Plastics and Fish – Scientific Research on the Lake

The middle section of our lake studies focused on scientific research. In the modern era, formal research has a tremendous amount to tell us about the health of the lake ecosystem. Seizing a golden opportunity, we sent crews of six students at a time out on the Melosira, UVM’s research vessel, to participate in ongoing research on lake trout reproduction. We trawled for 10 minutes at a time at varying depths, pulling in the nets to count how many of the total catch of lake trout were the result of natural reproduction (versus those stocked from hatcheries). Two of our crews recorded the highest levels of wild born lake trout since this research project began, documenting 78% and 95% wild recruitment. It’s encouraging to see more and more trout successfully reproducing in the wild – and hopefully these data will eventually help to explain why.

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The by-catch from our research was as interesting as the trout, and included two lamprey, an American eel, a few sculpins, and hundreds of rainbow smelt and (non-native) alewife. We enjoyed the chance to meet all the people involved in this work, from boat captains and deck hands to graduate students, getting a glimpse at the many kinds of jobs connected to lake research.

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We also learned about the problem of microplastics and plastic microfibers in Lake Champlain, an emerging water quality challenge. Dr. Danielle Garneau from SUNY-Plattsburgh shared her extensive research with us. Later, we saw the problem firsthand. With the staff of the Watershed Alliance, we dissected some of our smelt and extracted the contents of their digestive tracts. Using microscopes – and sometimes the naked eye – we were unfortunately able to find microplastics in many of our samples, from microbeads that were once used in many cosmetics and whitening toothpastes to microfibers that wash out of polyester clothing in large numbers.

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We are always looking for opportunities to make connections back to our initial study of Burlington’s city systems. We did some hands-on water sampling that showed how stormwater runoff from city streets and impervious surfaces contributes phosphorus to the lake. Indeed, we reflected on the ways that every one of the city systems we studied – energy, transportation, housing, food, and the local economy – have significant impacts on Lake Champlain’s water quality and, in turn, the fish that live there. Sometimes for the worse, and sometimes for the better. It’s no exaggeration to say that everything is connected to everything.

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We will conclude our lake study by working with two community partners, the Watershed Alliance and the Rozalia Project on small-scale group action projects–one related to equitable lake access and another that supports efforts to address the problem of microplastics. We’re just in time to be getting off the water and back inside, as the cold weather is closing in!

There is so much more to learn about the lake, but it’s fair to say that all of us have waded in deeper than we’ve gone before. And every day, we feel a little more justified as we call ourselves the ‘City & Lake’ Semester!


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