For the thousands of tourists who ferry into Put-in-Bay harbor each summer, tiny Gibraltar Island may seem the perfect setting for a Gothic mystery: a knuckle of rocky limestone shaded by mature hardwoods, a turreted Victorian-era castle and an imposing three-story laboratory at water’s edge.
August 2013 Issue
Science for Everyone
Stone Laboratory is an island of important marine-life study that welcomes scientists, students and anyone interested in learning about freshwater problems and solutions.
But the only mysteries on this island in the western Lake Erie basin are scientific whodunits, conundrums related to the complex ecosystem of the Great Lakes and how to keep them healthy for people and wildlife.
First established in 1895 in Sandusky and called Lake Laboratory, Stone Lab is the oldest freshwater biological field station in the U.S. It moved to its current stony outpost in 1925. It’s the centerpiece of Ohio State University’s teaching and research on Lake Erie, but while it wears its scarlet and gray proudly, the lab draws researchers from throughout the Great Lakes region representing a dozen universities and government agencies.
And, says Joe Conroy, a fisheries biologist at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Wildlife, there’s this: “If there are other spots in the great state of Ohio with better sunsets, I’m not aware of them.”
Focus on Learning
Conroy is one of hundreds of professional biologists who have found career inspiration in the sunsets at Stone Lab. He first visited as an undergraduate and discovered quickly that, while Gibraltar is but a long stone’s throw from the summer party chaos at Put-in-Bay, learning was taken seriously.
“I enjoyed the work-hard, play-hard atmosphere of Stone Lab the most,” Conroy recalls. “Nowhere else, in my long career taking courses, could you literally work 20 hours a day for a particular course and be surrounded by others doing the same thing.”
The island’s natural beauty is enhanced by its history and buildings. It first earned a spot in the history books during the War of 1812 because Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry used it as a lookout point before the Battle of Lake Erie. Forty years later, Civil War financier Jay Cooke bought the island to build a summer place — a 15-room Victorian home with a turreted tower that still stands, unused until long-delayed renovations are complete.
Julius F. Stone, a philanthropist and OSU Board of Trustees member, purchased the island in 1925 and immediately gifted it to the university as a permanent home for Lake Laboratory, which was renamed Franz Theodore Stone Laboratory in memory of Julius’ father. For casual visitors, the 6.5-acre island, with its large shade trees, stately buildings and lake breezes, seems a perfect place for an afternoon nap. But far from being a distraction, the island environment at Stone Lab leads to greater focus, says Rich Carter, another fisheries biologist at the Division of Wildlife, who grew up surrounded by Appalachian foothills in Portsmouth.
“It felt like you were a thousand miles away from land,” he says. “We had classes six days a week and you really had to focus on learning every day.”
Over the years, scientists have learned a lot about freshwater ecology from the research conducted at Stone Lab, says Jeffrey Reutter, the research center’s director and director of the Ohio Sea Grant College Program. Now 63, he’s witnessed great changes in Lake Erie since he arrived as a graduate student in 1971.
It was a year before the federal Clean Water Act was passed and two years after a fire on the Cuyahoga River made Lake Erie the poster child for pollution.
By the time Reutter was named director in 1987, water-pollution laws had forced industry to limit the toxic pollutants, but that didn’t end the threats to the lake. When phosphorus pollution leads to “dead zones” in Lake Erie, when mayflies disappear or zebra mussels appear, when Asian-carp DNA is found in the Great Lakes, scientists flock to Gibraltar Island to take samples, test hypotheses and exchange information that help them puzzle through the problems and — perhaps — find solutions.
“Research goes on year-round,” Reutter says. And it has made a difference in the lake. Research launched at the lab led to a ban on phosphorus in laundry detergents. It helped change the way industry discharges heated water into the lake. It taught wildlife managers much they did not know about troublesome parasites in fish. About bird migration. About the problems with sediments from rivers. About industrial and municipal water withdrawals.
Research at Stone Lab, funded by the Division of Wildlife, helped change the way the division regulates smallmouth bass fishing, explains Wildlife’s Carter. Researchers using underwater video cameras discovered that during the spawning season, bass nests were threatened by the round goby, a non-native fish. When the bass was taken away from the nest by an angler — even for five minutes — the gobies would gobble up the eggs.
“That research set the tone for how we manage for smallmouth and largemouth bass in Lake Erie,” Carter explains.
Perhaps the greatest and most influential change at Stone Lab during Reutter’s tenure has been the development and growth of programs for middle and high school students. More than 8,000 students a year visit the lab, an eight-fold increase over the participation when Reutter became director in 1987.
For thousands of Ohioans, in fact, the multi-day workshop at Stone Lab has been one of their most memorable learning experiences. Many of these students live far from Lake Erie’s shore, so just getting to the lab — the ferry to South Bass Island and passage to Gibraltar on a Stone Lab research vessel — is enough to make the trip exciting, explains Diane Gabriel, a retired science teacher from Bloom-Carroll High School in Fairfield County.
Gabriel organized field trips to Stone Lab for 30 years and continues to do so in retirement. The kids spend their nights in a dormitory and their days getting a glimpse of what it is like to be a researcher — collecting samples from the research vessel BioLab, dissecting fish, studying plankton under microscopes.
A trip to Stone Lab can rekindle a love for science that many children lose by the time they hit middle school, Gabriel says. “Little kids love science. They are curious. They want to know ‘why.’ Then something happens, and a lot of it has to do with sitting in a room and not doing anything but taking tests.
“Stone Lab turns all that back around. When you allow them to go out into the real world and experience science the way it should be, then they become excited. And it becomes much more meaningful.”
Responding to Modern Threats
Today, nutrient pollution once again threatens the lake, as phosphorus levels spike and the “dead zones” (areas of low-oxygen water) grow to levels last seen in the 1980s. Once again, people look to Stone Lab to find a solution. And the lab has responded: With more than $2 million in upgrades to the buildings and equipment over the past few years, Stone Lab scientists are once again working to put the Lake Erie ecosystem back in balance.
Are they up to the task?
“Oh my gosh, yes,” says Reutter. “We have the facilities, we have the talent and we have the equipment. We’re up to it, if we can get the funding.”
Funding is an issue, as it always is for conservation biology. But Reutter is optimistic, partly due to the young people who visit the island.
Photos of great freshwater researchers of the past grace the walls of Stone Lab. But the scientist who finds the answer to Lake Erie’s future threats may be a curious 14-year-old standing up to her waist in the shallows of Gibraltar Island, dipping a plankton net into the water for the first time.
“You never know,” Gabriel says. “Sometimes it’s the kids that are struggling a little academically who just catch fire.”
VISIT STONE LAB
For those who are curious about Stone Laboratory and would like to visit Gibraltar Island, tours are offered on Wednesdays in the summer (through Aug. 14), 11 a.m.–1 p.m. Tour fees ($10 for adults, $5 for children 6−12) support scholarships.
Each year, the Friends of Stone Lab hosts an open house (stonelab.osu.edu/events/open-house). The event will be held on Saturday, Sept. 7, 11 a.m.–3:30 p.m. It includes free transportation from South Bass to Gibraltar, a tour of the lab and the island, lectures and learning opportunities.
Stone Lab also operates an Aquatic Visitors Center on South Bass Island and owns the South Bass Island Lighthouse. Tours are offered to the top of the structure (stonelab.osu.edu/tripsandtours/island-tours).