Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant funds aquaculture, invasive species, pollution projects

December 11th, 2018 by

Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant (IISG) is excited to announce the funding of five new Discovery Projects. These small, one-year projects help researchers achieve bigger and better things, such as larger grants to study critical questions, providing proof of concepts that can be scaled up to support labs or businesses, or generating tools to help communities make the best use of available information. The five projects IISG began funding in 2018 address aquaculture, aquatic invasive species and pollution.

“These five new research projects are asking questions that are highly relevant to aquatic systems in Illinois, Indiana, Lake Michigan and the broader Great Lakes region,” said IISG Director Tomas Höök. “We have great hopes that these Discovery Projects will indeed springboard their principal investigators to other opportunities and outcomes.”

Karolina Kwasek of Southern Illinois University-Carbondale will explore whether invasive Asian carp could be used to feed very young largemouth bass raised in aquaculture facilities. Largemouth bass are a popular species across the country, but their high protein requirements make them tricky to rear. Kwasek hopes this novel use of Asian carp may support aquaculture growers who wish to raise largemouth bass.

Invasive Species
Eric Larson of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign will use a relatively new concept, that of an avatar species, to predict where a new invasive species might establish. He will use the red swamp crayfish, which is already found in the Great Lakes basin, as an avatar to predict where another potential invader, Chelax destructor, might successfully establish. If successful, this method could potentially be applied to other potential invaders, including fish, aquatic plants, and other macroinvertebrates.

Jen Fisher of Indiana University Northwest will investigate whether pollution from failing septic systems might be affecting microbial communities on beach sand, ultimately posing a risk to human health. Her work will be focused in northeast Indiana.

An Li of the University of Illinois at Chicago will assess presence of microplastics in Lake Michigan sediments using samples that have been previously collected and analyzed for other contaminants. Through this work, she hopes to generate protocols that can be applied to sediments in any aquatic system.

John Scott of the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center will examine whether microplastics help introduce per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) to the lower levels of aquatic food webs. His timely work has the potential to affect fish consumption advisories, if it seems likely that PFAS can be transferred up the food web.

Invasive species move energy to the nearshore

June 21st, 2017 by

This story appears in Lake Michigan nearshore food web: Charting new waters, a new publication created by Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant and Wisconsin Sea Grant.

The Lake Michigan food web is in transition—not just in the question of who’s eating whom, but where fish and other organisms are finding food. In recent years, the nearshore has become the go-to location.

Ben Turschak and Harvey Bootsma, biologists at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, set out to characterize the food web in Lake Michigan by capturing the dynamics of what’s happening in the waters near Milwaukee. They use carbon and nitrogen stable isotopes from fish tissue to learn what they are eating, and to understand where each species fits in the food web.

“Carbon stable isotope ratios tell us what a species eats or its primary energy source,” said Turschak. “Predators have a similar carbon isotope ratio to their prey. For instance, a fish that eats zooplankton might have a very different carbon isotope ratio than one that eats bottom-dwelling insects. By contrast, nitrogen stable isotopes become heavier as they go from a prey source to a predator, so they can reveal where a species is positioned in the food chain.”

The Milwaukee shoreline is characterized by a mixed sand and boulder bottom, with frequent cool water upwellings caused by wind pushing warm surface water towards Michigan. The researchers found the food web there could generally be separated into species that eat phytoplankton or those that dine on algae on the lake bottom in shallower nearshore areas. Generally, however, most fish species have begun to rely more heavily on nearshore energy sources.

The likely culprits in shifting the balance of productivity to the nearshore waters are invasive species. In particular, quagga mussels filter large quantities of water to feed on phytoplankton, this process clears the water and, in shallower nearshore areas, allows more light to reach the bottom. The mussels also excrete nutrient-rich waste that fertilizes the lake bottom. With more light and nutrients, bottom-growing algae can proliferate and support more bottom-dwelling invertebrates and the fish that feed on them.

“On the other hand, in offshore waters, mussels also filter phytoplankton and make the water clearer, but the increased water depth prevents enough light from reaching the bottom to support much algae. As a result, quagga mussels are leaving the deep offshore waters depleted relative to nearshore waters,” said Turschak.

“Decreases in offshore energy sources and increases in nearshore energy sources likely account for the fact that fish appear to be feeding more on nearshore energy sources,” explained Turschak.

