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Swan Creek is alive and, while not quite well, is getting better fast in the wake of a massive, unexplained fish-kill at Highland Park on Aug. 22.
That is a conclusion that can be teased from stream-sampling work done by the award-winning Student Watershed Watch team and its mentors at Scott High School.
Tens of thousands of fish, including some species prized by sport fishermen, died from extremely low dissolved oxygen levels. But try as they might - including days of combing the stream in kayaks and taking myriad chemical samples - investigators of the fish-kill could not find the smoking gun.
"It didn't look like any natural kill we've ever seen," said Steve Thomson, state wildlife investigator. " Something got in upstream [of Highland Park]."
Enter the SWW team from Scott - some 30 students strong, all juniors and seniors - led by environmental sciences teacher Jahnine Blosser and Todd Crail, a University of Toledo doctoral student in environmental sciences. The National Science Foundation provides a fellowship at UT that involves high school teachers and communicating science.
Blosser and Crail put students literally in the creek, in waders, sampling water chemistry and aquatic life in the October, 2008, just weeks after completion of a construction of a streambed-lift project at Highland Park dam.
The idea was to begin sampling to assess any changes in the stream water-quality and aquatic life. The streambed project was initiated because the low-head dam could not be removed because of a large sewer line underneath. It is designed to allow access for fish to the miles of stream above the dam by providing two sets of riffles with resting pools.
Initially, said Crail, "We could see that there were more species on the existing riffle than on the new one, while water quality in both was the same. The surprise was, we found macroinvertebrates [crayfish, larvae of dragonflies, mayflies, caddis flies, and more] established in the new site just three weeks after construction."
The student samplers found also found 13 species of fish in the riffles in October, 2008: largemouth bass, orangespotted sunfish, pumpkinseed sunfish, white sucker, spottail shiner, emerald shiner, bluntnose minnow, bluegill sunfish, greenside darter, johnny darter, yellow perch, logperch darter, and round goby. Post fish-kill, the first five species listed last year were missing.
Last June, some students even volunteered to work the creek outside of school. They found that the water-quality was equal in both the new and old riffles, and the "macros," the bottom critters, also now were equal in both riffles. Logperch and greenside darters also were spawning in both sites, this just 10 months after the disruption of construction of the streambed lifts.
"It came to life so fast," said Crail.
Then came the fish kill. Blosser and Crail's students began sampling the sites two weeks later and found the bottom-life had crashed; they found only two species where once there were seven. But they still found some juvenile fish alive: "It's the bigger guys that take the hit," said Crail.
But by October, the Scott SWW team found the bottom-dwellers were back to 2008 levels at both sites.
So, Crail noted, the contaminant episode, however regrettable, "was a temporary blip in their populations. They recolonized very fast."
They saw declines in the sunfishes from the kill, but the various darters, "which you would have expected to be wiped out, were just fine," said Crail. "The ones that took the hit were the round gobies." Gobies, an invasive pest infesting Lake Erie and lower tributaries, still have not yet recovered in Swan Creek.
In the end, Crail predicted, "the fish that fishermen care about will be back in full force by next spring." That includes largemouth, northern pike, the sunfish, rock bass, and channel catfish. Spring spawning runs of walleye and white bass also can be expected.
The streambed-lift project, Crail noted, will allow "orders of magnitude" more fish to venture upstream, "and that's a very good thing. The plunge pool [below the dam] is a better habitat than what existed previously, although it's going to take a different angling presentation than what folks are used to at that site."
He predicted that within three years the benefits of the passage will become apparent, as the fish will be able to use many more river miles of habitat for spawning and rearing their young. "We couldn't believe the recruitment of fish in the Ottawa River after the removal of the Secor Dam." That dam was removed in 2008.
Crail agrees with Thomson the wildlife investigator about the cause of the fish kill. "There's no way to solve that particular event that hasn't already been investigated. What we do know is that the stream is highly degraded at that point from upstream non-source point pollution [fertilizer, septic systems, altered hydrology]. By becoming aware and changing our thinking toward the stream as a 'community resource,' we can start to mitigate these problems from the headwaters above Swanton to Highland Park.
"It's completely alarming to see large individuals of species of interest lying dead at the spot where you like to tuck in and get an hour of fishin' in after work. But the bulk of the kill were gizzard shad and round goby, two species that are indicative of system degradation.
Weather patterns also may have contributed to the set-up for the kill, with a cool summer through July followed by sudden heat. Oxygen levels fell in warmer, lower flows and things cascaded downhill from there, the bigger and most visible fish falling first.
In any case, the before-and-after of both the streambed lifting project at the dam and the effects and recovery from the big fish-kill would not be known, had not the Scott students gotten their hands wet. For their efforts they received an award for most informative project, and a specially created award for community relevance in the 20th annual Student Watershed Watch Summit.
Watershed Watch is a program of Toledo Metropolitan Area Council of Governments and receives major funding from the city of Toledo, plus BP, Perstorp Polyols, and First Solar. Fourteen school districts, 21 schools, and 23 teachers were involved this year.
"I think it's a fantastic program," summed Matt Horvat, Maumee River coordinator for TMACOG. He noted the Scott students now debate over who will have the chance to don the waders and get in the stream, instead of debating who can avoid it.
"It was an eye-opening experience," said Scott junior TiRhohn Sanders.
Now he said he understands water and how people affect water-quality in ways he never before had done. He wants to pursue an environmental science career.
Samantha Heisinger, a senior, said before becoming a Watershed Watcher, Swan Creek was "just dirty water. It was shocking to learn how many species of fish and macroinvertebrates are in the stream."
Blosser has been involved in the SWW program for about a dozen years.
"It's a great program for my students because it gets them into a new experience. Twenty to 25 of the 30 of them were in waders for the first time.
"They were amazed that there was any [aquatic life] in there. They took ownership of Swan Creek. They started to get the big picture by looking at the little things." And that, in the end, is no small thing.
Contact Steve Pollick at: