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WATER

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COVER STORY Coming into

COVER STORY Coming into focus To better manage the Great Lakes, university and agency researchers are using cutting-edge tools to reveal what’s really happening beneath the surface. On a mid-August morning at his office in Chicago, Paris Collingsworth opens a spreadsheet attachment with 15,000 rows of data. He’s received similar files a handful of times over the last three years. The data they’ve contained has launched a critical examination of how agencies manage one of the largest freshwater fisheries in the world and opened the door to solutions to some of Lake Erie’s trickiest problems. “Advances in how we collect and analyze data are yielding a more detailed picture of hypoxia in Lake Erie than we’ve ever had,” said Collingsworth, an ecosystem specialist with Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant (IISG) who works on projects supported by the Illinois Water Resources Center (IWRC) through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI). These improvements aren’t limited to Lake Erie, though. Research projects throughout the region are benefiting from cutting-edge analytical tools that make it possible to decipher and model massive data sets in a fraction of the time it took just a few years ago. And thanks to an international effort to coordinate Great Lakes research and a partnership with leading supercomputing experts, the walls that traditionally separated these data sets are coming down. Temperamental hypoxia U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Research Fishery Biologist Richard Kraus assumed his dissolved oxygen sensors had failed when they returned puzzling results during a field test on Lake Erie. That is until an Ohio Department of Natural Resources (Ohio DNR) official conducting similar tests nearby said his instruments were giving the same readings. Data loggers deployed at 10 sampling stations collecting measurements every 10 minutes would later confirm the explanation: Hypoxia doesn’t just spread out from the central basin of the lake like scientists have long believed. Pockets of low oxygen also continuously spring up at the edge of the basin, where they’re sloshed around by internal waves. “We were in awe when we looked at the data from the first season,” said Kraus who began continuously monitoring dissolved oxygen in Lake Erie in 2011, three years before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) Great Lakes National Program Office (GLNPO) deployed their loggers. “Sometimes an area would switch from normal to hypoxic conditions in a matter of hours. “We wouldn’t have been able to see that short-term variability without such a large data set.” The finding moves U.S. EPA and Environment Canada substantially closer to fulfilling their commitment to pinpoint the extent and severity of the hypoxic zone in Lake Erie, one of many priorities codified in the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. It also has potentially sweeping repercussions on fishery management in the lake. The Great Lakes Fishery Commission bases annual commercial catch limits on models that assume the number of fish and the effectiveness— or catchability—of different fishing gear are the same throughout the lake. But dynamic dead zones mean inconsistency. Fish and other aquatic wildlife numbers spike at the edge of hypoxic waters as some flee suffocation and others hunt those on the run. The result is an ever-changing patchwork of high and low-density habitats that could lead managers to think there are more or less fish in the lake than actually reside there. “When the Ohio DNR Division of Wildlife sampled at the edge of the hypoxic zone this year, they caught huge numbers of yellow perch,” noted Collingsworth. “If they put that data point in the model, it changed the population estimate for the entire lake by about 30 percent.” ILLINOIS WATER / 2017 5

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