Water Quality

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Cracking Down on Mercury

Monday, December 9th, 2013

by Kristen Minogue

Ally Bullock, a technician in SERC's mercury lab, draws pore water samples from Berry's Creek. (SERC)

Ally Bullock, a technician in SERC’s mercury lab, draws pore water samples from Berry’s Creek. (SERC)

It isn’t safe to eat the blue crabs from Berry’s Creek.  American eels and white perch are also off-limits. White catfish are permissible, but only once a year, according to a New Jersey advisory for the Newark Bay Complex, where the creek is located. Crabbing in the 6.5-mile stream is illegal and can carry up to a $3000 fine. Waste from a now-defunct chemical processing plant, combined with more than a century of manufacturing, has made Berry’s Creek and its surrounding wetlands hot spots for mercury pollution.

The Environmental Protection Agency calls places like Berry’s Creek “Superfund sites”—a label for abandoned or neglected sites that became dumping grounds for hazardous waste. Some of the highest levels of mercury contamination in the U.S. exist in Superfund sites. Cynthia Gilmour knows this first-hand. As a microbial ecologist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, she has worked in several.  But short of digging up the polluted sediments and dumping them elsewhere (an expensive and ecologically risky proposition), not many methods exist to get rid of the problem.

“If we use the traditional technologies of removing that and putting it in a landfill, we don’t have a wetland anymore,” says Upal Ghosh, an environmental engineer from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who works with Gilmour.

This fall, Gilmour and Ghosh explored a new technique: using charcoal to trap it in the soil.

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Q&A: The Heart of the Ocean

Tuesday, November 12th, 2013
Before joining MarineGEO, Emmett Duffy did research in waters from Australia to Siberia. (Photo: College of William and Mary)

Before joining MarineGEO, Emmett Duffy did research in waters from Australia to Siberia. (Photo: College of William and Mary)

by Kristen Minogue

It’s “the largest, coolest marine biological project on Earth”, according to its new director, Emmett Duffy. On Sept. 16 Duffy came on board the Tennenbaum Marine Observatories Network, a.k.a. MarineGEO–the Smithsonian’s global network to monitor the oceans. So far it has five stations tracking the ocean’s chemistry and biology, from SERC in Maryland to STRI in Panama. They plan to add at least 10 more in the next decade. Now, after two  months on the job, Duffy shares his vision in this edited Q&A.

What’s the main purpose of MarineGEO?

The overall goal really is a very ambitious one. In my mind, it’s to understand what’s at the heart of how marine ecosystems work…and that is biodiversity. The living web from microbes to large predators that are responsible for ecosystem processes like fish production and habitat creation. So basically what we want to do is map marine biodiversity and what it’s doing across the globe.

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Hunt for a Missing Nutrient: Part II

Wednesday, July 24th, 2013

By Katie Sinclair

Alyssa and Carey begin their search for key nutrients in a stream in the Choptank Watershed.

Alyssa and Carey begin their search for key nutrients in a stream in the Choptank Watershed.

The nutrient lab is still plagued by the mystery of the missing nitrogen. More nitrogen enters the watershed than exits it, and the question remains: Why?

How much nitrogen makes it to the bay can have huge impacts on the water quality and bay health. The Choptank watershed, in a farm-heavy area, has much lower levels of nitrogen in stream water than expected. As farmers add fertilizer to their crops, some nitrogen gets taken up by the plants, and the rest washes away into the watershed , eventually reaching the Chesapeake Bay. Of the nitrogen that is added as fertilizer, only 20 to 30 percent of it is accounted for.

In a narrow, slow-moving stream in the Choptank watershed, fondly nicknamed “Pizza Branch” (due to its proximity to a lone pizza joint puzzlingly located in this predominantly farming area), researchers working under Tom Jordan, Principal investigator of the nutrient lab at SERC, are using different methods to help determine what’s happening to the nitrogen. The project is a joint effort between SERC and Tom Fisher’s lab at the Horn Point Laboratory of the University of Maryland.

