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Crivello studying salt marsh pollution
October 5, 1998

Joseph Crivello will be investigating the health of salt marshes on Long Island Sound this fall. And he's calling on nearly 400 high school students to help him.

The study will focus on mummichogs, dark green or black fish that are usually one inch to six inches long.

They are "an essential part of the marsh's food chain," says Crivello, an associate professor of physiology and neurobiology.

Crivello will go out with students from seven different high schools as part of a project sponsored by the state Department of Environmental Protection. The DEP uses proceeds from Preserve the Sound license plates to fund programs such as this, that are designed to raise public awareness of the importance of Long Island Sound to Connecticut residents..

On 10 different days this month and next, the students will visit seven different locations, where they will use minnow traps baited with English muffins to collect the mummichogs.

Crivello says the project will teach the students about potential environmental hazards and give them an understanding of the complexity of the problems and the approaches required to address them.

"You can't determine the health of a salt marsh just by taking a look at it," he says. "The best way to do it is to analyze a living organism that resides in the marsh. We picked the mummichog because they are abundant and a critical component of the food chain. If something disturbs the health of the mummichogs, it will not just impact them but also the animals that depend on them for food."

Crivello expects the mummichogs to provide important evidence about pollution in the area. The salt marsh is a biological breeding ground for many of the fish in the sound, he says. "The nutrient-rich environment supports extensive plant and animal growth. Many of these nutrients wash into the marsh from upstream agricultural or residential areas.".

When people moved to the shore of the sound, the marshes began to receive more than just nutrients. Gasoline and sewage also have begun to make their way there.

"When pollution moves into the salt marshes, it impacts plants and animals," says Crivello. "If we examine the effects on mummichogs, we can predict the impact on commercial fishes like flounder, striped bass and blues, to name a few. The project will hopefully give us a better understanding of the conditions of the sound's marshes."

Students will play an important role in figuring out those conditions, says Crivello. In addition to collecting the mummichogs, they will be expected to record their length, weight, and width - all indicators of the fishes' health.

"Fish from unstressed environments with low pollution and minimal human impact should differ from those collected from polluted sites," he says. "Research has shown that the fatter fish are, the healthier they are, and the skinnier they are, the less healthy they are."

Crivello also plans to look at the liver size, along with its glycogen content, and to examine the growth of proteins usually associated with pollutants. Glycogen is the chief animal storage carbohydrate.

"I am going to give that information to the students and they are going to analyze it to determine whether the health of the mummichogs in their area is different from other mummichogs on the coastline," he says.

Crivello hopes the students' involvement in the study will inspire a greater interest in science. "By getting students involved with this project I hope it will not only educate them about the sound but also get them excited about science," he says. "Many of our kids are interested in the environment, but by the time they are in their early teens we lose a lot of them to other interests."

Matt Wolny, a senior at Bristol High School who will be participating in the project, says a career in science never crossed his mind. That may change though, he says, "because the program will give me hands-on experience in the field that I have never had and bring science more to life than any book I have ever read."

Luis Mocete