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It may sound glamorous to spend your summer on a lake, but graduate students David Starzynski and Kip Rounds wouldn’t use that adjective to describe their two months on Lake Michigan.

Grimy, grungy, and exhausting might be more accurate, but the biology students wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything.

Rounds and Starzynski spent summer 2011 researching the yellow perch population in Lake Michigan, part of a decades-old Ball State collaboration with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

“Sometimes we spent more than 10 hours a day on the water,” recalls Starzynski, MS ’13. “So we might have to get up at 7 a.m. to head out on the lake and check nets we’d set the previous evening. We would pull out the perch, take them back to our station and take measurements for length, weight, sex, and other factors.”

From their home base at Michigan City, Indiana, the duo travelled to three sites to check their nets. The first was just offshore. The others necessitated hitching up the boat and driving to Gary, putting the boat in the water, hauling in the nets, hitching the boat up again and driving to Portage to repeat the process. Often they did that twice a day. Starzynski estimates he spent 400 hours on the project. Not that he’s complaining. Both he and Rounds, MS ’12, hope to work for fisheries when they complete their graduate studies.

Starzynski’s project cataloged adult fish, while Rounds concentrated on larval yellow perch.

“We worked long days, and it wasn’t always easy work, but I really enjoyed it,” Starzynski says. “It’s all interesting to me.”

Starzynski, who hails from nearby Wheatfield, grew up fishing the choppy waters of Lake Michigan, but studying the Great Lakes was new to Rounds, who is accustomed to waters with excess nutrients that stimulate plant life and deplete oxygen.

“It’s been beneficial to get a broader approach and work on a different aquatic ecosystem than we have in South Dakota,” Rounds says. “In South Dakota, the lakes are shallow and eutrophic, but obviously it’s different on Lake Michigan.

“It’s good to work with different people and have each person’s perspective to work together for a common consensus. Dr. Lauer is great to work with because he’s supportive, but he also gives you the independence to learn on your own. He gave us the responsibility for the project. We’ll need that experience in our careers.”

Thomas Lauer, director of Ball State's Aquatic Biology and Fisheries Center, has overseen the program since 2000, although Ball State’s involvement in tracking yellow perch was begun long before that–in 1968. Before Lauer joined Ball State’s Department of Biology, he worked for the Department of Natural Resources, so he’s well aware of how the DNR uses the data to make management decisions.

The program is funded through $100,000 annual grants. Three quarters of the funds come from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service administered through the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

“Two things excite me about the Lake Michigan program,” Lauer says. “First, as a scientist, it is fun to generate new knowledge and understanding of the world around us. Second, it is gratifying to see students with little more than an interest in science develop into young budding colleagues—that’s the best part of my job.”

So, just what is happening to the yellow perch in Lake Michigan?

“They boomed in the 1980s, busted in the 1990s,” Lauer explains succinctly. Various environmental factors, including invasive species, caused the bust.

The data shows how alterations in the environment have historically affected yellow perch and can be a predictor of how future changes will influence the population. One of those changes biologists are watching is the creeping invasion of non-native Asian carp, which have made their way up the Mississippi and into the Illinois River. The carp are poised to move into Lake Michigan where they may crowd out native species if steps aren’t taken quickly. Continuing to monitor the populations is critical to making smart decisions.

“Working with the students and staff at Ball State has been a rewarding experience for me,” says Brian Breidert, Lake Michigan fisheries biologist with the DNR. “They have top notch students and staff, many who have gone on to become permanent fisheries professionals for the Division of Fish and Wildlife in Indiana, as well as Michigan DNR and other state and federal agencies. Ball State has been a great partner, and the information they have gathered over the years has provided a good tool for making management decisions.”

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“Two things excite me about the Lake Michigan program. First, as a scientist, it is fun to generate new knowledge and understanding of the world around us. Second, it is gratifying to see students with little more than an interest in science develop into young budding colleagues—that’s the best part of my job.”

Thomas Lauer, director of Ball State's Aquatic Biology and Fisheries Center