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Galveston Bay researchers are fishing for data about chemical runoff — literally

Industrial facilities along Houston’s Ship Channel are increasingly at risk of flooding as climate change accelerates rising sea levels and strengthens storms. Now, local researchers are examining how pollution runoff during these flood events is impacting the bay’s ecosystem — and how to mitigate it.

Captain L.G. Boyd, left, and researcher Sepp Haukebo are catching fish as part of a grant to better understand what chemical pollution ends up in Galveston Bay during storms and flooding events.

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The sun was still rising over Galveston Bay on a recent Monday morning, and Sepp Haukebo and Captain LG Boyd had already cast their fishing lines into the water.

As they waited for something to bite, the warm pink morning sky settled behind industrial smokestacks on the shoreline. The two were hoping to catch about 10 fish by the end of the day.

"We’re trying to get a few more redfish, some black drum, maybe some speckled trout," said Haukebo, the manager for recreational fishing solutions at the Environmental Defense Fund.

But the plan wasn’t to eat the fish.

Instead, the fish would be sent to a lab at Texas A&M University, where they would be tested for the presence of certain chemicals and metals that are associated with the petrochemical industry.

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It's part of a three-year, $1.2 million grant from the National Academy of Sciences to look at what pollution from the area's industrial facilities is ending up in the bay during flood events, and how to mitigate it. The data is especially important as sea-level rise and stronger storms put industrial facilities along the Houston Ship Channel increasingly at risk of flooding.

The fish samples are one part of that project.

By testing the fish, researchers hope to get a snapshot of the toxic compounds that are getting into the bay and impacting the ecosystem.

"The chemicals that we’re looking at are specifically from those petrochemical facilities," Haukebo said. "So we will at least know that it didn't come from runoff from somebody’s yard or from city streets, that it really did come from a group of facilities."

The researchers are testing fish for chemicals associated with the petrochemical industry. Because they’re higher up in the food chain, they provide a good indication of what chemicals are accumulating in the ecosystem.

Those include metals, a class of chemicals known as PAHs — which are associated with combustion — and PFAS, which are known as “forever chemicals” because they take so long to break down.

And while people aren't drinking the water from the bay, they do consume fish and rely on them economically, Haukebo said.

"One of the reasons that we’re conducting this study is so that we can get a better idea of what are some of the health risks, but also, what are some of the risks to the ecosystem?," he said. "What are some of the impacts from this continued runoff on the actual fish themselves?"

The researchers measure each fish they catch. The bigger the fish, the more it’s had a chance to accumulate chemicals in its system.

The state issues warnings if fish aren't safe to eat, and state and federal organizations have tracked similar data on seafood safety. This research builds on that, according to Charlotte Cisneros, community programs manager with the Galveston Bay Foundation, which is also part of the grant research.

"We would be able to tie current data with historical data and come up with some trends to track how things have changed over time," she said.

These fish are good gauges of what chemicals are accumulating in the ecosystem over time because they’re higher up on the food chain, Cisneros said.

"Sampling the fish gives us an understanding of the impact of historical and recent releases into the ecosystem," she said. "They’re just overall good indicators of health in the area."

The fish are just the first part of the research grant — the chemicals that show up can then be used to help identify which industrial facilities they may be coming from. That means analyzing which facilities may be at the greatest risk based on location and the compounds they work with. The researchers will also use computer models to identify which facilities are most at risk of flooding both now and in the future.

Based on all of that information, they'll then propose nature-based solutions that could help reduce runoff, such as oyster beds and green spaces that slow the flow, according to Elena Craft, the senior director of climate and health with the Environmental Defense Fund.

As climate change makes hurricanes stronger and wetter, these solutions are all the more urgent, Craft said.

"Oftentimes, I just feel like it’s Groundhog Day every storm," she said. "There’s actually a lot of natural and built environments that can be established to reduce or lighten the impact that some of the climate-fueled disasters might bring to the region."

As part of the project, the researchers want to understand what natural infrastructure and solutions could help prevent runoff from getting into the bay during storms.

Back on the fishing boat that Monday morning, Haukebo and Boyd weren't having much luck. Most of the fish were either too small or the wrong kind.

They tried a few different locations before settling next to a rusting oil and gas well.

Finally, the rod pulled tight with the right kind of fish.

"All right — a beauty!" Haukebo said. "Now, the science starts."

After reeling in the 20.5-inch black drum, Haukebo put it in a zip-close bag and into a cooler, writing down the time, location, water temperature, and other data points.

By the end of the day, they had caught another eight fish to be transported to the lab for testing where they'll offer insights into the pollution in the bay.

"The objective of this work really is to look forward and start to identify some of those biggest threats from climate change, sea-level rise, and more intense storms and start to mitigate those risks so that we can have a healthy bay and healthy communities,” Haukebo said.

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