Predators and warm water could stymie arctic grayling revival in Michigan

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By Jeff Brooks Gillies and Andy McGlashen

A fish species that vanished from Michigan’s rivers around a century ago could once again swim in the Manistee River.

The arctic grayling is a timid, glacial relic known for iridescent scales and a sail-like dorsal fin. Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

At least they will if an ongoing study shows the arctic grayling–a timid, glacial relic known for iridescent scales and a sail-like dorsal fin–can survive the predator-laden, dam-warmed waters under consideration. One state fish expert is doubtful.

The Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, along with partners at Michigan Technological University, are studying the river and its tributaries between Hodenpyl Dam near Mesick and Tippy Dam near Wellston.

The work, funded by part of a $200,000 native species restoration grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, will consider how the river’s in-stream habitat, water temperatures and other fish species could affect the grayling’s ability to survive there, said Marty Holtgren, a biologist with the tribe.

“We’re not looking at stocking fish within the next couple years,” said Holtgren. “What we’re looking at doing is evaluating the potential of reintroducing those fish.”

Grayling’s goodbye

Michigan’s grayling were a culturally important resource for the area’s Ottawa Indians until the fish were wiped out around the turn of the 20th century. Logging drives plowed sand over gravel spawning beds. Anglers harvested them by the wagon-load. Stocked exotic brown and rainbow trout ate the grayling’s lunch, and their young.

Grayling disappeared from some streams here by the 1880s. They were gone from the last Michigan stream known to hold them, the Upper Peninsula’s Otter River, by 1936. The species is still widespread in Canada, Alaska and Siberia. A smaller population is hanging on in Montana.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources tried and failed to bring back grayling as recently as 1991. “Arctic grayling are unlikely to either survive well, or reproduce, in contemporary Michigan rivers,” wrote DNR biologist Andrew Nuhfer in a 1992 report on those efforts (PDF). “They seem to need large, cold, non-fragmented rivers with few competing fish species.”

A matter of degrees

A successful reintroduction “would be the holy grail for fisheries management in Michigan,” according to Mark Tonello, a Cadillac-based DNR fisheries biologist who is not connected to the project. But the stretch of the Manistee River that the tribe and university are studying is unsuitable for the fish, he said.

In a 2004 report (PDF) on the same stretch of the Manistee, Tonello wrote that Hodenpyl Dam warms the main stem enough to hamper brown and rainbow trout reproduction. While it’s difficult to know the exact temperature at which grayling will no longer thrive in a river, the fish are generally understood to need colder water than brown, rainbow and even brook trout.

“You can look at the water temperatures coming out of the dam, and they routinely get above 70 degrees,” Tonello said in an interview. “I’m not a grayling expert. We don’t have grayling in Michigan anymore, so there are no experts here. But from what I know about grayling, those temperatures are going to be lethal.”

But the dam-warmed main stem isn’t the only water the tribe’s biologists are considering. They’re also looking at its smaller, colder tributary streams, including Slagle, Hinton, Peterson and Woodpecker creeks. Holtgren said trout reproduce naturally in these streams, which rarely warm above 65 degrees.

And, despite grayling’s reputation for needing extremely cold water, some grayling streams in Canada and Montana reach temperatures similar to Michigan rivers, he said.

The Manistee has mouths to feed

Grayling also have a reputation for finding themselves in other fish species’ stomachs. Tonello said that stretch of the Manistee is filled with predators like northern pike, smallmouth bass and walleye, “all of which would probably like to eat grayling.”

What’s more, the DNR stocks this section with brown and rainbow trout, which have been accused of complicating restoration by gobbling grayling.

Yet there are sections of the Big Hole River system in Montana where grayling coexist with other trout species, Holtgren said.

If grayling couldn’t survive swimming alongside the Manistee’s trout, the number of fish stocked there could be cut to make way for grayling, Holtgren said.

But that would mean getting rid of fish species that people already like to catch, said Dana Infante, assistant professor of fisheries and wildlife with Michigan State University.

“If it comes to grayling versus these other fish, how do you make a decision as to which rivers should support what? Now that’s the harder part,” she said.

Statewide ranking

The master’s thesis of a graduate student studying under Infante is one of the reasons the tribe is focusing on this section of the Manistee, Holtrgren said.

Ralph Tingley, a doctoral student in fisheries and wildlife at MSU, combined measurements like size and temperature of the state’s rivers with data on the surrounding landscape, which included factors like human land uses, geology and climate. By comparing those results with what past research suggests makes for a good grayling stream, the project ranked every stream in the state based on its potential to support grayling.

