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The bi-national sea lamprey control partnership is conveyed through this photo - Johnnie Tibbles from Fisheries and Oceans Canada and James Criger from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pose together at the St. Mary's River treatment. Note: Life jackets should always be zipped up for safety. Tibbles’ life jacket was upzipped momentarily to show the Fisheries and Oceans Canada crest. Photo by Joanna Gilkeson/USFWS

The bi-national sea lamprey control partnership is conveyed through this photo - Johnnie Tibbles from Fisheries and Oceans Canada and James Criger from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pose together at the St. Mary's River treatment. Note: Life jackets should always be zipped up for safety. Tibbles’ life jacket was unzipped momentarily to show the Fisheries and Oceans Canada crest. Photo by Joanna Gilkeson/USFWS.


Defying the Odds - A Story of Sea Lamprey Control

Have you ever thought about doing the near impossible? We have. Sea lampreys entered the Great Lakes through the St. Lawrence Waterway and Lake Erie, and brought massive ecosystem devastation. By the mid-1900s sea lamprey had colonized each of the upper Great Lakes and turned the ecosystem upside down through their predation.

Sea lampreys prey on economically and ecologically important Great Lakes fish like lake trout, whitefish and lake sturgeon. They decimated the regional commercial fisheries industry, with lake trout being all but extirpated in four of the five Great Lakes by 1960. Our nation recognized the need to control sea lamprey and in the 1950s, the Great Lakes Fishery Commission was formed to carry out this very task. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service works closely with the Commission as we are the designated agency responsible for carrying out sea lamprey control on the ground. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada is the parallel agency in Canada charged with sea lamprey control.

By the 1990’s, the Sea Lamprey Control Program, charged with controlling sea lampreys, populations were reduced by 85% and met goals in all of the Great Lakes except one; Lake Huron. Despite annual lake trout stocking efforts in Lake Huron, few fish survived to maturity; more lake trout died from sea lamprey related wounds than natural mortality and fishing mortality combined. The mortality was so severe and the future for lake trout so bleak that in 1995 fishery management agencies decided to suspend their efforts to rehabilitate lake trout in the northern waters of the lake pending implementation of successful sea lamprey control on the St. Marys River.

Without efficient sea lamprey control in the St. Marys River, the future of lake trout in Lake Huron looked grim. To solve this problem, the Service needed to determine where these sea lampreys were coming from. Scientists were leaning towards a suspect, but treating the alleged culprit was considered an operational nightmare.

The suspect was the St. Marys River, the connecting waterway between Lake Superior and Lake Huron, and natural barrier between the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and Canada. Initially, the St. Marys had been dismissed as having a sea lamprey infestation because conventional wisdom said the substrate was unsuitable for larvae and the river was heavily polluted. This belief slowly faded as water quality improved and a sea lamprey infestation was discovered downstream from the locks and dams.

Did we mention that the St. Marys also happens to have a mean annual discharge 20 times larger than any river ever treated with lampricide (TFM)? Because of its magnitude, conventional treatment of the St. Marys River was unfeasible, both financially and logistically. The most cost-effective treatment would require over five times the average amount of TFM used in prior control seasons, and cost an estimated $12.2 million.  This cost was an issue given that in 1997, the entire sea lamprey control program budget for lampricide was $6 million.

In 1991, the Commission accepted the challenge of strategizing a treatment plan for the St. Marys River. This required agencies to consider new strategies and creative thinking, harnessing efforts from multiple agencies, careful planning and new technologies.  The Commission recognized that the main barrier to treating the St. Marys River was the lack of information related to the number and distribution of sea lamprey in the river.

