Fish Detectives

  • The fish detectives (a.k.a. scientists who specialize in fishery genetics) survey the scene. (Photo courtesy of the Lake Erie Center)

On television, the CSI detectives make forensic lab work look glamorous. It’s a cinch for them to track a criminal by the DNA left behind at the scene. In real life, DNA is also a powerful tool for solving environmental crimes and mysteries. Rebecca Williams visits the Fish Detectives:

Transcript

On television, the CSI detectives make forensic lab work look glamorous. It’s a cinch for them to track a criminal by the DNA left behind at the scene. In real life, DNA is also a powerful tool for solving environmental crimes and mysteries. Rebecca Williams visits the Fish Detectives:


(Sound of gulls and reel being cast)


It’s midday, and it’s so hot the gulls are just standing around with their beaks open.


But Joe Al-Sorghali is still trying to get himself a fish dinner:


“Hopefully I can get a good amount of perch today… they’re not that fishy so they’re a really good catch.”


It takes a lot of these little fish to fill up a dinner plate. But that doesn’t stop Al-Sorghali from going after perch and walleye any chance he gets. A lot of people call Lake Erie the Walleye Capital of the World.


Fishing is a really big deal here. So it makes sense that Lake Erie’s also home to the Fish Detectives.


(Dragnet theme music)


The fish detective headquarters is tucked away on the edge of a quiet cove. The investigators at the Lake Erie Center are not wearing trench coats. They’re not even wearing lab coats. This crew of laid-back lab techs and grad students comes to work in jeans and T-shirts.


Carol Stepien heads up the fish detective squad. She says they solve lots of cases of mistaken identity.


Take the Case of the Fried Perch.


Last year the detectives got a call from a TV station in Milwaukee. The news crew was suspicious that the fried local perch on restaurant menus wasn’t really local.


Stepien says she asked the news station to send her some frozen filets.


“So instead they sent their news crew out into restaurants and had their news crew eat the fish and put a little bit of the breaded, cooked fish in a plastic bag and froze those and sent them to me. We were pretty shocked to get those in our laboratory. We didn’t know if we could get DNA from breaded, fried material like that.”


But Stepien says they scraped off the breaded coating… and they actually were able to extract DNA from the little bits of cooked fish.


“And we found that about half of those fish were yellow perch from Europe.”


Stepien says it’s gotten more common for fish brokers to import yellow perch from outside the U.S. because it’s cheaper. She says even though the foreign perch might taste the same when they’re deep-fried… a close look at the DNA of the European yellow perch reveals big differences from Great Lakes yellow perch.


“They probably could be called freshly caught lake perch, but they were certainly frozen and didn’t come from any local lakes, they didn’t come from the Great Lakes. Instead they came from overseas.”


Stepien’s team will tackle any sort of mystery, as long as it involves gills and fins.


Lately they’ve solved cases of home invasion. That is, invasions by exotic species that’ve gotten into the Great Lakes. The scientists can track the invaders by their DNA fingerprints, and find out where they’ve been.


Joshua Brown is a Ph.D student at the lab. He’s been tracking the round goby. It’s a fish native to Europe. Scientists say it caught a ride to the Great Lakes in the ballast tanks of ocean going ships. It’s been crowding out native species.


“We’re going to find somebody to point the finger at, as it were. We’ve found evidence they came from the northern portion of the Black Sea, right around one of the major ports.”


That port is in Ukraine. Even though they’ve found the culprit, Brown says there’s not much governments can do, because everyone’s guilty.


“I don’t think you could really sue a nation for you know, not keeping their species under wraps. If so, we’d be open for a lot of lawsuits too – we export almost as many as we import.”


But Brown says knowing exactly where a foreign species comes from might help keep the door closed to future invaders from that same region.


Whether it’s a case of consumer fish fraud or defending the home turf from invaders, there’s one bottom line for these detectives. They want to find out as much as they can about native fish so they can keep them from going belly up.


For The Environment Report, I’m Rebecca Williams.

