Over the past 20 years, the Great Lakes ecosystem has changed dramatically

due to the emergence of new species and new contaminants introduced through human activity.

These changes are being studied by engineers and scientists who want to understand how these alterations have affected the health of the Great Lakes.

Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering Thomas M. Holsen is leading an interdisciplinary team of researchers from three universities who have spent the last five years quantifying the levels of contaminants in top predator fish as part of the Great Lakes Fish Monitoring and Surveillance Program (GLFMSP).

The program began in the 1970s and was taken over in 2005 by Holsen’s team with a $1.75 million, five-year grant from the EPA. Earlier this year, the researchers received an additional $6.5 million,
five-year grant from the EPA to expand their research on contaminants in the Great Lakes ecosystem.
Holsen and his fellow researchers are building on the expertise they gained over the past five years developing extensive quality assurance procedures for monitoring contaminants in top predator fish in the Great Lakes, notably lake trout and walleye, that could be harmful to the fish and both humans and other wildlife that may consume them.

holsen_quote“Top predator fish have been extensively used as bioindicators and have been regarded as sentinels of the overall condition of the Great Lakes system because they integrate both water and sediment exposures,” explains Holsen. “They are also one of the primary routes of contaminant exposure for humans and other wildlife in the Great Lakes regions, so their health directly relates to our health.”

The next step for Holsen and his team is to obtain three new analytical instruments that will provide state-of-the-art capabilities for identifying and quantifying both current and emerging contaminants, such as flame retardants, present in the Great Lakes ecosystem.

“With these additional capabilities, the Great Lakes Fish Monitoring and Surveillance Program will be transformed into a world leader in the science of contaminant cycling in aquatic ecosystems,” says Holsen.

The group will also perform a substantial amount of research to assess the ecological health of the Great Lakes through chemical analyses and food web studies. For example, they will perform stomach contents analyses to assess the diets of top predator fish, which will provide critical information to quantify the movement of contaminants from their source through the food web. A relatively new source of study for Holsen will be in lake trout eggs, which the team proved in a previous study to be practical and inexpensive bioindicators of overall ecosystem health.

Through these studies, the team hopes to improve the understanding of contaminant cycling and bioaccumulation of toxic chemicals in the
Great Lakes and therefore provide information to help assess the risks of fish consumption on humans and also provide policymakers with the critically needed information necessary to limit the introduction of new chemicals into the ecosystem.

Holsen and a majority of his team have been working together for over 10 years on a series of projects investigating the movement of chemicals in the environment. Holsen will continue as project director, working with Clarkson colleagues Bayard D. Clarkson Distinguished Professor Philip K. Hopke as the Quality Assurance Officer, Research Assistant Professor Bernard S. Crimmins and researchers from SUNY Oswego and SUNY Fredonia.