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Stone Lab: The Science and Beauty of Lake Erie

Stone Laboratory is both a place of serious research and a place of beauty on Gibraltar Island on Lake Erie, which includes Perry's Lookout.
Credit: Dale Bowman

PUT-IN-BAY, Ohio–You gotta have a Lab for your HAB.

Good thing Lake Erie has Stone Laboratory, oldest freshwater biological field station in the United States (1929).

Cooke Castle.<br>Credit: Dale Bowman
Cooke Castle.
Credit: Dale Bowman

What first caught my attention about Stone Lab had nothing to do with science. While fishing for smallmouth bass about 15 years ago off South Bass Island, I was drawn to a small island (Gibraltar) with a barely visible mansion (Jay Cooke Mansion). Small islands pull at me.

But Stone Lab is more than scenic, though it is, including a natural arch, “Eye of the Needle,’’ and Perry’s Lookout from the Battle of Lake Erie. As a campus for Ohio State University and site for Ohio Sea Grant studies, Stone Lab has been central to much Great Lakes research.

That research assumed more than scholarly importance when Harmful Algal Blooms (HAB) rocketed into international news with toxins shutting off drinking water to 400,000 in the Toledo area in 2014.

I jumped at the chance for a two-day conference there, focused on HAB, earlier this month.

One reason was for background on what impact HAB might have on sportfishing. Lake Erie’s western basin is a top destination for Chicago-area fishermen for walleye and yellow perch.

Early bottom line, according to Stone Lab’s interim director Chris Winslow, is that fish contamination from HAB is not even close to the warning stage. He also said the studies most focused on sportfishing impact are in early stages, so more information will come as the studies build. I will touch on the broader impact of HAB and sportfishing another day.

Just as an aside, if you’re a high school or college student with interests in marine or aquatic studies, I urge you to try your dammest to get to Stone Lab.

We stayed in the student dormitories (the room and mattresses as dpartan as I remember from college). Quite the juxtaposition to have Stone Lab by Put-in-Bay, an epic party center on the Great Lakes. Cars were lined up with at least an hour wait when I got off Miller’s Ferry leaving on a Friday evening.

The 6 1/2 acres of Gibraltar were as stunning as I had imagined; and Cooke’s Castle even spookier than expected.

Stone Lab interim director Chris Winslow holds water samples taken one morning.<br>Credit: Dale Bowman
Stone Lab interim director Chris Winslow holds water samples taken one morning.
Credit: Dale Bowman

One morning, we did surveys on the water, our own sampling.

Though Lake Erie only has two percent of the water in the Great Lakes, it has 50 percent of the sportfishing. Unfortunately, the fertileness that leads to the good fishing is also connected to HAB.

Capt. Craig Genheimer took us to Schoolhouse Bay on the open-deck, 42-foot Gibraltar III, powered by 360-hp Detroit Diesel. By his wheel, he has Garmin electronics, which include sonar, GPS, radar (for water surface) and a Lake Erie chip.

Winslow started with a Secchi disk, which alternates black and white quadrants to measure turbidity. In this technological age, I’m struck that we still use a device designed by Italian astrophysicist Angelo Secchi in 1865.

We had 1.66 meters of clarity. Winslow said the rule of thumb for light penetration on Lake Erie is to multiple by three, so light would reach about 5 meters down.

Two sizes of plankton nets showed just how much life is in the western basin of Lake Erie. The difference in the three samples, including the surface water, was remarkable.

Then Winslow pulled out the Ekman Dredge, what he called “Jaws of Death,’’ for sampling the bottom. Among the things brought up were Mayfly larvae.

“Their presence indicates we have healthy water and good oxygen,’’ Winslow said.

Stone Lab interim director Chris Winslow discusses fish found on a trawl one morning, including a yellow perch.<br>Credit: Dale Bowman
Stone Lab interim director Chris Winslow discusses fish found on a trawl one morning, including a yellow perch.
Credit: Dale Bowman

Then came the pièce de résistance, dragging a bottom trawl. It is real work pulling the nets through. It produced as much cool stuff as I hoped: yellow perch, white perch, freshwater drum, trout perch, a young-of-the-year walleye, round gobies and gizzard shad, what Winslow called, “Zombie fish.”

“Good day at the office,” Winslow said.

It was time.

But on the way back to Miller’s Ferry, several of us did a couple other tours.

One was of the lab on shore, where water samples are checked with high tech machinery (FlowCAM and Nutrient Autoanalyzer).

Kristin Stanford talks about her work with restoring the Lake Erie watersnake.<br>Credit: Dale Bowman
Kristin Stanford talks about her work with restoring the Lake Erie watersnake.
Credit: Dale Bowman

And Kristin “Snake Lady’’ Stanford, featured on Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs,’’ does her work there with restoring the Lake Erie watersnake, a subspecies of the northern watersnake.

Winslow noted that 98 percent of their diet is the invasive round gobies.

“They are mowing them down,” he said.

Stanford, who was planning to bring in the pregnant snakes, which give live birth to an average of 26 babies, the following week, said, ““When they come out, there is no maternal care.’’

Then it was a tour and climbing of the South Bass Island Lighthouse and Keeper’s Dwelling, first lit in 1897, and spotting multiple Monarch butterflies in the butterfly garden outside.

It was the perfect merging of water’s edge, science and history to end the packed two days on Lake Erie.