PICK CITY - The eyes of the scientific world may soon be focused on the results of a study that commenced Monday morning near Lake Sakakawea State Park.
In a narrow bay below Pick City, a team representing almost a dozen professional agencies began a seismic study that is expected to have world-wide ramifications. The study is led by three of the most renowned scientific experts in the field of sound in relationship to how it travels in water and what effect it has on fish.
Oil companies have expressed interest in drilling for natural gas and oil under Lake Sakakawea. To determine if such a venture should be pursued, seismic testing would be necessary. Seismic testing involves pulses pushed through the water by powerful air cannons whose noise is rated the equivalent of a jet engine. The study is expected to produce some answers as to how seismic testing will effect fish.
Seismic air cannons are fired from this Hess Corporation barge on Lake Sakakawea. Note the water bubbling at the side of the barge. Scientists will be collecting data this week during tests that are expected to reverberate around the world.
"Biologists have begun to recognize that noise has more of an impact on fish than people ever thought," said Steve Krentz, Missouri River Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office project leader, Bismarck. "Obviously, there is an interest in finding out what is below Lake Sakakawea. We know these activities can have a detrimental effect on fish. We are trying to find a way to allow these activities to continue without effecting the pallid sturgeon, paddlefish, walleyes and other fish."
Krentz said Hess Corporation was "leading the charge" in the seismic study. Hess had a barge on Lake Sakakawea Monday, firing a series of air charges into the water to make certain that all equipment was working properly. A few seconds after the air cannons were fired, which lifted the barge a few inches up in the water, the surface of the water would bubble vigorously from the high-powered charge of air.
One of those watching the proceedings closely was Jackson Gross, considered one of the leading experts in the field of sound technology used to control, divert and eradicate aquatic nuisance species. Gross has pioneered the use of sound to control Asian carp expansion in the Great Lakes and to keep northern pike out of salmon streams in Alaska. He is employed by Smith-Root, a Vancouver, Wash., based company that has a 50-year history in fisheries conservation using electricity for monitoring, sampling and fish diversion.
"We want to evaluate and determine thresholds for the amount of energy that is necessary for seismic exploration so that they can go ahead and pursue removing natural gas and oil from the ground, at the same time protecting another natural resource, which is our fishery," said Gross. "How can we go about doing both things, which are important to our country, and achieve our goals of protecting the public interest as well as the private sector?"
The study will continue for most of this week. Fish will be lowered into the water in holding pens situated at various depths and distances from the air cannons. The fish will be removed from the holding pens following "seismic shots" from the barge. Those fish not showing obvious signs of stress will be held at the Garrison Dam National Fish Hatchery for one week and then necropsies will be performed.
"There are so many gaps in our knowledge of the effects of sound on fish," explained Gross. "There can be sub-lethal effects. We want to make sure our information is correct. This study could very well have global implications thoughout the world."
"My understanding is that the results of this study will probably be presented in Budapest next August to an international seismic group," said Krentz.
While there is a very strong interest in learning the effects of seismic testing on walleyes and paddlefish, it is the endangered pallid sturgeon that could become the focal point of all the fishes in Lake Sakakawea. The FWS has been working for several years to expand the wild population of pallids. It has been a very slow process.
"We are worried about Lake Sakakawea and the fact that we have a pallid sturgeon population on its way back to recovery," said Krentz. "We also have a world-class walleye fishery and a really good stronghold of paddlefish. We're trying to find out what information we can actually get from this study to move forward without harming the fish populations."
The first study group of fish to be subject to seismic testing was pallid sturgeon that had been raised at the nearby hatchery. The sturgeon are from a gene pool that biologists determined would not be beneficial to release into the wild. Paddlefish and walleye will be added to the testing during the remainder of the week.
"These fish are very adapted to their water environment," said Krentz. "They feel everything. They carry that sound right through them and that's what causes rupturing of internal organs and hemorrhaging. We'll be looking for ruptured swim bladders, things that will cause mortality down the road."
No one can say for certain what the study will reveal, but much more will be known about the effects of seismic noise on fish within a few weeks. Compiling all of the data and drawing scientific conclusions will take much longer.
"It may take six months to a year to publish," said Gross. "Certain questions lead to other questions. You have to start somewhere."
Gross will be among those participating in necropsies of fish involved in the study. He'll be joined in evaluating data by Anthony Hawkins, an expert in underwater acoustics and Managing Director of Loughine Limited, Scotland, and Art Popper, biology, University of Maryland.