The story of the 2016 CLEAR fellow research at begins in two places: at UMBS in 1977 when Community and Lakes Environmental Awareness and Research (CLEAR) started as a student-led project, and in the 1800s when the region’s lake sturgeon population reached devastatingly low numbers.

Lake sturgeon, a species native to the Great Lakes, provided a major food source for the area’s indigenous peoples until European settlers began fishing commercially in the nineteenth century.

Juvenile lake sturgeon. Photo by Robert Elliott / USFWS.

From there, the sturgeon’s population was devastated, first by fishermen who viewed the species as a nuisance and then by fishermen who harvested it. According to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR), between 1879 and 1900, over four million pounds of lake sturgeon were taken from the Great Lakes. Over 8.6 million pounds were harvested in 1885 alone.

The sturgeon population continued to decline into the 1970s which, incidentally, is when CLEAR got its start at the Biological Station. A student at the time, UMBS Interim Director Linda Greer and several peers began the organization, which called on students to conduct water quality tests in the area.

Another crucial element of the CLEAR program was directly involving students in the community. The group encouraged local citizens to unite their neighborhood associations, hold community plantings and maintain septic systems. The area residents helped provide historical context for projects and checked maps for accuracy. For five years, until its final season in 1981, CLEAR helped bring water management science straight to the doorsteps of the region’s constituents. According to the UMBS website, “Project CLEAR’s legacy in northern Michigan is the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council, which grew out of [the] initial organization.”

Now, over three decades after its conception, the CLEAR program is present in northern Michigan through another avenue: a UMBS scholarship that Greer and other initial members set up for undergraduate and graduate students. The organization’s same values have stuck around through the years: CLEAR students have a commitment to enroll in at least one UMBS summer session class, conduct research on area freshwater sources and communicate that research to local communities.

Searching for habitats

This year, three students are working with UMBS limnology professor Dr. Paul Moore on helping to reinstate sturgeon to Burt Lake. In conjunction with a few area organizations---the Watershed Council, Sturgeons for Tomorrow, the Burt Lake Preservation Association (BLPA) and the DNR---the students are busy evaluating the current lakebed conditions.

“They’re working with us, essentially, to map the lake, searching for habitats for the sturgeon,” says Bowling Green State University junior Jenna Lyons. “They want to know if these habitats are available in the lake and if not, how we can guide them to create these habitats.”

The students are conducting surveys on tributaries of Burt Lake -- Indian, Sturgeon, Crooked and Maple Rivers -- looking for not only one set of conditions but three, since sturgeon have multiple stages of life: spawning, juvenile and adult. By assessing water velocity and discharge with flow meters, evaluating water quality and conducting sediment and aquatic plant surveys, the students are looking at many aspects of the region in hopes of finding suitable habitats for sturgeon of all stages.

According to Moore, “the end goal is to write a lake management plan that includes a significant portion dedicated to the possibility of a sustainable sturgeon population.”

Connecting with the community

The CLEAR group recently met with BLPA members to discuss their research, which has gotten the students thinking about where their work is headed in terms of outreach. Now, as with the founding CLEAR group in the 1970s, citizen science -- the idea of training local residents to observe their environment independently, rather than only having researchers focus on what Lyons refers to as “hard science” -- is a hot topic within the program. The local population is a crucial component of the project.

“I think that having a sustainable population of lake sturgeon kind of in turn not only affects the biodiversity and the food chains present in Burt Lake, but it also affects the people,” says Rosemary Kelley, another CLEAR intern and a fourth-year Program in the Environment major at the University of Michigan. “Who knows, maybe people will start caring a little bit more about our endemic species.”

Kelley stresses the importance of collaboration and communication, as well as sharing success stories with people. She says that, as opposed to just talking about what’s wrong with the environment, we need to let communities know about the good work that’s being done to mitigate problems.

Moore says the local organizations and residents, in turn, are embracing the group’s work so far. “The community is really overjoyed that the students are working on this,” he says. “They exuded a lot of eagerness, helpfulness, and enthusiasm in meeting with us.”

CLEAR fellow Rosemary Kelley in the Maple River with Prof. Paul Moore's Limnology class.

For students like Lyons and Kelley, CLEAR is not only a generous piece of financial aid, but is a chance to further their experience both in and outside the classroom. Lyons says she is using the opportunity to see how she likes working with endangered species reintroduction. For Kelley, the CLEAR fellowship was a means to achieve a dream.

“I have wanted to come to the Bio Station for a really long time,” Kelley says. “It really excited me that there was a fellowship available that combined my favorite things, which are aquatic sciences and people.”