Revving Up a New ROV
On a sun-drenched, nearly cloudless day with sight lines from the eastern horizon to the western, a group of middle-school educators and students were on Lake Mendota in Madison to plumb what they couldn’t see. They were engaged in water-quality analyses. The occasion also represented the maiden voyage of the Trident, a remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV) Sea Grant obtained through an organization known as OpenROV for use as a teaching tool.
Prairie River Middle School Teacher Lynn Kurth brought four students from her hometown of Merrill, Wis., and Sue Nelson accompanied four charges from her middle school in Rochester, Minn.
This cross-border camaraderie had its origins aboard a replica three-masted wooden schooner out of Milwaukee, the Denis Sullivan. Last summer, Kurth and Nelson met as part of an educator workshop sponsored by the Minnesota and Wisconsin Sea Grant programs and with financial support from the Center for Great Lakes Literacy. Kurth was not only a dab hand on the boat, having participated in previous sails, but also an enthusiastic mentor for Nelson as they both strive to bring the Great Lakes alive in their classrooms.
Jake Walsh, a freshwater ecologist working as a researcher with the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Limnology, captained one boat. UW-Madison is the birthplace of the study of freshwater lakes, known as limnology, so it was fitting to have his expertise. Walsh’s work has focused on understanding how species invasions, eutrophication, climate change and human decision-making affect lakes.
Also part of the expedition was Tori Kiefer, a maritime archeologist with the Wisconsin Historical Society. Kiefer hopes shipwrecks can inspire the students to delve further into Midwestern culture.
“Shipwrecks are a Snapchat into our history. We can learn a lot about history, farming and immigrants through shipwrecks. A lot of our cities are the way they are because of shipping. Shipwrecks are a great way to understand people,” she said.
Walsh seconded that view. In a brief orientation before the students clambered into matching boats housed in a drive-in slip beneath the Hasler Laboratory of Limnology, he said, “This building was built in the 1950s, but people have been studying this lake for more than 100 years. Lake Mendota is one of the most-studied lakes in the world. You get to be part of this long history of studying to understand this lake.” He continued, “A lot of people have been here for a long time. We’ve sunk a lot of stuff. There will be stuff to look at.”
Although educators may not be able to replicate this sunny May day on Lake Mendota, an ROV and curriculum are available for teachers to check out of the Wisconsin Water Library http://www.seagrant.wisc.edu/home/Default.aspx?tabid=653 for use in a small swimming pool to be set up in a classroom. Kurth was instrumental in creating the teaching kit, which promotes learning about engineering, maritime history and underwater exploration.
The Dredge Report
It can’t happen just any old time. Removing sediment from or adding it to harbors to help ships pass or for construction projects is regulated by state and federal rules designed to lessen impacts to the plants and animals living in both marine and fresh water.
“We used to call them fish windows,” said Gene Clark, Wisconsin Sea Grant coastal engineer. “But we’ve learned that other species can be affected by the timing of dredging as well – things like mussels, amphibians and wild rice. It’s not just a fish window, it’s an environmental window for dredging.”
These timing windows were first created almost 50 years ago, spurred by the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act in 1969. They hardly ever change and are enforced through the permitting process by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and state departments of natural resources. The windows were designated by natural resource experts, but specific science-based data to help them were lacking.
According to a white paper on dredging windows in the Duluth-Superior Harbor by Minnesota Sea Grant in 2017, a number of new scientific tools are now available to “evaluate the specific impacts of dredging, to more accurately monitor the biological integrity and specific biological functions of different parts of our harbors, and to assess changes due to season variation. In addition, new engineering technologies have resulted in new dredging methods and construction options to reduce the impacts of the dredging process, as well as in-water facilities maintenance and fabrication.”
Bringing dredging windows up to date was one of the most important issues identified by harbor stakeholders when asked where they thought Sea Grant could make a difference, Clark said. At stake is money and time, not to mention the well-being of the environment.