The researchers also observed that typical patterns of diet change that occur as fish get larger have also shifted for some species. “This indicates that some fish species may have greater reliance on nearshore energy at particular stages of their life because of these food web changes,” said Turschak.

Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant is a part of University of Illinois Extension and Purdue University Extension.

The key to round goby diet is location, location, location

June 21st, 2017 by

This story appears in Lake Michigan nearshore food web: Charting new waters, a new publication created by Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant and Wisconsin Sea Grant.

Round gobies have become big players in the Lake Michigan food web. A small but invasive fish, their success may be due to being masters of survival. More specifically, they make themselves at home in a variety of conditions with a variety of food options, settle in for the long haul, and protect their territory.

IISG Assistant Research Coordinator Carolyn Foley took part in a study to learn more about the round goby’s place in the food web. The research team sampled three sizes of gobies from many locations and in multiple seasons. They analyzed the goby diets using three techniques—stomach contents to learn what the fish are eating when caught, fatty acid signatures, which reveal what they have been consuming over several weeks, and stable isotopes, providing a picture of an even longer time frame.

They found location was the driving factor in terms of what the gobies ate and the fish tended to stay put over time. “It’s striking how they tend to stay in the same spot,” said Foley. “This makes sense for them because they are very territorial—they aggressively defend their home turf.”

University of Illinois graduate student Austin Happel and Carolyn Foley, Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant assistant research coodinator, head out to collect fish and invertebrate samples in the waters near Manistee County. Photo by Sarah Stein

Gobies are known to prefer hard, rocky areas and to eat zebra mussels, but the reality may be more complicated. “We caught more gobies over hard substrate, which makes sense, but we found them over soft substrate too,” said Foley. “And since the diet analysis—stomach contents, fatty acids, and isotopes—are conveying the same information no matter what the timescale, we think it means they are taking advantage of whatever food sources are nearby.”

That gobies have become major players in Lake Michigan and that they are survivors may have the potential of providing some stability to the food web. “Their adaptability suggests that they will likely persist for a long time,” said Foley. “And as part of the food web, they too are being eaten—smallmouth bass and birds are eating gobies and are growing.”

But this brings up a concern. As bottom dwellers, round gobies hang out where the contaminants are. As these fish become entrenched in the food web, scientists wonder whether contaminants are more likely to move up through the food web to birds, top predator fish, and eventually, people.

Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant is a part of University of Illinois Extension and Purdue University Extension.

Non-native weatherfish are present in Roxana Marsh

April 17th, 2017 by

Weatherfish, known in scientific circles as Misgurnus anguillicaudatus, were spotted in the recently restored Indiana wetland, Roxana Marsh, by researchers from the University of Notre Dame.

PhD candidate Katherine O’Reilly, who led the team that confirmed the weatherfish finding, was at the marsh in 2015 for an IISG-funded project evaluating how coastal wetlands around Lake Michigan support the nearshore lake food webs.

“The main goal of the project is to figure out how fish moving between these habitats might be moving energy,” O’Reilly said.

“You might have fish moving out to the nearshore and becoming prey for larger sport fish. That moves food, energy, and nutrients from these highly productive coastal wetland systems to the less productive lake habitat.”

When the researchers returned to their nets left out overnight as part of routine sampling, what they saw was baffling. After some “on-the-spot Googling,” they figured out what they had.

“I wasn’t familiar with the weatherfish. I saw these little eel-like things, something I wasn’t used to seeing in the Great Lakes,” O’Reilly said. “We must have just hit the weatherfish jackpot.”

The weatherfish, originally from Eastern Asia, has been in the United States since the early twentieth century. It was brought over through the aquarium trade. Anglers also have used them as bait because of their wriggly disposition. They are greenish-grey-brown and are typically less than eight inches.

They found their way to Cook County’s North Shore Channel in 1987 and the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal in 1994. By 2005, a  survey confirmed their presence in the West and East branches of the Grand Calumet River and the Indiana Harbor Canal.

But what’s particularly unique about this species is its breathing anatomy. The weatherfish can use their intestine to supplement their gills when oxygen conditions in the water are low. They’re tolerant in what are considered rough, degraded habitats.

In fact, that lung structure is what gave the weatherfish its name. Because they have an intestine that can take in air, they’re very sensitive to changes in barometric pressure. There are reports of when there are drops in pressure, they start to get increasingly active in anticipation of an impending storm.

