Newsroom Midwest Region

3 million lake trout go the distance

Close-up of a young lake trout
Close-up of a young lake trout reared at Iron River National Fish Hatchery in Wisconsin. Photo by Katie Steiger-Meister/USFWS.

More than 3 million lake trout and 250,000 lake herring are settling into their new homes in Lake Michigan and Lake Huron this month. Their journey from the national fish hatcheries where they were raised to the Great Lakes highlights our employees’ commitment to our conservation mission and the American public we serve.

We at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service annually stock millions of fish into the Great Lakes and other lakes and rivers around the country. In fact, since 2017, the Service has released more than 362 million fish nationally to benefit conservation and angling. This is part of the administration’s ongoing effort to further opportunities for anglers and to recover our most at-risk species. But this year things changed. A handful of weeks before lake trout and lake herring were scheduled to depart the national fish hatcheries where they were raised, we received new travel restrictions and safety precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The changes left hatchery managers scrambling for a way to protect the health of employees and the public while getting more than 3 million fish into the wild.

“Fish stocking is a critical component to our conservation work in the Great Lakes, but safety is our number one priority,” said Charlie Wooley, Great Lakes Regional Director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “If there was a safe way to get these fish in the water, I knew our people and our partners were going to find it.”

In a typical stocking season, staff from Iron River, Jordan River, and Pendills Creek national fish hatcheries will join together to share in the work. With no authorized overnight travel and the work day limited to 11 hours, this year every hatchery team was on its own. The social distancing requirements also made it impossible to use one of our greatest tools in fish stocking, the M/V Spencer F. Baird. The M/V Baird is the Service’s state-of-the-art fish stocking and research vessel, designed to carry young lake trout to the offshore reefs where they will grow and thrive.

“Without the Baird we had to start over with our stocking plan and the clock was ticking,” explained Aaron Woldt, Assistant Regional Director for the Service’s Great Lakes Fish and Aquatic Conservation Program. “Waiting to stock was not an option.”

Every step of a young lake trout’s growth is carefully charted on the calendar to align with its scheduled stocking date, selected 18 months prior. If stocking is delayed for any reason, the raceways, the long pools where lake trout are kept, will become overcrowded in a matter of weeks as the young fish continue to grow.

“It’s like squeezing two more people into a packed elevator,” said Roger Gordon, manager of Jordan River National Fish Hatchery in Michigan. “Eventually you are going to run out of room and there are going to be fish health issues.”

A hatchery employee with about a dozen young lake herring in their hands
Young lake herring, also known as ciscos, prior to being stocked in the Great Lakes. Photo by USFWS.

If we couldn’t find a way to get the fish to the Great Lakes, their next stop would be in the ground. This would be a tremendous blow to the morale of hatchery teams and the environment. The captive rearing of wild strains of lake trout, and subsequent stocking efforts into Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, has for more than five decades served as the cornerstone to our lake trout restoration efforts. Lake trout are able to reproduce starting at about six years of age and can live for more than 20 years. A single female lake trout can lay up to 5,000 eggs in a spawning season. The loss of 3 million young lake trout would be an exponential loss to the fishery that would be felt for decades. A quarter million lake herring, part of a burgeoning captive rearing program to restore another key native species to the Great Lakes, would share the same fate.

“We had to go back to our roots and explore shore stocking. Without the M/V Baird, that was the only option,” said Gordon.

Shore stocking is when fish are released from a truck through a long tube into the water. It was the primary way fish were placed in the water before the advent of enhanced techniques that allowed them to be safely transported on boats to offshore stocking locations. Shore stocking is a reliable method, but most importantly, it can be accomplished with a two- to three-person team in a way that allows employees to stay 6 or more feet apart.

Lake trout being shore stocked from a fish transport truck into Lake Michigan in Charlevoix, Michigan
Lake trout being shore stocked into Lake Michigan in Charlevoix, Michigan on April 15, 2020. Photo by USFWS.

“One person is on the truck, and one person is down on the ground making sure the hose into the water is functioning properly,” explained Gordon. “All our people will be in full personal protective gear, including masks, glasses and gloves.”

The annual stocking of fish into the Great Lakes represents a tremendous effort on the part of the Service in coordination with our Lake Michigan Committee and Lake Huron Committee partners. We worked with the lake committees to select stocking locations and craft a revised stocking schedule that was ultimately supported by tribal, Canadian and state partners.

“We appreciate how the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff communicated the change to shore stocking and worked with us to determine the best nearshore locations for these yearling lake trout,” said Jay Wesley, Lake Michigan Basin Coordinator for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

By early May the last fish will be placed in the water. It will be years before a recreational angler finds one of these lake trout on the end of his or her line, but its very existence will be a testament to the dedication of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees. Despite the challenges presented by the COVID-19 emergency, our people found a safe way to carry out our mission and follow through on our promise to the American public, ensuring that future generations have a vibrant Great Lakes fishery to explore and enjoy.