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Companies Push for Forest Certification

  • Magazine publishers and other companies are thinking ahead and getting their paper from forests that have been certified. But what does this really mean? (Photo by Stanley Elliott)

Officials in the Midwest want to prove they’re not damaging their state forests. States that sell timber to paper companies are spending thousands of dollars to earn a certificate that says they’re managing the forests in a sustainable way. Paper producers are demanding that state foresters earn certification because officials want to stave off protests from consumers. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Celeste Headlee reports:

Transcript

Officials in the Midwest want to prove they’re not damaging their state forests. States that sell timber to paper companies are spending thousand of dollars to earn a certificate that says they’re managing the forests in a sustainable way. Paper producers are demanding that state foresters earn certification because officials want to stave off protests from consumers. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Celeste Headlee reports:


It’s lunchtime and employees on break from Compuware in downtown Detroit are browisng through the magazine racks at Borders. Melody Kranz says she reads three different magazines every month. She says she is an avid recycler and an impassioned environmentalist, but never considered what kind of paper was going into her magazines.


“I don’t know why I haven’t thought about it, I just haven’t. I will now. Because I’m a gardening nut, I love to garden. So yeah, I just never really thought about it.”


But executive David Refkin is betting that Franz and others like her would think twice before picking up Time Magazine if they thought a forest was demolished to make the paper. Refkin is the Director of Sustainable Development for Time Incorporated. He says he’s noticed a strong surge in environmental awareness over the past two or three years.


“We don’t want people looking at a magazine and feeling guilty that a stream has been damaged and the fish are dying in there, or that habitats aren’t being protected because people are practicing bad forestry practices.”


Refkin says his company wants to take action now, before consumer groups decide to boycott its magazines over ecological issues. Time uses more coated paper for its publications than any other company in the U.S. The company is asking that 80 percent of all paper products Time buys be certified by 2006.


To the average consumer, that may not seem like big news. But for paper producers and foresters, it’s earth shattering. Larry Pedersen is with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Pedersen says getting certified means years of work for state employees. The government has to prove to investigators that its management standards take into account issues such as biodiversity, water quality, soil erosion and wildlife habitat. Pedersen says the state is also required to provide records for each tree from the moments it’s planted or inventoried to the time it’s cut down and then made into planks or paper. But he says it’s worth the effort.


“A number of wood and paper-using companies brought it to our attention that they needed to have certified products because their consumers were demanding those. And with us having four-million acres of state forestlands, we saw the writing on the wall that we needed to jump on this.”


State forests in the region generate a lot of revenue. Wisconsin’s forests earn two and a half million dollars from timber sales and Ohio pulls in almost three million. Michigan’s forests bring in 30 million dollars annually. Earlier this year, Michigan’s Governor Jennifer Granholm announced that all state forests will be certified by January 1st of 2006. And the Great Lakes State is not alone… New York, Wisconsin, and Maine are also pursuing certification and Ohio and other states are considering it.


Andrew Shalit, with the environmental activist group Ecopledge, says he’s glad Time Warner is encouraging paper companies and state governments to get certified. But he says that doesn’t necessarily mean the paper is produced in an environmentally friendly way.


“It’s great to say that they’re going to get all of their paper from certified forests. The question is, who is certifying? And in the case of Time Warner, a lot of the forests are certified by a group called SFI, the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, and their standards are so weak as to be almost meaningless.”


There’s a heated debate over just what certification means. There are currently two groups that certify forests in the U.S. The Sustainable Forestry Initiative, or SFI, was originally founded by the timber industry but is now an independent body. The Forest Stewardship council, or FSC, came out of the environmental movement… or more specifically, out of the effort to protect South American rainforests. Shalit says he doesn’t think SFI certification is as rigorous or as comprehensive as FSC.


“It really is a problem for the consumer because you see something in the store and it has a little green label on it with a picture of a tree and it says sustainably certified, and you think you’re buying something good. It’s hard for the individual consumer to keep up with that.”


Shalit says several states, like Michigan, have solved the dilemma of rival certification programs by getting dual certification. he says although the system has flaws, it will improve if consumers demand more stringent forestry regulations.


Executives at Time Warner hope they can avoid boycotts and pickets by taking action preemptively. The company is leading the push for forest certification in the U.S., and environmentalists say the federal government may have to bow to pressure eventually and get the national forests certified as well.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Celeste Headlee.

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