Some of the Roxana Marsh weatherfish were brought back to the lab at University of Notre Dame for further analysis.

Many of the fish O’Reilly and (then) undergraduate Amelia McReynolds pulled up in their nets that day were females filled with eggs, which made O’Reilly think that they may have been spawning in the marsh. Through further investigation, they found that the weatherfish diet of small benthic invertebrates and insects was similar to that of some native fish. She posits that could potentially have an impact down the road if they out-compete the native fish for resources.

Gary Lamberti, O’Reilly’s adviser, was impressed by his students’ findings.

“It really is the most exciting thing in science when you’re doing some routine work and you’re expecting the usual and then you find something that’s very different,” Lamberti said.

“Having serendipitous discoveries really makes science and ecology very interesting and rewarding.”

*This story was updated on April 28, 2017.

To learn more about how to prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species, visit Be A Hero—Transport Zero™

Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant is a part of University of Illinois Extension and Purdue University Extension.

Invasive plants from water gardens and aquariums must be disposed of properly

August 31st, 2016 by


This story originally appeared on the Illinois Natural History Survey website.

When clearing out the foliage from an aquarium or backyard water garden this fall, keep water hyacinth and other invasive plants out of streams, rivers, and other waterways.

Water hyacinth has been described as “the world’s worst aquatic weed,” lovely in the garden, but a nuisance in the river, according to Andy Casper, director of the Illinois River Biological Station of the Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS), Prairie Research Institute, University of Illinois.  At this time of year, the plant can be spread easily.

“Water hyacinth is the aquatic version of kudzu,” Casper said.  “It grows faster than any other plant competing with it, quickly taking over a pond or river-bed.”

As the plant spreads out over a water surface, it blocks the sun, so native plants can’t survive.  Fish that once hid amongst the underwater plants to hunt for their prey and young fish that hide from predators experience a changed habitat.

Additionally, in the fall as the water hyacinth dies, it sinks to the river bottom, decomposes, taking the oxygen out of the water in the process.  Too little oxygen can lead to large fish kills in the winter when oxygen is naturally in short supply.

Deliberately dumping water hyacinth plants in the waterways will cause the plant to spread, as well as composting plants too close to a river, stream, or drainage ditch. Backyard flooding can also cause the invasive plant to spread into nearby surface water areas.

In one case in which plants spread, an individual composted water hyacinth plants on a pile at the edge of a yard located close to the river.  The result was a big pile of water hyacinth down river, Casper said.

“All it takes is one good growing season, and the plants take over,” he said.

In a survey of the entire Illinois River from Hennepin, Illinois to Joliet, Illinois by airplane and boat, INHS staff discovered 15 individual water hyacinth beds in the river. In addition, fish surveys also showed that whole water hyacinth seeds were present in the digestive tracts of carp, indicating a threat of dispersal of the seeds to other areas. Seeds were present in 27 percent of the digestive tracts of the common carp examined, regardless of their proximity to water hyacinth beds.

For proper disposal of water hyacinth, place plants in a plastic garbage bag and throw them away. Keep all plant parts away from waterbodies because the seeds are tiny and can be missed by the naked eye.

Water hyacinth is an economically important plant for the water gardening industry.  For this reason, the sale of water hyacinth has not yet been prohibited by the State of Illinois, as the debate continues on whether it survives a cold winter, according to Pat Charlebois, INHS aquatic ecologist.  Many states, and the City of Chicago have prohibited the sale of this plant.

Water hyacinth is just one of many invasive aquatic plants that should not be discarded in waterways.  Hydrilla, a formerly common aquarium plant, is another plant that carries a financial toll when it spreads uncontrolled.  Plants such as these clog waterways, impeding boat navigation.  With government cleanup, millions of dollars may be spent, and recreational areas may be closed, reducing recreation-based incomes.

“Hydrilla is such an aggressive plant and spreads so quickly that it can take years to completely remove it in lakes and rivers,” Charlebois said.  “Because of this, the State of Illinois has an early detection and rapid response plan in place in case hydrilla shows up in an area.”

