York student ‘transformed’ after plying Lake Ontario


Above: Lake Guardian

On Sept. 19, a day after Hurricane Isabel roared through the Lake Ontario region, York master of environmental studies student Catherine Masson set off from Fort Niagara, NY, on an eight-day working cruise on the lake that left her “transformed”.

Masson, whose MES research topic is water ethics, was aboard the third of four scheduled cruises organized in 2003 by the US Environmental Protection Administration on Lake Ontario. The 54-metre, US-based Lake Guardian is one of several US and Canadian vessels that are part of a decade-long study of the lake. Recognizing Masson’s commitment to water ethics, the Center for the Environment at Clarkson University in Potsdam, NY, invited her to join the cruise and take part in the annual course.

“My main motivation is to foster respect for a conscientious stewardship of water,” wrote Masson in a recent report about her experience, in which she revealed her profound respect and reverence for these waters. “This is the telling of a story in motion,” she began. “It moves through space and travels through time. As we now living stand upon its shores, the swift currents of Lake Ontario eddy and pool, and rush by us….

“These waters have their own language. They speak to humanity as they move through the landscape, by natural and unnatural ecological events, in seasonal meteorological patterns, through the hydrological cycle and countless other rhythms of movement.”

Right: Catherine Masson, on the right, aboard the Lake Guardian

Masson was assessing phytoplankton in an intensive fieldwork course through the Center for the Environment at Clarkson as part of the EPA’s Great Lakes National Program Office (GLNPO) Lake Ontario limnology practicum. She said the experience will remain a “seminal event” in her intellectual and professional development.

On the Lake Guardian, after a one-day delay due to the lingering effects of Hurricane Isabel, Masson and six other students from the US and Brazil plunged into measuring phosphorus and chlorophyll a levels at 32 Lake Ontario sampling stations. Some of the sources of phosphorus were municipal waste treatment facilities, detergents, industrial discharges and agricultural run-off.

“We’re seeing the results of short-term thinking,” Masson commented in the Sept. 25 issue of the Rochester, NY, Democrat and Chronicle, adding “I couldn’t ask for a better education.”

Right: Rosette aboard the Lake Guardian, used to capture a sample of water from any desired depth and bring it to the surface without mixing with any other water

Scientists from the binational Lake Ontario Lakewide Management Plan (LaMP) joined the practicum cruise to evaluate factors controlling disruption in the lower aquatic food web due to recently introduced exotic organisms, such as zebra and quagga mussels, that are discharged in ballast waters by ocean-going freighters.

The scientists were examining changes arising from recent invasions of the mussels which are affecting the abundance and health of fish stocks. These creatures are competing with tiny shrimp-like organisms called diporeia, the mainstay of white fish, which now face extinction in the lower Great Lakes basin, explained Masson. Their findings will be of major importance to Lake Ontario’s estimated $3.3-billion commercial fishing industry.

In a lake-to-shore phone call to York environmental studies Professor Peter Victor, Masson described the cruise as “action-packed”. “There are some top-notch scientists here and it’s very exciting to be with all of the experts,” she said. “We really are on the cutting edge of science.”

One of the highlights of the trip, said Masson, was a lecture by guest speaker Stephanie Weiss from Save the River!, who addressed the Lake Guardian instructors, students and scientists about the negative impacts of winter shipping and the proposed St. Lawrence Seaway expansion. Based in Clayton, NY, Save the River! is a non-profit, member-based environmental organization whose mission is to preserve and protect the ecological integrity of the Thousand Islands Region of the St. Lawrence River.

Left: Lake Ontario

Dubbing her investigations “ISABEL” (International Socio-scientific Assessment of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Learning), Masson hopes to take her findings to spring 2004 conferences in Syracuse, NY, and Waterloo, Ont.

Masson’s long-term goals are lofty – to “assist and enable citizens and villagers, scientists and academics, business leaders and policy-makers, engineers and planners in North America and South Asia to participate together in the design of guidelines and structures for the management of ethical, egalitarian and adaptive watershed, water resource and wastewater management.”

No country has yet been able to put a sustainable and equitable water strategy into place, said Masson, who would like to see a water ethic that would “make the protection of water ecosystems a central goal in all human activities.”

Masson finished her report with a hauntingly poetic touch. “As I drive up and over the steep hill that rounds the old Fort Niagara and leads me away from the Lake Guardian, I can focus only upon the road ahead of me. For everything you take with you, there is always something or someone that is left behind. I do not look back.”

More about work aboard the Lake Guardian

The Lake Guardian is a state-of-the-art floating research facility. Scientists on board measure pollutant levels in water, sediments, air and fish and other aquatic life, and monitor the effectiveness of remedial efforts on toxic chemical and nutrient concentrations. Operated by the EPA GLNPO in Chicago, the vessel supports a wide-range of research conducted in cooperation with state, federal, Canadian and binational agencies, and educational and research institutions.