Federal partners help DNR manage Great Lakes fisheries

Nick Johnson holds a tube or resin containing pheromones emitted by sea lampreys.

July 18, 2013

Managing fisheries in the Great Lakes is a daunting task for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, given the size and the scope of the assignment. But the fact that Michigan shares those waters - with not only other states, but Canada and sovereign tribes - makes it even more complex. Fortunately, the federal government lends significant assistance in managing programs that are too large for any single agency to accomplish.

Certainly cooperation among the management agencies is paramount when big-picture issues - such as sea lamprey management - are considered. That's where the Great Lakes Fishery Commission (GLFC) comes in. Established in 1955 between the United States and Canada, the GLFC was designed as a means to foster cooperation on big issues. USGS research ecologist Nick Johnson holds a tube or resin containing pheromones emitted by sea lampreys. (Image on the right.)

"The fishery commission plays the role of focal point for discussions on fishery management strategy to reach management goals, and a place for jurisdictions to come together in a neutral forum facilitated by a neutral party," said Marc Gaden of the GLFC.

"We don't tell the states, the province or the tribes what to do. We provide science, facilitate the discussion and make recommendations. It's a much better method of reaching the goal of protecting and sustaining the fishery than it was when the jurisdictions rarely talked to each other, let alone coordinated their policies."

Cory Brant studies how sea lamprey react to synthetic pheromones at a USGS research project.Though originally founded to deal with the invasive sea lamprey, which decimated the lake trout population in most of the lakes, the GLFC formed lake committees in 1965 to expand the role of cooperative management on other issues. The committees work on issues of shared concern - management of walleye and perch populations on Lake Erie, for instance. The commission's role is to build consensus among the states and Canada on issues such as allocating resources among the various entities.

"Michigan has been an outstanding player in leadership in this process," Gaden said.

The Department of Interior's United States Geological Survey (USGS) helps provide the big-picture knowledge necessary for making informed management decisions. The USGS assists the states, essentially, by researching common issues: lamprey control, population trends of prey species and the status of native fish populations.

The USGS facility on Lake Huron on Hammond Bay, for instance, has taken the lead on lamprey management.

"Every significant discovery about sea lamprey in the last 50 years has come through Hammond Bay," said Kurt Newman, a former DNR biologist who runs several USGS programs.

The USGS is experimenting with synthetic pheromones that lead lampreys to areas where they can be trapped and removed. Other sea lamprey-control measures - finding spawning areas and treating them with lampricide - are conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), which Newman described as "the boots on the ground."

A young sea lamprey in a tank with a sand bottom, where the creatures burrow and emit pheromones.The USGS maintains numerous research vessels across the Great Lakes that survey the prey-fish community by trawling and hydro-acoustics.

"It's kind of an inherent federal responsibility as it crosses jurisdictions," Newman said. "That's very important information for the states to use, especially when they look at their stocking programs. It translates into management decisions."

DNR Fisheries Chief Jim Dexter said the research conducted by the USGS on prey populations served as the basis for the decision by Michigan and other states to cut Chinook salmon stocking in Lake Michigan.

Lastly, Newman said, the USGS helps assess lake trout recovery efforts, largely by gill-netting on reefs. Lake trout restoration has been an important component of federal action for decades; the feds have been stocking lakers into the Great Lakes since the 1950s.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's fish hatchery at Jordan River, built in 1961, has been stocking lake trout into the Great Lakes as part of that effort since 1965, said hatchery manager Roger Gordon.

"We produce about 3 million lake trout annually for stocking in Lakes Michigan and Huron," Gordon said. "About 95 percent of the fish go into Michigan waters as we're attempting to build a self-sustaining population.

"We're making progress," he continued. "We no longer stock Lake Superior, and in Lake Huron, upwards of 50 percent of the fish are wild. So we're getting close on Lake Huron. It's all looking positive."

A tagged sea lamprey is released downstream from a pheromone attraction site.In Lake Michigan, some areas of the lake show natural reproduction of lake trout.

"It's still a hit-or-miss proposition, but we're making great progress. We've made more progress in the last 10 years than in the previous 50. I hope we're out of business in 10 years and doing something else."

That something else may be restoring lake herring populations; the feds are currently building a new facility at Jordan River with an eye on lake herring production.

Meanwhile, the federal hatchery at Genoa, Wisc., has concentrated most of its efforts on lake sturgeon rehabilitation. While the hatchery produces fish mostly for Wisconsin waters, it has provided stream-side hatchery trailers for sturgeon rearing at the Kalamazoo River and the Ontonagon River in Michigan. Results have been sporadic, so far.

"Two years ago we produced 106 fish at Kalamazoo," Genoa's Doug Aloisi said. "This year we only raised two."

USGS scientists implant a transmitter in a female sea lamprey to follow.The Genoa facility also raises coaster brook trout for rehabilitating Lake Superior's population.

But raising fish isn't all the USFWS does. It has taken the lead on mass marking trout and salmon stocked in the Great Lakes by all jurisdictions.

"The need for mass marking - coded-wire tagging and adipose fin clipping for salmon and trout - in the Great Lakes was kind of the brainchild of the council of committees of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission," said Chuck Bronte, senior fisheries biologist who coordinates the Great Lakes mass-marking program. "It started back in 2004, 2005. The states lobbied Congress to actually start funding the program and the first funding was in 2010 - we got $1 million to start buying the automated marking trailers.

"The target was to coded-wire tag and fin clip all trout and salmon - that's 20 to 25 million fish a year on the U.S. side. We now we have four automated trailers and the program is currently funded by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative."

In the last couple of years, the Service has been able to mark 10 to 12 million fish annually, Bronte said.

"What's nice about coded-wire tags is we can follow a lot of fish across time as they're harvested by sport fisheries or assessment fisheries," he said. "So we provide tagging services to the states and federal hatcheries and then field technicians, working closely with the states on Lake Michigan to recover the fish at fish cleaning stations, at derbies, at boat landings. They cut the snout off the fish, put it in the freezer and we extract the tags at our labs here in Wisconsin.

"It's a great cooperative effort between the Service and the states. We have a history of providing services to the states - such as lamprey control - and this was a logical fit."

The mass marking is helping agencies solve the riddles of how much natural reproduction is taking place and where stocked fish end up.

"You don't learn a lot in one year, but we hope to keep this thing going into the future," Bronte said. "The plan is to mark five full year-classes and follow them into the future."