In response, the Commission created the St. Marys River Control Task Force and charged them to develop an integrated sea lamprey management plan for the system. The Task Force assessed whether (1) the entire river should be treated with traditional TFM, or (2) if the river should be spot treated targeting high density sea lamprey areas using a granular bottom-release formulation of bayluscide. Experts from the Service, Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, U.S. Geological Survey, the Lake Huron Technical Committee and others, worked alongside one another on this team. The Technical Committee was organized by the GLFC and provides technical advice to the Lake Huron Committee. It is made up of biologists from Michigan DNR, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, the Chippewa-Ottawa Resource Authority, USGS, the Service and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

To understand sea lamprey distribution and determine optimal treatment locations, the team would need improved technology. A magical thing happened for the Task Force, and tools they needed were literally in the midst of development; a deepwater electroshocker for sampling sea lamprey, electronic navigation for accurate positioning, and new and improved GIS software for mapping. With these technologies, the team collected sea lamprey distribution information and modeled the efficiency of the two treatment strategies. Their results estimated that sea lamprey abundance in the St. Marys River was 5,222,000, and that larvae were unevenly distributed; some areas were much more densely populated than others.

Using their new information, the Task Force estimated that TFM treatment would result in the removal of 57% of the sea lamprey population at a cost of $12.2 million, or $4.08 per larvae. In comparison, the bayluscide treatment would remove 50% of sea lamprey at a cost of $4.1 million, or $1.57 per larvae.  The decision was clear. Spot treating the St. Marys with bayluscide was much more efficient. Based on the recommendations from the Task Force, the Commission implemented the team’s final integrated sea lamprey management plan in 1997 and initial bayluscide treatments were performed on the St. Marys River in 1998, 1999 and 2001.

Original treatments of the St. Marys River were estimated to remove 80% of the larvae in targeted areas and 55% river-wide. Since this large treatment effort, the Service's sea lamprey control program has continued annual treatment of the St. Marys River to suppress this devastating invasive species. Since the initial treatment, sea lamprey larvae have been reduced by 62% in the river, and naturally reproducing lake trout populations continue to increase in Lake Huron.

Taking on this challenge was a big step in the right direction for Great Lakes restoration. There’s no doubt that controlling sea lamprey will continue to challenge our boundaries with bigger and better treatments. On the St. Marys, we, along with our partners, did the unprecedented, and we did it with success!

By Joanna Gilkeson
Regional Office -- External Affairs

and

Lisa Walter
Marquette Biological Station

Midwest Regional Director Tom Melius at a sea lamprey barrier site in upper Michigan during the 2014 Great Lakes Fishery Commission’s Commissioner Tour to learn about the control efforts and discuss the future of the program. Courtesy of Great Lakes Fishery Commission

Midwest Regional Director Tom Melius at a sea lamprey barrier site in upper Michigan during the 2014 Great Lakes Fishery Commission’s Commissioner Tour to learn about the control efforts and discuss the future of the program. Photo courtesy of Great Lakes Fishery Commission.

Biological Science Technician Tiffany Opalka-Myers, Lead Physical Science Technician James Criger, and former USFWS employee Michael Fodale assist in the St. Marys River treatment application by bringing the bayluscide out to the application vessel. Photo by Joanna Gilkeson/USFWS

Biological Science Technician Tiffany Opalka-Myers, Lead Physical Science Technician James Criger, and former USFWS employee Michael Fodale assist in the St. Marys River treatment application by bringing the bayluscide out to the application vessel. Photo by Joanna Gilkeson/USFWS.

Sea lamprey larvae are most vulnerable to lampricides. During this stage, sea lampreys live burrowed in the bottom of Great Lakes tributaries or in areas near stream mouths for three to ten years, before the next stage of their life cycle when they metamorphose, migrate into the Great Lakes, and harm or kill fish as parasitic juveniles. Photo by Katie Steiger-Meister/USFWS

Sea lamprey larvae are most vulnerable to lampricides. During this stage, sea lampreys live burrowed in the bottom of Great Lakes tributaries or in areas near stream mouths for three to ten years, before the next stage of their life cycle when they metamorphose, migrate into the Great Lakes, and harm or kill fish as parasitic juveniles. Photo by Katie Steiger-Meister/USFWS.

 

Last updated: January 7, 2015