The 'hidden' life aquatic: river insects

Inletkeeper workers get dirty in name of bug and stream health

People simply have no idea how many things live in the streams surrounding them.

 

Or at least that's the contention of Rachel Lord, Cook Inletkeeper's Outreach and Monitoring Coordinator.

"It is pretty fun to introduce folks to that - you know, what's in the small creek in their backyard," she said. "Those macroinvertebrates are really an integral part of the food chain."

Last week, Lord and more than a dozen Inletkeeper volunteers hopped into the rivers surrounding the Homer area to continue studying one aspect of river life - aquatic insects.

"These small creatures are really neat," Lord said. "Really, it is a different way for folks to be engaged with their back yard, with the world they live in and really these bugs are the food of our fish and they have cool movement and cool colors and it is like a secret hidden life."

Starting in 2002, Inletkeeper staff has been going into the field twice during the summer - once in June and again in August - to find and study the macroinvertebrate insect communities living in streams around Homer, Anchor Point, and in the Diamond Creek and Bridge Creek, among others.

But it isn't all about discovering "cool" bugs living in the water. The insect sampling helps Inletkeeper keep an eye on the stream's health, Lord said.

"By doing that, it gives us a better view, another indicator of stream health and water quality," Lord said.

The kind of testing Inletkeeper performs requires a training session for volunteers, but isn't uncommon in other places around the country.

Considering the insects only live six months to a year in a stream and don't move around much, data collected provides staff with "a nice, longer term, integrated look at water quality," Lord said.

"Most of (the rivers) down here where we are doing the sampling are in pretty good condition," Lord said. "Part of what our program was founded on was the idea that - especially places in the Lower 48 - where you hear folks say, ‘Gosh, if we only knew what our streams were like before.'

"With increased development or industrial activity and things like that, you can have rapid degradation of stream systems that can really affect your fish habitat, human health and overall quality of life. So we are really taking a proactive approach to answer that question of, ‘What are our streams like right now.'"

Many of the insects Lord and company are looking for process many of the leaves that fall into the streams, algae that grow on rocks and are an important food source for many species of fish and other aquatic organisms.

The insects - some of which are more tolerant to poor water quality than others - are grouped into a collective and that group's diversity and resistance to water quality is used to judge the stream.

Last week's testing results will be available in July prior to the Inletkeeper's August sampling. However, Lord said she was optimistic about this year's results.

"The insect communities that we've seen at our streams indicate generally good health," she said. "Some streams are better than others, and often this correlates well with the quality of the available habitat for insects. Sedimentation is the primary issue that we see impacting the quality of habitat for insects in the streams we sample."

Similar methods of insect testing could be implemented around the Peninsula and state, Lord said.

"I think the greatest utility would be for the model to be taken by other folks around the Peninsula who might be interested in doing similar water quality monitoring using aquatic insect communities," she said.

Lord encouraged those interested in getting a "finger on the pulse" of the streams surrounding them to get involved with programs like the Cook Inletkeeper's insect sampling and other watershed organizations.

"It is great to be out there and have folks who have never seen those insects before," she said. "The increased awareness that ... there are dynamic communities within them that are kind of an integral part of the functioning of the world around us and that increased awareness and the wonder of how neat it is - what's living in these streams that you would never really see unless you took a couple hours to check in there."

To get involved with the insect sampling occurring August 10 through 12, call Lord at 235-4068 ext. 29 or email her at rachel@inletkeeper.org. Visit www.inletkeeper.org for more information on the organization.

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