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L-R: Greg Boelm, Steve Gilpin, David Brooks P.E., Melissa Freeland
Lead trawling photo taken by Melissa Freeland

Though the Nancy K looks like a Great Lakes gill netter fishing boat, she's actually a floating research field station currently working with the University of Michigan trawling for micro plastics as part of a research project, as shown in the lead photo taken by one of the researchers, Melissa Freeland, a 4th year microbiology student. She tied up overnight at the Kettle Creek Marina on June 28, 2014 and we got to interview the crew before they set sail again at 8:00 a.m. on June 29th.

The idea of turning a Great Lakes gill netter into a research field station is the brain child and labour of love by David Brooks, a retired Public Engineer. He was motivated to do this by the 15 to 20 years he and his wife spent working on Earth Watch projects. The Nancy K was originally a trap netter that got converted to a gill netter, from which David then converted it to a research field station which is a place where researchers live in the field while conducting their research. He added bunks, a galley and a head, but no special equipment. It took 5 years to convert the vessel, in part because it took 3 years to find a good shop that would let him work in the winter.

The particular project the Nancy K is working on this summer is trawling for micro plastics. Greg Boelm, an environmental sciences student with a minor in ecology and evolutionary biology and who is originally from Santa Monica in California, explains it this way. Micro plastics are insanely small plastic particles only a couple of microns in diameter. They are found in products like facial cleansers, toothpaste and body scrubs and are designed to be washed down the drain, thus ending up directly in our water supply (lakes, rivers, streams). Fish often mistake them for food so they are also ending up in our fish.

Studying the micro plastics can lead to a better understanding of persistent organic pollutants in our water because these bind to plastics when immersed in water. They use an electron microscope to see if anything is living on the micro plastics they scoop up out of the lake. What you see in the lead photo, taken by Melissa Freeland, is the trawling equipment they use to collect these micro plastics, being dragged (trawled) behind the boat. The net is called a manta net and it has a mesh size of 20 microns. They do scoop up lots of organic garbage in their trawling and have to filter it out.

The other member of this research project being run by Melissa Duhaind (who also runs a marine viruses project at the University of Michigan) is Melissa Freeland, a 4th year microbiology student at the University of Michigan. Steve Gilpin, a student volunteer who is a prospective microbiology major, rounds out the crew. Steve is booked to volunteer just for this trip.

Read for more information about the effect of micro plastics on the Great Lakes.

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