By SARA MATTHEWS
Capital News Service
LANSING — Lake Huron has the most shoreline and is the second largest of the Great Lakes, yet it gets perhaps the least scientific attention.
That will soon change now that Lake Huron is the home of a new long-term research program started by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory.
From the agency’s base at the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in Alpena, scientists are studying water quality, invasive and native species, nutrient levels and physical properties of the lake.
It’s long overdue, said Henry Vanderploeg, the program’s lead researcher.
“Lake Huron is the least studied lake,” Vanderploeg said. “We’ve done a lot of work in Saginaw Bay and want to expand our monitoring program on Lake Huron. In contrast, Lake Michigan has been the site of a long-term research program since the 1980s.
Significant changes in the Lake Huron ecosystem are a main focus of the research. A decline of nutrients in the open water is leading to a food shortage for prey fish like salmon. At the same time, species like walleye and smallmouth bass in the nearshore are increasing.
So are blooms of cladophora, an alga that emits a sewer-like odor as it rots on beaches.
Nutrients, the food web and water quality create the ecosystem of Lake Huron, Vanderploeg said, “but no one really knows how the Great Lakes systems work together.”
Studying the lake may give clues to how to effectively manage it for both water quality and fish production, he said. Similar studies done in Lake Michigan will be used to compare the lakes to better understand how they work.
Huron and Michigan are considered the same lake hydrologically, Vanderploeg said. But U.S. Environmental Protection Agency monitoring data shows that changes in similar plankton communities are occurring faster in Lake Huron.
“The reasons for that are not understood yet,” he said.
The project is exploring how:
• winds, waves, temperature and current affect ecosystems;
• sediment influences algae blooms;
• bottom-dwelling organisms affect algae growth and the availability of phosphorous;
• the food web is distributed in both near- and open- shore environments; and
• bottom-dwelling organisms like quagga and zebra mussels spread through the lake.
The initiative is a joint effort between the EPA’s Great Lakes National Program Office and Environment Canada to study one Great Lake per year. The studies are one element of a 1972 U.S.-Canada agreement on an international effort to protect the Great Lakes.
Participating agencies collaboratively examined ecological problems in Lake Huron to create research questions, said Glenn Warren, an EPA aquatic biologist in Chicago.
“Lake Huron has undergone some drastic changes in the last ten years or so,” Warren said. “The work we are doing will lead to better management of the lake.”
Other research participants are the U.S. Geological Survey, wildlife and environmental agencies from Michigan and Ontario, and universities from both countries.
“There are 11 Canadian and U.S. organizations and 24 science monitoring projects going on this summer,” said John Marsden, a manager of Great Lakes issues and reporting for Environment Canada in Toronto.
Experts say it’s a good strategy.
Paul Horvatin, the chief of EPA’s environmental monitoring and reporting branch for the Great Lakes National Program Office in Chicago, said. “When we cooperate, it’s amazing how much we can get done. It all adds up to more than what we can do separately. It will lead to a much better managed lake.”
In 2010, the Cooperative Science and Monitoring Initiative studied Lake Michigan. In 2011, it focused on Lake Superior.
Sara Matthews writes for Great Lakes Echo.
By SARA MATTHEWS