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Midwest Region Featured in Great Lakes Boating Magazine

In the fall of 2013, the M.V. Baird went to the shipyard for a five year haul out inspection. While in dry-dock, the vessel’s traditionally green hull was re-painted white. Photo by USFWS.

In the fall of 2013, the M.V. Baird went to the shipyard for a five year haul out inspection. While in dry-dock, the vessel’s traditionally green hull was re-painted white. Photo by USFWS.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service:
Working to Rehabilitate Lake Trout in the Upper Great Lakes

The following story was originally printed in the November/December edition of Great Lakes Boating magazine.

The cool waters of lakes Huron, Michigan, and Superior were once home to a thriving native lake trout fishery. Lake trout populations were the cornerstone to commercial fishing operations in the Great Lakes during the early 20th century, but they soon disappeared due to overfishing and massive predation by invasive sea lampreys. By 1962, the lake trout fishery closed, with fears that it may never reopen.

The major obstacle in the way of lake trout rehabilitation was the invasive sea lamprey, a predatory fish uses its rasping mouth to attach to the host fish and feed on its blood and body fluids. During its parasitic life stage, a single sea lamprey is capable of killing more than 40 pounds of fish.

It should be pointed out that sea lampreys are an invasive species to the Upper Great Lakes. They are native to the Atlantic Ocean and existed throughout the St. Lawrence Waterway and Lake Ontario, but were originally prevented from moving into the Upper Great Lakes by Niagara Falls.

So how did sea lamprey make its way into the Upper Great Lakes? By accident, and not by design. The canal system constructed to provide boat transportation throughout the eastern states by bypassing Niagara Falls allowed sea lamprey to gain access and colonize the Great Lakes.

History

In the 1950s, the Great Lakes Fishery Commission (GLFC) was established to control sea lamprey. In 1955, Canada and the United States negotiated an agreement at the Convention on Great Lakes Fisheries authorizing the GLFC to facilitate bi-national management of sea lamprey predation in an effort to rehabilitate important native Great Lakes fish stocks, including lake trout.

With a sea lamprey control program in place, the managing agencies began to utilize fish culture practices such as hatchery rearing as a tool to rebuild weakened stocks of lake trout. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) assumed a leadership role in the rehabilitation effort.

Stocking began in the 1950s and continues to this day in an effort to rehabilitate lake trout stocks in the Upper Great Lakes. Prior to 1989, lake trout were either shore stocked or, when possible, stocked offshore from commercial car ferries. Beginning in 1989, FWS began stocking federally reared lake trout at offshore reefs in the Upper Great Lakes using the M.V. Togue, a 65-foot shrimp trawler that was confiscated off the Florida Keys for hauling illicit cargo.

The Midwest Region of the FWS received the vessel and sent it to the shipyard to be outfitted for off-shore stocking purposes. Although the Togue served the region very well for nearly 20 years, its aging hull and infrastructure began to generate numerous safety concerns, which led to its retirement.

The M.V. Spencer F. Baird, a state-of-the-art stocking and assessment vessel owned by the U.S. government and operated by the Service’s Midwest Region Fisheries Program, was commissioned in 2006 to replace the aging Togue. Unlike the Togue, the Baird is equipped with state-of-the-art fish health technologies designed to minimize stressors on lake trout during transit to prescribed offshore reefs.

The Baird has 10 above-deck fish tanks capable of holding 1,000 gallons of water each. Depending on the size of the hatchery yearling lake trout, the Baird is capable of hauling up to 190,000 fish per trip. With the tanks being situated above deck, the Baird uses gravity to release fish at the stocking location, which minimizes stress relative to pumping.

The Baird also possesses the ability to chill over 3,000 gallons of water down to 48 F°, allowing the water temperature in the tanks to be adjusted so that thermal shock is minimized when the fish are released into the lake. Finally, the Baird was outfitted with an onboard oxygen concentrator system, allowing the vessel to meet the oxygen requirements of the fish while in transit. All of these factors allow Service personnel to deliver healthier fish at the offshore reefs, resulting in better survival of the hatchery-reared lake trout.

Weather permitting, the Baird stocks fish between April and June annually. During these months the Baird can be spotted at ports throughout the Upper Great Lakes including Cheboygan, Alpena, Frankfort, Charlevoix, Traverse City, Sturgeon Bay, and Milwaukee. If you spot the Baird, walk on over and tour the vessel to learn more about the role of the Service in native lake trout rehabilitation.

Assessment

Although the primary mission of the Baird is to stock lake trout, it was also outfitted during construction with new fishery assessment technologies. This allows the vessel to retrieve and deploy gill nets, bottom trawls, and mid-water trawls. In addition, it uses sophisticated hydro-acoustic equipment to evaluate pelagic prey fish populations. Thus, the Baird annually evaluates spawning lake trout and, beginning in 2010, the participates in annual prey fish assessments on Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.

The Baird is now an integral part of the Service’s Strategic Habitat Conservation approach of managing lake trout on a large scale. The vessel allows the Midwest Region Fisheries Program to actively participate in the biological planning, conservation design, conservation delivery, monitoring and research that all contribute to species recovery.

In recent years, there have been major signs of lake trout rehabilitation success in Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.

Since 2003, naturally produced lake trout have been increasing each year in both the commercial and recreational fisheries of Lake Huron. Managers of these fisheries note that a majority of the juvenile lake trout, i.e., those less than 19.5 inches long, encountered in these fisheries are without a fin-clip, signifying they are of a wild origin. All hatchery reared lake trout are identified by a fin clip and implanted coded wire tag. This trend has also been observed within Lake Michigan since 2010. FWS hopes this trend will continue well into the future.

By Scott Koproski
Alpena Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office 

Service personnel deploy gill nets during an assessment. Photo by USFWS.

Service personnel deploy gill nets during an assessment. Photo by USFWS.

In the fall of 2013, the M.V. Baird went to the shipyard for a five year haul out inspection. While in dry-dock, the vessel’s traditionally green hull was re-painted white. Photo by USFWS.

In the fall of 2013, the M.V. Baird went to the shipyard for a five year haul out inspection. While in dry-dock, the vessel’s traditionally green hull was re-painted white. Photo by USFWS.

Every year the M.V. Baird stocks thousands of juvenile lake trout into the Upper Great Lakes. Photo by Katie Steiger-Meister/USFWS.

Every year the M.V. Baird stocks thousands of juvenile lake trout into the Upper Great Lakes. Photo by Katie Steiger-Meister/USFWS.

 

Last updated: January 7, 2015