Todd Hubbard is used to shocking fish, but they don't usually shock him. That's why the aquatic scientist still vividly recalls the moment his backpack shocker—which uses electricity to temporarily and harmlessly immobilize fish for collection and identification—yielded a surprise: a blazingly orange ornamental goldfish that popped to the surface along with the usual creek chubs and minnows. It's all in a day's work for limnologists such as Hubbard, who spend every July to October wading Iowa's waterways for the UI State Hygienic Lab.
Limnologists study fresh-water systems—including lakes, rivers, streams, creeks, and wetlands—to track environmental trends. During the warmer months, Hubbard and his colleagues don brown waders and head to inland waters, armed with equipment that includes nets and formaldehyde-filled jugs. They regularly splash through thigh-high water in search of fish and macroinvertebrates—such as aquatic insects, crustaceans, leeches, and snails—that they bring back to their lab for research and educational purposes. They also test the water for bacteria, nutrients, heavy metals, and pesticides.
Since UI aquatic scientists started keeping track of fish and insects in Iowa's streams, they've collected and identified 1.13 million macroinvertebrates and 1.33 million fish from 1,250 locations.
"Our waterways are an integral link to the way we function as a society," Hubbard says. "People should understand what lives in these waters and aspire to reduce—or even eliminate—our impact on them."
This is what motivates Hubbard and his teammates to do their work in all kinds of weather, from soaking rain to sweltering heat—and, in one memorable instance, during a tornado warning that forced them to hunker down in a recessed area near a stream. Their efforts provide vital clues about the state's overall ecological health. Slight drops in fish or insect populations—or a change in water quality—can indicate larger problems, often connected to human activity.
In the nearly three decades since aquatic scientists started keeping track of fish and insects in Iowa's streams, they've collected and identified 1.13 million macroinvertebrates and 1.33 million fish from 1,250 locations. Hubbard hopes these efforts will help shape better environmental practices, such as the federal Clean Water Act, which regulates pollutants in our waters. The limnologists regularly test Iowa's pollution levels, along with documenting the creatures in its waters. "If you don't have a record of what's living in streams and rivers, then you can't say what you've lost when it's gone," says Hubbard.
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