 1 for agents that are definitely carcinogenic to humans and 4 for those that probably aren't. Glyphosate was categorized as 2A. Also in that category are emissions from high-temperature frying—like the kind a fry cook deals with—and the occupational chemical exposure experienced by barbers. 

But not everyone agrees with IARC's assessment. In addition to triggering back-lash from the industry, the report has raised some eyebrows in the research community. 

So what happens now? It is up to individual governments to issue public health recommendations or set limits on the use of chemicals reviewed by the IARC. The U.S. EPA does not currently consider glyphosate to be carcinogenic in humans, but they are conducting a formal review of its safety." 

For more information or to read the IARC study in its entirety, visit www.thelancet.com/oncology.

***Photo by of University of Delaware Extension.