Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Looking for Freshwater Mussels in the Chehalis River Watershed

We are initiating an exciting new project to learn the distribution of freshwater mussels in the Chehalis River watershed. Western Washington is home to three types of freshwater mussels--the Western Pearlshell, Western Ridged, and a diverse group of mussels called Floaters. Pearlshells and Western Ridged mussels typically inhabit streams and rivers while Floaters typically live in slow-moving water or lakes and ponds.

Western Pearlshell mussels
Freshwater mussels are useful as indicators of water quality and healthy fish communities. Mussels cannot move like fish so they flourish or perish with changes in environmental conditions. They keep records of change in their shell’s growth and accumulate compounds in their tissue. Some mussels are thought to live in the same place for over a hundred years! That is a lot of time and change in one spot. Mussels need a healthy fish community in order to reproduce. As young, they hitch a ride on the gills of fish and ride around the stream until they drop off and settle into the substrate where they will likely stay the rest of their lives. Don’t worry if you don’t see mussels, though--they are hard to spot and don’t live in every stream.

Snorkel survey in the Satsop River
Right now we are snorkeling and wading several Chehalis tributaries in Grays Harbor and Mason Counties and are finding Pearlshells as individuals and in large beds. We have also found a number of Floater shells, but no live mussels. This is not surprising, though, given the quick-moving streams we are targeting now. For the rest of the summer, we will be snorkeling and wading more streams, as well as working with biologists from Washington State agencies, forest resource agencies, and private firms to track down promising mussel locations. Knowing the type and location of the mussels will help us track their populations through time, providing us with important information about the health of the Chehalis River watershed and a better understanding of the role of mussels in the rich and diverse waters of the Pacific Northwest.

If you are interested in learning more about freshwater mussels, please visit the Xerces Society’s webpage where they have a free online field guide to Mussels of the Pacific Northwest.

A word of warning--Although you might be tempted to collect some mussels for yourself, it is illegal to eat or collect live mussels in Washington State. Besides, I've been told they are not the most appetizing creatures in the water anyway.


Thursday, August 11, 2011

My Life Aquatic 2011 - Teaching Youth About Stream Sampling

Hey it’s me, Tree! It’s almost been a month since I started my education and outreach work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and it’s been going great. For our Youth Fisheries Academy camps, we’ve broken the time up into four different learning stations. I’ve been leading the stream sampling station, which has been engaging and enjoyable. When fisheries and wildlife biologists go into the field to collect data, they investigate a lot of factors in order to determine the health of the stream as well as the populations living in that environment. Measuring the habitat components (water, soil and air) as well as the organisms (plants, animals, fungi and bacteria) are examples of data that can be collected.

Identifying collected invertebrates
My station begins with stream habitat mapping, and I have seen some really amazing renditions created by our students. During this activity, we also discuss important terms such as biotic (living) and abiotic (non-living) as well as the difference between quantitative and qualitative data. Campers then gain experience collecting a variety of data. To collect quantifiable biotic data, participants use a densiometer to measure the tree canopy cover. Examples of quantifiable abiotic data collected by campers include stream substrate (size of the rocks on the streambed) and stream discharge (water flow in cubic feet per second). My favorite part of the station is definitely the macroinvertebrate sampling. This sampling essentially involves digging around in the streambed (substrate) for bugs and other invertebrates--something I’ve enjoyed for as long as I can remember. We then identify these invertebrates and establish their diversity in order to determine the health of the stream (certain species are sensitive to pollution). The scientific techniques and technologies used at this station make these activities fun and meaningful. All data collection methods involve wading in the stream, which the campers really enjoy.

Teaching about stream sampling and the importance of these ecosystems has been fun and fulfilling in many ways. It’s a great opportunity to recall and practice some of the sampling techniques I have been taught, but I have been learning a great deal from the campers as well. It’s astounding how perceptive and creative they are. On more than one occasion I’ve heard these young biologists say "Wow, that was fun!" when walking away from my station. I’m glad I’ve gotten the opportunity to teach, learn, and have fun as well. The camps, campers, and streams have all been unique and memorable.

