Scientists Search for Pollutants with Unmanned Kayak

By ecoRI News staff

The use of an unmanned kayak is aiding in the study of fish consumption and public health. (Nora Lewis/URI)

The use of an unmanned kayak is aiding in the study of fish consumption and public health. (Nora Lewis/URI)

CHARLESTOWN, R.I. — Standing on the edge of Schoolhouse Pond, Chris Roman and Marcella Thompson watched as an unmanned kayak traveled back and forth across the pond in a series of calculated switchbacks. When it had completed its mission, the vessel returned to its starting point, where the two University of Rhode Island researchers were waiting.

The route the vessel took in the pond, as well in nearby Deep Pond, was a test of the unmanned kayak’s ability to independently navigate and use a system of high-tech oceanographic instruments, including side-scan sonar, to collect data about the ponds and create a map of their sediments.

“The kayak is an autonomous system guided by GPS, so it’s doing all the thinking. It’s like glorified cruise control,” said Roman, associate professor at the URI Graduate School of Oceanography. “We now have better bathymetry (underwater mapping) of those ponds than there exists for any other pond in Rhode Island.”

While Roman was simply looking to use the ponds as a proving ground for his kayak, Thompson hoped it would gather some useful data that would benefit the Narragansett Tribe. An assistant professor of nursing at URI, she is seeking to learn what may be contaminating the fish that live in the ponds.

“There are a number of tribal members who feed their families from the fish in those ponds,” said Thompson, the leader of a five-year study called “The Namaus Project.” “The health of the fish reflects the health of the tribe, not only from a physical point of view but from a cultural and spiritual point of view as well.”

Namaus means fish in the Narragansett language.

Thompson works closely on the project with co-investigators Dinalyn Spears, director of the Community Planning and Natural Resources Department for the Narragansett Tribe, Elizabeth Hoover, assistant professor of American Studies at Brown University, and fish biologist Barry Volson from URI’s Fisheries, Animal and Veterinary Sciences program.

Schoolhouse Pond and Deep Pond are the only two ponds on Narragansett tribal lands, and previous studies found that the fish living there may be contaminated by environmental pollutants such as mercury. Thompson, in collaboration with colleagues at URI, Brown University and Dartmouth College, will test the fish and the water for a variety of contaminants while also seeking the source of those pollutants.

“We’re looking at the configurations of the pond and possible upstream polluters,” she said, “but we’re also looking for sources of contamination in the ponds themselves. There are rumors that there may be a small plane and a couple of cars submerged in there.”

Thompson’s study includes discussions about fishing and related issues with tribal elders in traditional “talking circles,” household surveys about fish consumption and education projects with children in the tribe. The information she gathers will be brought to Narragansett tribal leaders and members to help them develop a plan for managing fishing in the ponds, if it’s determined that consuming the fish is harmful to human health.

“I want to work with healthy people and keep them healthy,” said Thompson, who describes herself as an environmental health nurse scientist. “And keeping them healthy requires looking at their total environment.”

Roman is still analyzing the data he collected from the ponds to see if he can identify potential sources of contamination. But he plans to return in the spring when the water level is higher to access shallow areas the kayak couldn’t reach this month.

“For me, this was a good test case to collect some sample data sets that I can use to seek funding for other projects,” Roman said. “It doesn’t look like we found an airplane or a car, but the kayak proved it could do the job.”