Mr. Lakefront News - The latest news about Maine lakes and ponds.

Nokomis Students Go Fishing to Research Mercury Levels

March 05, 2008 - NEWPORT, Maine - To the casual observer, the several dozen teenagers hanging out on a Newport pond Tuesday morning might have looked like they were having a little too much fun to be learning. After all, ice fishing isn't exactly part of the standard curriculum taught in most high schools, even in Maine. But despite the laughing, typical teenage teasing and occasional exchange of snowballs, the biology students from Nokomis Regional High School actually were doing class work Tuesday as they pulled fish after fish from the icy waters of Nokomis Pond.

They also were conducting important research that could help shed light on accumulation of toxins in fish and the wider environment.

The students at Nokomis High are working with the nonprofit organization Acadia Partners for Science and Learning to study mercury levels in fish in the large pond located just behind the Newport school.

Mercury is a neurotoxin that is released into the atmosphere by coal-fired power plants and other industrial polluters. The toxin accumulates in fish as they eat contaminated insects or other fish. The higher up the food chain you go, the more mercury accumulates in the body, which is why Maine issues fish consumption advisories for all waters in the state.

The project, which is funded through a Maine Department of Education grant, also offers students an opportunity to develop their scientific analysis skills while working hand-in-hand with biology researchers.

"One of the biggest parts of the project is forming the research proposal: How do you come up with a hypothesis and how do you go about testing that?" said Katie Thompson, the 10th-grade biology teacher who helped coordinate the project.

With morning temperatures in the mid-30s and barely a breeze blowing, Tuesday offered almost ideal conditions for a class trip out on Nokomis Pond.

"It's definitely better than being in a classroom and reading a textbook," said Thompson as she watched a group of students dissect fish.

Tuesday also turned out to be a pretty good day to go fishing in general.

The class caught 16 fish over the course of four to five hours. All of the fish - a mixture of pickerel, smallmouth bass and yellow and white perch - were sacrificed in the name of science so the students could gather tissue samples for testing.

Dianne Kopec, a biologist and graduate student at the University of Maine, walked students through the dissection process as they removed muscle samples, eggs from females, scales and stomach contents from the fish.

The students will examine the scales to gauge each fish's age in a way similar to counting the rings of a tree. Muscle samples will be sent to an independent lab for mercury tests.

The students ranged from experienced ice fishermen - easily identified by their outdoor attire and the camp chairs they set up around the ice holes - to the squeamish who could barely watch the process.

"I really don't like fish," one grimacing student told her friend as the pair watched a dissection from afar. "I don't like to eat them. I don't like to touch them."

That wasn't Heidi Wyman, who came back from lunch eager to pick up a scalpel to open up a fish stomach.

"I like it. It's a lot of fun," Wyman said as she prepped for her next fish, a large pickerel.

Yvonne Davis with Acadia Partners for Science and Learning said her organization also is involved with similar environmental projects at Tri-County Technical Center in Dexter, Searsport High School, Mount View High School in Thorndike and Waldo County Technical Center.

Based in Winter Harbor, Acadia Partners supports research and natural sciences education programs that benefit Acadia National Park and the National Park Service. The nonprofit organization also manages the Schoodic Education and Research Center.

SOURCE: Natural Resources Council of Maine

DATE: 02-27-2008

Lakes: Nokomis Pond
Regions: Bangor