Research on the Rise: Students Shine in Water Research Projects

From the Menominee River to Lake Winnebago and many locations in between, Patrick Forsythe and his University of Wisconsin-Green Bay students are out in the field gathering data and specimens for water research projects before heading back to the lab to study their findings and share the vital information they’ve collected.

“There’s a lot going on with the different research projects. We’re not just doing one thing — we have multiple projects going on at once,” he said. “My research projects are really student-centered. They’re geared to give students experience, doing any number of aquatic ecology kind of techniques, sampling fish, sampling bugs, everything. Then there’s the lab side and all of that work involved.”

Associate Professor Patrick Forsythe
Associate Professor Patrick Forsythe

During the past 10 years, Forsythe has hired 30 to 40 undergraduate technicians to work on projects. “Some have worked on their own individual projects while some have published papers on what we’ve done,” he said.

Forsythe’s current research projects are wide ranging, covering several geographical areas and species. “With us being so close to three vastly different bodies of water — Lake Michigan, Green Bay and the Fox River — it makes sense for us to become involved with water-related research,” he said.

On the Menominee River, which divides Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Forsythe and his students are studying sturgeon to see if the fish diverted around the lower two dams will travel upstream to spawn.

“The question people have is, ‘if you’re going to spend all of this money and time moving the fish, will they actually go upstream and reproduce?’ We’re trying to answer that,” Forsythe said.

With funding from WE Energies and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service through the Fish and Wildlife Restoration Act, researchers go out at night when sturgeon lay their eggs and collect specimen. Later, these specimen come back to the lab and students sequence the DNA to see if the larvae can be tied to the adults that were moved.

“It’s a lot of effort, but you have to be there on site in order for the project to work. If we find the larvae are from fish who were moved around the hydroelectric facility, that tells us this is working and may lead to other passage projects around the Great Lakes,” he said. “It’s very exciting.”

Student holding large northern pike
An environmental science student holds a large northern pike that was measured and tagged as part of research conducted by Associate Professor Patrick Forsythe’s classes.

Another project Forsythe and his students are working on involves collecting biological data from the Dutchmen and Ashwaubenon creeks, which are tributaries of the Fox River. Funded by NEW Water (the Green Bay Metropolitan Sewage District), researchers have collected ecological information, the habitat and also the biological organisms, such as fish and bugs, that live in those streams.

“It’s an interesting project because there are two streams involved and it’s a large watershed with a lot going on, such as industrialization, agriculture and residential home building,” said Forsythe, adding the project has been going on for three years. “NEW Water is working primarily with the (agriculture) sector to design what I call the best management practices, whether it’s establishing buffer areas along the river to prevent runoff, or working with farmers to help with soil conservation practices.”

Once those best practices are in place, students will return to the field to see what changes may have occurred.

On the Fox River, Forsythe and his students are searching for two invasive species — the spiny water flea and round goby — to see if they have made it into Lake Winnebago. The work is being done for the Fox River Navigational System Authority, which is mandated by the state Department of Natural Resources to monitor water flows and the presence of any invasive species.

Forsythe and his students take samples from the mouth of the Fox River in Green Bay upstream all the way to Lake Winnebago. They monitor several times a year and collect samples. “We’ve been impressed with the work Patrick and the students have done for us for the past three years,” said Jeremy Cords, chief executive officer of the Fox River Navigational System Authority. “They help us through the monitoring to show what’s happening.”

Cords appreciates that students are so involved with the project. “They are out there scooping out plankton in nets and going through what’s in there. There’s real hands-on learning going on,” he said.

Similar to the other projects, there is work done out in the field as well as back in the lab. Providing students with a variety of things to do is a source of pride for Forsythe. “When my students leave my lab and graduate as either a graduate student or as an undergraduate, they’ve learned just about everything that they need to be successful,” he said.

As an extension of the Fox River project, one of Forsythe’s students wanted to research which kind of traps work best for catching the round goby. “We’ll soon be publishing that; it wasn’t part of the original project, but a good off-shoot,” he said. “It shows how our students can take projects we’re working on and do their own research. What he’s doing will help other people who are looking to trap the goby.”

On Lake Michigan, Forsythe has another project underway involving commercial fishermen and what they’re catching. A graduate student is out on a fishing boat monitoring what comes in besides whitefish, which is the species the fishermen are most interested in.

“We’re trying to not only get an estimate of how many fish are being harvested, but also what’s coming in as bycatch, which are the other species collected during the process of commercial fishing,” he said. “I think this will be an interesting project going forward for us.”

  • Interior, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service: Contributions of sturgeon passage to annual lake sturgeon recruitment in the Upper Menominee River, $142,264
  • WE Energies: Contributions of sturgeon passage to annual lake sturgeon recruitment in the Upper Menominee River, $147,929
  • Green Bay Metropolitan Sewage District: Biological data collection plan for the Dutchman and Ashwaubenon Creeks Watershed, $113,177
  • Fox River Navigational System Authority: Spiny water flea and round goby sampling and monitoring project, $71,277

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