Charlebois and colleague Greg Hitzroth, INHS outreach specialist, are seeking to change the behavior of people who purchase and use plants for outdoor water gardens and indoor aquariums, encouraging them to dispose of all aquatic plants in sealed plastic bags in the trash.  Consumers can find a list of Illinois’ invasive plants at The State of Illinois regulates some plants, but others, which are not regulated, can be just as much of a nuisance.

Consumers often look to retailers for advice on which plants to purchase and how to care for and dispose of them.

“We partner with retailers, educating them not only on which species should not be sold, but also giving them alternatives,” Hitzroth said.  “We have had success with this effort because most retailers want to do the right thing.”

There’s a loophole in these efforts, though.

“A huge market for aquatic plants is offered for sale online, which can be difficult to regulate,” Charlebois said.  “This is a sticky wicket because retailers in another state may not know which plants cannot be sold or shipped to customers in Illinois.”

Charlebois and Hitzroth have been working with wholesalers, retailers, scientists, hobbyists, consumers, and others and attending hobbyists’ tradeshows to create outreach material that aims to prevent the spread of aquatic invaders in trade.

They also worked on a statewide campaign about invasive species.  Part of that effort is the Release Zero campaign, which aims to provide suggested alternatives to release plants based on published guidelines for teachers and water garden hobbyists from the Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force.

More information about aquatic invaders in the market place (AIM) can be found at Alternatives to the release of aquatics in trade can be found at

No more mixed messages: DuPage County installs Be A Hero-Transport Zero signs

August 31st, 2016 by

Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Illinois, home to 25,000 acres and more than 29 actively managed water bodies, now displays over 120 signs bearing the Be A Hero—Transport Zero™ (BAH) message. The change from the older “Protect Your Waters” signage grew out of the recent statewide adoption of BAH as the primary invasive species awareness campaign in Illinois.


Illinois law was changed on January 1, 2013 to prevent the spread of invasive aquatic plants and animals by boats, trailers, and vehicles.

Dan Grigas, a fisheries ecologist at the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, was heavily involved in getting the signs installed with the help of Illinois Department of Natural Resources. The signs also serve as an important reminder to boaters to follow the law that makes it illegal to leave a waterbody with aquatic plants or animals attached to a boat or trailer.

“We’re trying to keep everybody on the same message,” Grigas said. “And now that there are more signs in places where there’s boater access, people won’t be able to say to law enforcement, ‘I didn’t know.’”

In 2013, Pat Charlebois, IISG aquatic invasive species coordinator, and her team developed the campaign that encourages recreational water users to take simple steps—remove, drain, and dry—after a day on the water.

An IISG survey of boat show attendees found that people who have heard these messages are more likely to take action to prevent the spread of invasive species.

“We’re excited that DuPage has joined the campaign in such a big way,” Charlebois said.

“We gladly welcome new partners to Illinois’ Be A Hero campaign—terrestrial and aquatic!”


Sea Grant takes AIM at AIS

June 20th, 2016 by

Not all non-native plants and animals turn out to be invasive in a new environment. How can we predict whether a species poses a threat to local waters? If we could predict that, how can we make the best use of that information?

IISG and University of Notre Dame researchers set out to answer the first question by analyzing which traits help a species thrive in a new environment. They brought this data to an Indiana working group looking to proactively prevent the introduction of invasive plant species through water garden and aquarium retailing. The group of researchers, resource managers, retailers, and hobbyists created a risk assessment tool and their work led to 28 aquatic plants being banned in the state.

As a result of this work, Notre Dame’s David Lodge, and Reuben Keller, now with Loyola University Chicago, were funded through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative to create risk assessment tools for all taxa in the Great Lakes, including crayfish, fish, mollusks, plants, and turtles. These tools can help decision makers establish consistent and comprehensive regulations focused on species that pose the biggest threat.

Meanwhile, IISG’s aquatic invasive species (AIS) team has been pulling out all the stops to distribute information that can help prevent the spread of AIS in trade—in other words, species that are bought and sold for water gardens, aquariums, and to a lesser extent, classrooms. Leading the effort as part of the Great Lakes Sea Grant Network, and informed by social science research from North Carolina State University, the specialists are targeting all levels of this AIS pathway—from retailers to hobbyists—and sharing information across the region through a variety of media.

The suite of tools contains publications for retailers and their customers that include lists of non-invaders as well as known or potential invaders. “Many of these resources are informed directly from the risk assessment findings,” said Pat Charlebois, AIS outreach coordinator.