Researchers brave high heat, humidity, and voracious mosquitoes to take water samples, a process that can take all day. While taking water from a stream may seem like a straightforward undertaking, the true complexity comes through in the lab, where analysis of microscopic dissolved compounds can reveal the secrets of a watershed.

“It’s a fun challenge to go all over a stream and take samples and bring them back to the lab, to discover things you can’t see with your eyes,” said Jordan.
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From the Field: One Final Search

Tuesday, February 26th, 2013

by Katrina Lohan

Sunset from the dock at the Bocas del Toro Marine Station, Smithsonian. (Katrina Lohan)

Sunset from the dock at the Bocas del Toro Marine Station, Smithsonian. (Katrina Lohan)

We had very little trouble finding two of the oyster species we needed at three different places. But with only three days left in our trip, we had yet to find Ostrea sp. at more than one location. With our hopes high, we headed toward Portobelo to see if we could find a saline river-like environment that had Ostrea sp. in high enough abundance for us to sample. The drive was gorgeous! We drove along the Atlantic Coast of Panama and stopped at five separate “rivers”, though most of them were pretty small and should probably be called streams instead. We also briefly drove into Portobelo so that we could drive past the old Spanish forts in the city.

We only found Ostrea sp. at one of the rivers, and we didn’t find enough to sample there. Our final stop on our way back to Naos was the French Canal. We had borrowed an inflatable canoe from Mark Torchin, which took us about 20 minutes to pump up. Once we did, we were able to get the canoe into the water and used it to more closely investigate what oysters were growing on the bridge pilings. We had our fingers crossed that it would be Ostrea sp. but, alas, it was Crassostrea sp. instead. Well, I can’t be too upset. While we didn’t get the ideal sampling we were hoping for, it was still a very successful trip!

Next month we head to Merida, Mexico to continue our sampling adventures. Stay tuned!

Complete parasite-hunting stories from Panama >>

From the Field: A Day’s Work

Monday, February 25th, 2013

by Katrina Lohan

Kristina Hill investigates a mangrove root at Rio Alejandro, Panama, to determine what kinds of oysters are living on it. (Katrina Hill)

Kristina Hill investigates a mangrove root at Rio Alejandro, Panama, to determine what kinds of oysters are living on it. (Katrina Lohan)

The day after arriving in Panama City, we went out into the field to continue collecting. During our trip in December, we had sampled two locations on the Atlantic side of the Canal. Now we had to complete our sampling for the three genera we had been sampling in Bocas. So we headed out to an area near Colon, Panama, and rented a boat for a few hours to go find oysters in the mangroves. We were successful at finding all three species at one location and two of the three species at another location. Not bad for a single morning.

From the Field: The Language Barrier

Monday, February 25th, 2013

by Katrina Lohan

We were able to find a final location for Ostrea sp. in Bocas del Toro, which wrapped up our sampling there. So it was time to return to Panama City to complete our sampling on the Atlantic side of the Panama Canal.

Now I have been trying to learn and remember some Spanish phrases. There were times when my lack of fluency was awkward, and other times when it is more problematic. Our return trip to Panama City was one of the problematic occasions!

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From the Field: An “Unglamorous” Sampling Site

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

by Katrina Lohan

Life underwater. Fire coral, anemones, sponges and a diverse group of oysters cling to a dock at the Smithsonian's Bocas del Toro Marine Station. (Kristina Hill)

Life underwater. Fire coral, anemones, sponges and a diverse group of oysters cling to a dock at the Smithsonian's Bocas del Toro Marine Station.
(Kristina Hill)

To satisfy our sampling scheme, we needed one more location with all three genera present. The dock at Bocas del Toro wasn’t the most glamorous location to sample, but it was an amazing place to snorkel around. There were many bivalve species and an abundance of individuals for each species located on the pilings. There were lots of different fish, coral, hydroids and sponges. It was beautiful! We decided to make this our third sampling location as it was easily accessible and had all three species–or so we thought.

We know oysters are tricky to morphologically identify, as they have such a wide range of growth patterns. It wasn’t until we were back in the lab and had shucked a few of the oysters open that we realized what we thought was Ostrea sp. in the field was actually a different species, Dendostrea frons. Oops…

From the Field: More Oysters, Please!