- Tree Steele, STEP Fisheries Technician

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

My Life Aquatic 2011 - Teaching Youth About Fisheries Technology

Hello again readers! The last few weeks have been filled with Youth Fisheries Academy (YFA) camps taking place around the Olympia area, down to Centralia, and all the way out to Neah Bay. We worked with youth as young as 4 and as old as 15 and each camp presented unique challenges and opportunities for our education team. We learned a great deal as we adapted to each situation and were met with enthusiasm and raving reviews from the kids every time! Their zest for learning has been positively inspiring! The main components of the YFA camps are stream sampling and water quality; fish health and identification; fish anatomy and physiology (dissections); and my station – fisheries technology and tracking. We also incorporated teambuilding activities and art components, such as fish printing and salmon life cycle bracelets, for the younger campers.

Looking for hidden radio collars
As I said, I led the station focused on the use of technology in research conducted by FWS and similar entities. I first introduced the campers to PIT tags (similar to pet ID microchips) and demonstrated how they work (hands-on activity) and are implanted in fish, followed by group discussions of how this technology is used for fisheries conservation projects. The next activity focused on radio telemetry, which is also used to track the movement of animals but with much greater range and detail. As they searched for hidden radio collars, campers were able to use the telemetry equipment to practice the same skills that professional biologists apply in their field work. Campers also gained experience using GPS technology, an essential tool for field studies. With the help of our fantastic outreach volunteers Barry and Loretta Brown, participants used GPS units to find hidden "caches" (peanut butter jars in this case) in a high-tech treasure hunt known as "geocaching".

The campers were very clever with the technology and proved to be great young trackers. I was also impressed by how much information they retained from my lesson and how they were able to provide thorough answers to most of my questions. One telling moment was at a camp with 4th through 6th grade summer school students in Centralia. At one point, the rest of the school had recess during one of my technology modules. One camper commented that they were missing recess, but the kids quickly agreed that "this is better than recess!" That kind of excitement for learning is truly inspirational and we hope to continue fostering enthusiasm like this in the Youth Fisheries Academy camps to come.

- Claire Wood, STEP Fisheries Technician

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

My Life Aquatic 2011 - Teaching Youth About Fish Anatomy and Physiology

As we approach the last Youth Fisheries Academy camps for 2011, it’s great to reflect on previous events to see just how much we have all learned and grown. In the past 3 weeks, I have been leading the fish anatomy and physiology (dissection) station. Although a tad messy at times, I have found this learning module to be a fun, effective, and rewarding way to interact with the campers. To give you an idea of exactly what happens at the Youth Fisheries Academies and a feel for the experience of leading fish dissections, I’m going to provide details about what this station entails!

Learning about fish anatomy
During a typical fish anatomy and dissection session, I start by introducing the campers to what the station covers, safety precautions, expectations of being respectful (to each other and the fish) and alternative activities for those who don’t feel comfortable dissecting fish. These alternate activities include a beautifully made two-layer fish dissection puzzle which has all of the internal and external features labeled. Those who do choose to participate (which is almost always everyone) begin by exploring the names and functions of the external and internal anatomy, as well as learning the techniques and processes of dissection. One of my objectives is to make the process as hands-on and mentally engaging as possible, so I ask a lot of questions and encourage the campers to make guesses before I explain the importance of each organ or external feature. After we cover everything from the slime layer to the heart, the campers are split into groups and given fish to dissect on their own--often the most exciting part of the station! While the campers are busy dissecting the fish, I move from group to group providing guidance, pointing out organs, and asking questions of the campers about the organs they’re dissecting.

There is naturally a lot of energy around dissection and it ends up being expressed in many different ways, including intense focus, exclaiming about the "grossness", and rambunctiousness. I try to guide and focus this energy into excitement about the fish and help the campers see dissection as fun, exciting, and interesting! My favorite recurring exclamation from the campers is "That was gross, but SO COOL!". One of the most interesting and challenging aspects of this station was learning how to adjust my style and curriculum to each group I worked with. This was particularly challenging when working with campers who were uncomfortable with the dissection or especially young. It was a huge learning experience for me and I now feel much more confident in my ability to engage diverse groups of campers with different interests, energy levels and developmental ranges. Every group of campers has posed a unique challenge and I have had so much fun developing strategies, encouraging kids to get engaged, and seeing the excitement and interest that the dissections can inspire.

- Mara Healy, STEP Fisheries Technician