Great Lakes Sea Grant programs and the Sea Grant Law Center are contributing their expertise. For example, Wisconsin Sea Grant created a training video for water garden retailers, and Ohio Sea Grant hosted a webinar for aquarium hobbyists. In addition to writing news articles, other programs helped craft non-technical versions of relevant state regulations to give retailers easy access to the information.

All of this work is raising awareness and potentially changing behavior. “Most of the retailers that have received materials about the risk of AIS have reported that they will distribute publications and talk with their customers about invasive species, and a majority will avoid selling them,” said Greg Hitzroth, IISG AIS outreach specialist.

You can find these resources and many more on the new website Aquatic Invaders in the Marketplace (AIM) or AIM are aquatic plants and animals available for sale that can negatively impact ecosystems, economies, or public health. These organisms are commonly found in the live food, aquarium, pet, biological supply, live bait, water garden, and aquaculture industries.

This comprehensive resource provides a wealth of information for resource managers, retailers, hobbyists, aquatic farmers, and more on how to prevent the spread of AIS that can happen with plants and animals that come to new environments through the marketplace. The website includes links to regulations, lists of contacts and invasive species, and species prediction tools for the Great Lakes and beyond.

Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant is a part of University of Illinois Extension.

Biologists can be heroes too!

June 15th, 2016 by

Despite all the good that natural resource biologists strive to do in monitoring the spread of Asian carp in Illinois waterways, their very presence could have unintended, perhaps even harmful consequences.

All waters are filled with environmental DNA, (eDNA) bits of cells and genetic material left behind like fingerprints at the scene of a crime. Biologists are concerned that while monitoring the movement of Asian carp they may be inadvertently spreading eDNA and clouding their monitoring efforts as well as introducing invasive species into other waterways.

“eDNA is not an invasive species, but we recognize it can be spread by boats or by our gear in the water. In our work we definitely see it can happen very quickly,” said Kevin Irons of Illinois Department of Natural Resources and coordinator of the monitoring and response plan.

“These best management practices work to prevent our day to day activities as natural resource professionals from moving this eDNA around and further exacerbating invasive species spread.”

It’s been noted that some of the most invaded waters are where not only lots of people go, but also where lots of biologists do their work. Irons looked to Pat Charlebois, IISG AIS outreach coordinator, to help with the guidelines aimed at biologists.

“Some of the personnel involved in the agencies doing fieldwork don’t have a protocol in place to deal with this kind of thing,” Charlebois said. “They might not be familiar with the steps they can take or if they’re not from Illinois, they might not be aware of laws that are in place.”

IDNR is promoting prevention and trying to be proactive by encouraging the same recommendations aimed at the average angler, remove, drain and dry, but with more detailed decontamination guidelines.

“In Illinois we have our Be A Hero—Transport Zero™ campaign, so as biologists we need to be a hero and not transport things around,” Irons said.

“Sometimes we get so caught up in looking for the fish that we forget another tenet of good science—prevention.”


Water gardeners! Beware of the threat of invasives!

June 10th, 2016 by

Watergarden_2With the peak of summer right around the corner and gardening season in full swing, we’d like to use this moment as a reminder to be careful about what you choose to plant – particularly if you have a water garden.

A departure from traditional dirt landscaping, water gardens come with their own set of complications and challenges when it comes to the spread of invasive species. Some key things to keep in mind – make sure your water garden is not near any waterways or flood-prone areas to reduce the risk of any species spreading to natural areas, and always rinse off any dirt or debris from all parts of the plant before planting, to get rid of any potential eggs, animals, or unwanted plant parts and seeds.

If you are planning on cultivating a water garden this summer, and would like more information, check out our brochure and handy wallet card  for tips and guidelines on what precautions to take during the gardening process, as well as lists of what plants to grow and what plants to avoid.

These lists are the product of research conducted at Loyola University Chicago and University of Notre Dame, taking into account biological characteristics such as rates of reproduction and climate tolerance to determine which plants are most likely to become invasive. On the flip side, horticulturists and scientists from the Chicago Botanic Garden were consulted to figure out what native or non-invasive plants are the best alternatives. With this information, we hope you are successful in making your water gardens a little safer, and your summer a little more beautiful.

For more information on invasive species and what you can do to help, visit

Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant is a part of University of Illinois Extension.

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