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

by Katrina Lohan

Katrina Lohan attempts to scrape Striostrea oysters off rocks in a tidal pool at Bique, Panama. (Kristina Hill)

For the second oyster sampling excursion, we headed out to Bastimentos and Solarte to try to find another site where the same three oyster species co-occur. Unfortunately, Kristy was out of commission at the time due to illness (though I’m happy to report that she has made a full recovery).

Mark, Greg and I had scouted out a few potential locations the night before. While we had no trouble finding Isognomon sp. and Crassostrea sp. on the mangroves in multiple locations, we struggled to find a location where Ostrea sp. occurred with them. So, when we ventured out to collect in the morning, we decided to scout out a few more locations that might have all three species. At Solarte, we found just the right spot! Collecting all the oysters we needed didn’t take long at all, so I suggested that perhaps we do a little snorkeling while on our way back to the field station. Mark knew just where to go. We ended up snorkeling at a place called Hospital Point, where I saw a spiny lobster (Panulirus argus). Then we stopped at another snorkeling spot with huge sea stars, cute sandy gobies, sea cucumbers and beautiful coral!

The extra time spent in the water was just what I needed to motivate myself to get into the lab and process some oysters, as I knew that any data I helped generate would add to the ever-growing body of knowledge about the world beneath the waves!

From the Field: Punta Caracol

Wednesday, February 6th, 2013

by Katrina Lohan

Mark Torchin collects oysters off mangrove roots, while Greg Ruiz and Kristina Hill sort and count the different oyster species. (Katrina Lohan)

Our first sampling site was Punta Caracol. We were able to find three oyster species attached to the mangrove roots at this site, including Ostrea sp., Crassostrea sp. and Isognomon sp. The salinity was about 30 parts per thousand, so well within the acceptable range for the three protozoan parasites that we are hoping to find.

I spent some time on the boat, but I desperately wanted to get in the water. Thus, when we had trouble finding Ostrea sp., I eagerly offered to jump in and snorkel around in the mangrove roots to look for more individuals. While I wasn’t too successful finding that species in the areas I was looking, I greatly enjoyed getting into the mangrove trees to search for them! I saw xanthid crabs, sponges and lots and lots of barnacles! We did eventually find enough individuals from all three species, at which point we headed back to the lab to process all the oysters.

Being in the water was definitely the best part of the day!

More stories from Panama >>

From the Field: Scouting in Bocas del Toro

Tuesday, February 5th, 2013

by Katrina Lohan

After spending less than a week at the Naos Laboratory, Kristy and I headed to Bocas del Toro with collaborator Mark Torchin from STRI and my advisor, Greg Ruiz from SERC. The flight from Panama City to Bocas del Toro is only about an hour, so we left on the first flight out in the morning and arrived at the station in plenty of time to put in a full day’s work. Though tired from getting up early to make the flight, there is nothing that wakes me up faster than a chance to get in the water!

Reconnaissance cruise in Bocas del Toro, on the Atlantic side of Panama. Since the canal opened almost 100 years ago, species as well as cargo have been able to cross the waterway between oceans. (Kristina Hill)

The majority of our first day was spent settling in. We had a safety orientation with Plinio Gondola, the Deputy Scientific Coordinator at the field station. We then unpacked the gear and quickly took over our assigned space in Laboratory 100. Next it was time to settle into onsite accommodations. The Bocas del Toro field station has dormitories as well as houses for visitors. We are staying in one of the houses, the Casa Hoch, which has two rooms, a dining room, lounge area and full kitchen. Excellent accommodations!

After settling in, we decided to do some reconnaissance in hopes of determining at least one potential sampling location. Kristy, Greg, Mark and I headed out on one of the marine station’s boats to find oysters. We spent most of the time searching mangrove roots attempting to determine what species were present in the different locations we were surveying. While driving around the mangroves is nice, I particularly enjoyed the reconnaissance that involved snorkeling. While snorkeling, I was able to check out potential pathogen reservoirs in addition to noting the bivalve species in the area. So many research options and so little time!

More stories from Panama >>