James Watkins retrieves a Tucker Trawl used for collecting fish larvae in Lake Ontario in 2018 off the EPA’s Lake Guardian research vessel.

$6.75M EPA grant to fund Great Lakes food web monitoring

Cornell has received a $6,749,825 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to continue efforts to monitor and research the lower part of the food web. The project focuses on zooplankton, Mysis (native shrimp-like organisms) and benthic invertebrates (bottom feeders without backbones, including native and exotic mussels).

The competitive five-year grant is funded through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), which launched in 2010, and is part of a larger effort to restore and protect the Great Lakes, the largest freshwater body of water on Earth. Cornell is collaborating with researchers at the Great Lakes Center at SUNY Buffalo State College. Overall, the funds support the EPA’s Great Lakes Biology Monitoring Program and will implement GLRI’s third action plan to assess the health of the Great Lakes.

Cornell impacting New York State

The research team will make use of the EPA’s research vessel R/V Lake Guardian to collect and analyze samples, build up long-term datasets and share them.

“Changes in the lake ecosystems can happen very quickly,” said James Watkins, Ph.D. ’11, senior research associate in the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment and the grant’s principal investigator. “In 2004, Lake Huron had a major fishery collapse connected to declines in lower food web phytoplankton and zooplankton. So it’s very important to not just collect data, but also get the results out quickly to inform managers.” By understanding the current health of the food web, managers can take actions to respond to such changes.

One aspect of the grant will be to monitor invasive species and keep an eye out for new introductions. Over the past 30 years, the  bottoms of the Great Lakes have seen increasing numbers of zebra followed by quagga mussels, both of which are invasive species from Europe that arrived to this continent via ballast water discharge. Updated ballast water regulations are helping to reduce further introductions. The abundant mussels filter out algae and have disrupted the base of the Great Lakes food chain.

Spiny water flea, an abundant and large invasive plankton crustacean introduced in the 1980s, has competed with smaller native zooplankton, though researchers have discovered that some fish species are feeding on them. “Our analysts have also detected five new introductions of nonnative species of zooplankton in Western Lake Erie since 2017, although none have become invasive,” Watkins said.

The researchers sample all five Great Lakes each April and August. In addition, each year the team will focus on one of the Great Lakes for more in-depth sampling. Research components of the grant include analysis of the longer-term datasets, developing plans to improve monitoring and aimed to research questions specific to unique issues in each lake. Another major aspect of the grant will be to train new Great Lakes scientists by providing opportunities for technicians, graduate and undergraduate students.