DNR, Sea Grant team up to highlight Lake St. Clair's fishery on Discovery cruise

Youngsters aboard a Sea Grant Discovery cruise on Lake St. Clair unwrap frozen fish specimens.

July 24, 2015

Mike Thomas is a fisheries research biologist for the Department of Natural Resources. Most days, you’ll find him at the Lake St. Clair Fisheries Research Station or on the lake aboard the DNR’s Channel Cat research vessel. But a couple of days a year, Thomas switches gears and becomes a guest lecturer on another boat: the one Michigan Sea Grant charters for its Discovery cruises.

That’s where he was recently as he entertained and educated an audience of 20 people with stories and demonstrations about the fishery in Lake St. Clair.

In his 12th year of partnering with Sea Grant on Discovery cruises, Thomas says it’s a fairly easy way for the DNR to get its message out.

“It’s a unique outreach program, and Sea Grant does all the heavy lifting,” Thomas said. “It’s a relatively low amount of effort for us to be involved in a really cool outreach activity.”

DNR fisheries biologist talks to kids about perch.Steve Stewart is outreach coordinator for Sea Grant. Stewart said Sea Grant, which is a federally funded cooperative effort between the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, hosts some 20 different themed cruises on Lake St. Clair, Lake Erie and the Detroit River. Some focus on history – shipwrecks or bootlegging, for instance – but the fisheries cruise and a similar wetlands and wildlife cruise, conducted in cooperation with the DNR’s Wildlife Division, are among the most popular.

“The whole idea is to allow people to learn more about the Great Lakes by being on the Great Lakes,” Stewart said. “The DNR has been a great partner throughout the years. We couldn’t do it without the DNR.”

The scheduled cruises are open to the public, though cruises also are held for school groups during spring and fall and Sea Grant can arrange additional cruises for interested groups.

Thomas begins his program with a simple discussion of where the water in Lake St. Clair comes from, and before he’s finished he’s touched on food webs, invasive species and, of course, fishing.

Once the 50-foot converted commercial fishing boat is well up in Anchor Bay from its launch site at Lake St. Clair Metropark, the captain throttles down the engine to idle and the crew drops a camera overboard to view the bottom. Thomas explains the various types of aquatic vegetation visible on the monitor, and when the camera is hoisted back aboard, he removes some of the vegetation hanging on the cable to give the passengers a closer look at it. Then he drops it into an aquarium on board so they can observe, close up, what it looks like in the water.

Then it’s on to fish. Lake St. Clair’s sport fishery is largely comprised of four species: walleye, smallmouth bass, muskellunge and yellow perch, Thomas says. He talks about where on the lake the fish can be found, the types of habitat they prefer, and how the anglers pursue them. But he spends time on other species, too, and that’s a big part of the education portion of the program.

DNR fisheries biologist and kid with silver lamprey

 

The planned highlight of the trip was a rendezvous with the Chanel Cat, which had been scheduled for a day’s trawling for sturgeon on the lake. But high winds make it impossible for the research vessel to tow nets, so the cruise instead shows a video (made by the U.S. Geological Survey) of scuba divers visiting a man-made spawning reef created for sturgeon. The video shows the giant creatures visiting the reef, undeterred by the presence of divers.

Thomas brought more than a dozen frozen, foil-wrapped fish specimens with him. He hands out rubber gloves to the youngsters and invites them to unwrap and hold up the fish, see if they can guess them, and then describes the significance of the fish to the lake’s ecosystem and how it interacts with other species.

From there, he moves on to mussels, unloading a box full of native specimens to show their relatives size and shapes.

“We had a diverse and abundant collection of mussels in Lake St. Clair, but we’ve lost a lot of them to invasive mussels,” Thomas explains, saying they were once important to the button industry. “Zebra mussels attach to these mussels and it becomes a mass of zebra mussels. When that happens, the native mussels can’t move around. They can’t bury in the bottom over the winter. And they die.”

Thomas directs passengers’ attention to the aquarium – which has masses of zebra mussels and quagga mussels attached to rocks, showing how the invasive mollusks adhere to hard materials. He points out another invasive species in the aquarium that no one can see, until he sticks his hand in and begins moving the mussels and round gobies dart out from their hiding places. The passengers, especially the youngsters, are enthralled.

Also in the tank are a couple of silver lamprey, native parasitic fish that resemble – in shape and habits, though not size – the sea lamprey, which devastated lake trout stocks in the Great Lakes. It’s just one more way to make the point about the problems with invasive species.

As the captain takes the boat toward its mooring, Thomas and Sea Grant’s Stewart unfurl a poster of Great Lakes fishes, point to various specimens, and hold a quick quiz – is it native or not? Most of the passengers had been paying attention during the presentation and know the answers, though one species stymies them: rainbow smelt (which is not native).

“That points out the fact that everything that’s non-native is not necessarily bad,” Thomas said.

Barb Stantiszewski, a retired Shelby Township teacher who said she’d taken a similar cruise many years ago, brought her two nephews aboard. They’d attended the wetlands and wildlife cruise, she said, and liked it so much they came back for the fisheries tour.

Michael Schoenherr, who brought his wife and two sons – 9-year-old Peter and 7-year-old Thomas – for the day, said as an outdoor-oriented family that likes to fish, the cruise was right in their wheelhouse. He said he enjoyed it. And the kids?

“It started out slow,” said the 7-year-old. “But I liked the end.”

As for the DNR’s Thomas, well, he doesn’t plan on trading in his research career for lecturing.

“It’s enjoyable – not as enjoyable as a fish survey – but it’s enjoyable because there are a lot of people here who want to be here, who are interested,” he said. “It’s hands-on, good for the kids, and even the adults ask good questions.

“It’s a good thing,” Thomas said. “A really good thing.”

Michigan Sea Grant is the only organization providing educational cruises in southeastern Michigan that are available to the public, Stewart said. The cruises attract about 1,500 people a year. The cost for most cruises is $20 for adults and $10 for youngsters, but some of the longer cruises cost a little more.

For information on the cruises and other Sea Grant activities, visit www.miseagrant.umich.edu. To learn more about the DNR’s fisheries research efforts, visit www.michigan.gov/fishresearch.