“The timing of the dredging windows can be very strict, and they can make projects more costly,” said Clark. “The problem doesn’t just affect our harbor. All dredging projects on the Great Lakes have this issue, too.”
Clark believes that with more information about where critical habitats are in the harbor and when important wildlife activities are going on, such as fish spawning, money can be saved on behalf of taxpayers and the contractors.
Clark has teamed with Dale Bergeron, Minnesota Sea Grant maritime extension educator, and members of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority to work on the issue. They have been working for a year to write a white paper, develop a process for deciding what studies are needed, and provide a template for studies in other ports.
“Our goal is to facilitate discussions between the regulatory agencies, the U.S. Army Corps and the contractors,” Clark said.
They also plan to work with academic researchers to find funding for the studies.
“Perhaps in a couple of seasons, we’ll have enough information so we can actually make a difference in when dredging windows are set, and potentially save the corps some money, save the contractor money and save some angst on behalf of the permitting agencies,” Clark said.
Wild Rice Focus of NOAA Grant, Outreach Efforts in Lake Superior States
Native American Elder Jeff Savage stated: “We have a lot of hurdles to get over for wild rice restoration, and the biggest is ignorance.”
His remarks came at the Second Annual Lake Superior Manoomin (Wild Rice) Restoration Workshop in Duluth, Minnesota, in April. Savage, director of the Fond du Lac Cultural Center and Museum, was taking part in a panel discussion about the cultural significance of wild rice with elders from tribes in northern Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota.
As the elders shared their memories and insights, plans were in motion to address the ignorance hurdle. The workshop was organized by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Office of Coastal Management, whose staff were also in the process of deciding which projects will receive funding to create a wild rice education and outreach toolkit for Lake Superior audiences.
NOAA announced recently that the Sea Grant programs in Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota will receive funds to create a manoomin toolkit. Leading the effort in Wisconsin will be Deidre Peroff, Wisconsin Sea Grant’s social scientist. She stresses that the project, which is designed to integrate traditional knowledge about wild rice with Western knowledge, is more of a tribal effort than a Sea Grant effort.
“We’re working with the tribes to develop and share materials that would be useful to them to promote awareness and conservation of manoomin. While we can’t begin to understand manoomin from a tribal perspective, we can encourage others to respect it as a significant cultural and regional resource,” Peroff said.
The two-year project, which starts this month, involves fostering a regional network of partners including tribal, government, university and community representatives. That network will produce an educational toolkit focusing on increasing awareness about wild rice and providing guidance on how to protect and restore it. Also, an online database of resources will be created about the cultural and regional significance of wild rice, harvesting procedures, and its ecological functions and importance. The database will provide links to commercial distributors, current research and outreach projects.
Peroff said that while the toolkit is a collaborative effort, Wisconsin Sea Grant will work primarily on the database, Michigan Sea Grant on the development of project outreach materials, and Minnesota Sea Grant on youth education activities.
“The idea is to have a place where anyone can reference information about wild rice, whether that’s educational, outreach materials or research that’s been done,” Peroff said. “There’s lots of information out there, but some of it needs updating. We just want to make sure we understand what’s out there, what’s most useful and which audience to target.”
Even some of the elders who participated in the panel discussion might find the information useful. Several of the six said they were “new” to wild rice — they didn’t grow up harvesting it and have just only begun to learn about it.
Roger LaBine of the Lac Vieux Desert Band of Lake Superior Chippewa said that the first time he saw wild rice was when he was a teenager at a funeral reception dinner. “I wouldn’t eat it because I thought people were eating grubs. I didn’t know what it was because it was gone from my community.”
Thankfully, LaBine now understands manoomin’s importance to his people.
“Losing rice would be like losing our language,” he said.
This toolkit project should go a long way toward ensuring that this doesn’t happen. For more information, contact Deidre Peroff at firstname.lastname@example.org.