2010 Emerging Leaders

P. Ryan Jackson

Ensured that a planned massive fish kill, intended to stop the invasive Asian carp from migrating into and damaging the Great Lakes’ ecosystem, would not have harmful effects on the environment.

U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientist Ryan Jackson provided crucial technical assistance to Illinois and federal officials in one of the largest intentional fish kills in U.S. history, helping ensure the success of the operation by preventing the possibility of any unintended environmental damage.

The December 2009 emergency fish kill was undertaken during the shutdown and repair of an electric barrier in the seven-mile manmade Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal to keep the invasive Asian carp from migrating into Lake Michigan and wreaking havoc on its healthy fish population.

The Great Lakes are home to commercial and recreational fisheries that are worth more than $7 billion per year, but the entire ecosystem faces a potential threat from the Asian carp. These fish are voracious feeders, and if they were to successfully establish themselves in the Great Lakes and start breeding, they could potentially starve out the trout and other native fish.

The environmentally sensitive operation involved a large-scale application of Rotenone, a poison that kills fish but is not harmful to humans or other wildlife. The 34-year-old Jackson provided an innovative approach, strong leadership and important insights to make sure the plan went smoothly and the poison did not leak into nearby waterways or contaminate the groundwater.

“Had Ryan and his team not been so precise, some of the 2,200 gallons of Rotenone would have seeped into surrounding waterways. There would have been dead fish past Peoria and stressed fish hundreds of miles away,” said Steven Shults, who led the project for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Central to the success of the fish kill were large-scale dye studies conducted by Jackson prior to and during the Rotenone application to aid in the planning and execution of the treatment. Jackson and his team closely monitored the application and dispersion of the Rotenone plume, and evaluated the impact.

His data allowed the toxin to be precisely applied and, more importantly, gave the scientists the chance to properly neutralize all of the poisoned water downstream and to identify leakage points. Jackson’s data also were essential in making sure the chemical application stayed within EPA’s guidelines while still being strong enough to kill the carp.

“Jackson exhibited great leadership skills during the very stressful planning and execution of the poisoning. His work minimized collateral damage to the fisheries of the surrounding rivers and streams and ensured that the record-setting poisoning was completed in the most environmentally responsible manner possible,” said Gary Johnson, Ryan’s USGS supervisor.

“Without Ryan’s involvement, it would not have been as successful,” he said.

While the poison was being applied, Jackson and his team of three set out on two boats in the canal. They stayed ahead of the poison, collecting and interpreting data in real time while working some 35 hours without rest and enduring below-freezing temperatures.

As the poison was being injected into the canal, Jackson calculated that the neutralizing agent needed to be applied at least seven hours longer than planned by state and federal environmental officials to ensure the Rotenone did not seep into other waterways.

Jackson, a hydrologist, said the USGS was brought in just six weeks before the fish kill, and he had to scramble to get the necessary equipment, purchase the dyes for the testing, do the preliminary studies and set up a monitoring system so he could quickly relay information to those making the key decisions.

“It was pretty intense, but it went well and I am glad I was involved,” said Jackson. “We wanted to make sure this was done in an environmentally responsible way.”

The manmade canal provides a path to Lake Michigan and the other Great Lakes, and is also connected to the Illinois and Des Plaines rivers, which are home to multiple threatened and endangered species. The canal is also adjacent to a large nature preserve.

Doug Yeskis of USGS said the fish kill was extremely important, and was pulled off due in large part to Jackson’s technical abilities.

“It’s very rare to find such a good scientist. Only a handful of people possess the project management skills, the technical expertise and the interpersonal skills that Ryan has. He’s the complete picture,” said Yeskis.