Young researcher tracks pollution through mussels

Posted: Monday, April 29, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- At the state science fair in Anchorage last month, Natalie Hale showed off her mussels. Now the Juneau-Douglas High School sophomore is getting ready to demonstrate at an international science fair how the mollusks can track pollution.

Hale won the Alaska State Science Fair with her study of how fecal coliform bacteria from pollution affected mussels in the Juneau area.

Hale moved to Juneau five years ago. Last fall, when she started to think of ideas for a science fair project, she recalled hearing about pollution near a Douglas Island neighborhood.

''We lived at North Douglas while we were building our house and we were reading all these articles about really high levels of fecal coliform in the ditches and on the beaches,'' Hale said. ''I moved from Florida and was expecting a really clean, pristine place.''

Until recently, homes in the Bonnie Brae subdivision used individual sewage treatment plants that connected to a common outfall pipe into Gastineau Channel. Some local residents complained about untreated sewage seeping into the channel.

A city sewer line for the subdivision was completed late last year; residents must connect their homes to it by the end of June.

Rather than just testing the levels of fecal coliform bacteria in the water, Hale decided to gauge the effects of the effluent from Bonnie Brae.

''I wanted to find out if the contamination was affecting the beaches and the organisms that live on them,'' Hale said.

She chose to monitor mussels because they are nearly stationary and easy to track over time, and because of their spot in the food chain.

''Mussels filter feed, and they get the brunt of the contaminants,'' she said.

Hale also examined mussels near the Auke Bay Sewage Treatment Plant and at a clean ''control'' beach below the Auke Bay Lab.

After analyzing about 250 mussels, Hale found that the Bonnie Brae mussels showed highly elevated levels of fecal coliform bacteria; the Auke Bay treatment plant mussels showed slightly elevated levels; and the Auke Bay Lab mussels showed virtually no change.

When examining the time mussels took to die when out of water and their condition -- body mass, or ''fitness'' -- Hale's findings were clear. The mussels at Bonnie Brae were in bad shape.

''The Bonnie Brae mussels died significantly earlier,'' she said. ''Comparatively, they were much worse. The effects of the sewage effluent were very evident.''

Bonnie Brae mussels died out of water within a few days, Hale said. Auke Bay Lab mussels survived up to four weeks.

About 80 percent of the Bonnie Brae mussels also were infested with parasites. The Auke Bay treatment plant mussels were in much better shape, but still lagged behind the Auke Bay Lab ''clean beach'' specimens.

Hale's project did not win the science fair in Juneau, so she did not win a free trip to the state fair in Anchorage. An anonymous donor offered to pay Hale's way to the state fair.

''When I found out someone was willing to do something like that, it was really special,'' she said.

The international fair is in Louisville, Ky., on May 12-18.

An adult who collaborated on her research said she could be published.

''I think this will have international implications, being able to use an animal to biologically assess the affects of pollution,'' said Dr. Adam Moles, a research biologist at the National Marine Fisheries Service's Auke Bay Lab.

Moles said Hale's method of study could be applied to monitor pollution at places such as sewage treatment plants.

''You would be able to put caged mussels there and follow them periodically to see if there is a problem,'' he said.

Moles said Hale showed a great amount of drive and ability while working on the project.

''She's a go-getter who came up with the idea,'' he said. ''All we did here is come up with ideas on how she might make this happen.''

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