Fishing for answers in Minnesota waters

Thursday, September 28, 2006

In 50 years, will there be walleye left to catch in Minnesota waters? If so, will they be edible? In a state where fishing is more passion than pastime, these are especially important questions. With support from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and a $600,000 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant, Professor Heiko Schoenfuss of SCSU’s biological sciences faculty and his students are tackling them.

Fishing for Waters in MN

Three of Heiko Schoenfuss's students who accompanied him on a four-week field research project on the Mississippi River this summer are: Angela Allen, Nathan Jahns and Scott Caurion

Fish are not just swimming in our lakes and rivers, they’re ingesting the water, according to Schoenfuss. And those waters are contaminated with an increasingly harmful mixture. "What happens to fish when they’re exposed to all this for long periods? That’s what we’re studying." The research is intended to assess the extent of the problem and develop tools to examine the effects.

Along with approximately 20 graduate and undergraduate students, Schoenfuss is involved in laboratory and field study on a range of projects that will keep them busy for several years, he said. In July a team ran four weeks of field research from a boat on the Mississippi River, sampling for specimens at 10-mile intervals from Bemidji to the Iowa border.

Roberto Cediel ’06, who’s beginning a master’s program in molecular biology at SCSU and was part of the fishing crew, looked forward to more of the give-and-take learning he’s experienced in several of Schoenfuss’ classes and research projects. "He makes you know why something you’re learning is important, and how it can be applied in the real world," said Cediel, of Columbia, who already has been accepted to begin a veterinary medicine program in July 2007 at St. George’s University in Grenada.

"If I had a choice of being here with students or at a research institute with employees, I’d take the students," Schoenfuss said. "They have perspectives and ideas that I don’t, and I encourage students to critique and suggest new ways of doing things. That’s where it becomes enjoyable – when students go beyond the comfort zone."

"The objective of this study is to determine how mixtures of biologically active contaminants affect fish," Schoenfuss said. "A key word here is ‘mixtures.’ We used to study one contaminant at a time." But offending substances that seep into the water don’t stay separate – they blend with potentially harmful consequences. That’s the ‘biologically active’ part.

When humans are prescribed multiple medications, care is taken to avoid mixing ones that may be harmful in combination. As those medications are flushed into the ecosystem they’re combined and "fed" to the water’s inhabitants along with treated sewage and remnants of antibacterial soaps, detergents and industrial compounds in the water.

"By doing these studies, we can assess how much damage a group of contaminants do to the environment, then work on making them less harmful," said Schoenfuss. The evolutionary anatomist has looked at how fish structures have changed over thousands of years, research that he’s applying to his current projects. What he’s finding is not so surprising: "With contaminants change occurs a lot faster."

Schoenfuss and his student researchers will grapple with how to reduce those contaminants. "Historically society embraces new and helpful products – personal care products, pharmaceutical drugs – without considering the consequences. When you hear about a new drug that will help save your life or prevent pain or graver circumstances, you don’t stop to think about how that drug will eventually affect the walleye you catch and eat."

- Marsha Shoemaker

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