“Our work did not show that that stretch was one of the most optimal places in Michigan,” Infante said. “It’s OK, but not great, by what we did.”

But even though this section wasn’t ranked the highest, that doesn’t necessarily mean that grayling won’t survive there, she said.

“Our picture is an estimate,” she said. “It’s not an exact accounting of what will or will not thrive in an area.”

Despite the potential obstacles of restoring grayling in Michigan, Infante is looking forward to the possibility of catching a grayling in Michigan.

“It’s an exciting endeavor that the tribe is undertaking, and it would be awesome if it worked,” she said. “You’re enhancing a native fishery, which is everybody’s goal.”

12 thoughts on “Predators and warm water could stymie arctic grayling revival in Michigan

  1. Aaron, My guess is that you are right in that you caught an Arctic Grayling. That was the timeframe when the DNR did an experimental stocking of grayling in a number of locations throughout the state. It would be interesting to determine where the nearest release site was in relation to Lake St. Clair (as I recall, the report mentioned above gave all of the release locations). No reproduction of the introduced grayling was ever found and they quickly died off from predation or other causes.

  2. I know this is an old thread, and I know you all may think Im crazy, but I caught a grayling around 1987 in Lake St. Clair. I specifically remember the day, being out on my dads boat one of the very few times it worked. I caught two fish, a very nice 14 or so inch perch, and this silvery fish with a huge sail type fin. Neither my dad or I had ever seen one and didnt know what it was. It wasnt big, maybe 9-10 inches. Is there any other fish that has a dorsal fin that is extremely tall, almost wrong looking for a fish? I just watched a special on tv that was stating how grayling are gone from the great lakes which is what made me look online. From what I read online it is saying they have been gone for 50+ years, but I am pretty darn confident I caught one of these in the late 80s. Im a pretty experienced fisherman and knowledgeable about what species is what in Michigan. Maybe Im wrong, but I am not aware of any other fish in Michigan with a dorsal fin like the one I saw that day.

  3. It seems the articles on the LRBOI’s project has been slightly misleading. Their grant is actually to look at native species restoration with grayling being one of the species of interest. I believe there is a habitat evaluation component as well. Grayling has people interested but it isn’t the only focus. The Tribe has a successful sturgeon program where they have been the only agency in the watershed to comprehensively manage that fish. As a fisherman in this watershed and someone who has seen what they have done with the sturgeon I am eager to see what they find. I have fished the sections of the Manistee River that the study is taking place and the feeder streams are extremely cold. Similar to Harold I would rather see an attempt towards promoting native fisheries than the exotic.

    Also, if you read the grayling pdf from the State of Michigan there was not much assessment on the reintroductions but much speculation.

  4. For $200,000 it would be easier for the LRBOI to help jumpstart the Great Lakes Spotted Muskellunge re-introduction program.  The GLS muskellunge is also a native fish of Manistee Lake and Manistee River in the LRBOI back yard.  The DNR just started the GLS project in 2011 which only needs more hatchery upgrades and funding to really get going.  The DNR knows the GLS program will work for the money spent, where the proposed grayling program is just a pie-in-the-sky cash cow for the LRBOI. Better yet, just give the $200,000 to the DNR for the GLS Muskellunge program until the LRBOI can be more responsible with the use of scarce funding.

  5. As to the narrow isssue of whether this study is the most worthwhile to pursue, I would tend to agree that they could and should look into a more appropriate location, if another study is to be done at all at this time. My “philosophical” comment, however, was more in response to the tenor of Paul’s comments which seemed to be against supporting native species (such as Coaster brook trout) in favor of stocking non-native species, such as Coho salmon. Although I’m not extremely familiar with the particular restoration project he mentioned, there seems to be an odd bias by some in the fishing community against Michigan’s wonderful native fish. Having fished throughout the U.S. and Canada, I dare say that Michigan has some great native fish species that deserve our support–and not just by way of fishing for them, but by seeking that they return to their rightful place in the Great Lake’s ecosystem.

  6. It almost sounds like the tribe is funding an effort to return a species to it’s “historical grounds”. Seems to me the grayling could survive in the Manistee’s headwaters area. Or those of the Sturgeon, Pigeon, or Black Rivers.

  7. I tend to agree with Paul. Why wouldn’t the team look into a place that more experts — including DNR fisheries biologists — have at least some level of confidence of success? Why didn’t they choose a site that ranked higher in the inventory of potential sites? If the team proves Tonello wrong, great. If Tonello’s right, it seems like a waste of money that could have been better spent looking into other river systems in the state.

  8. The grayling is a remarkable fish and it’s a shame that we overfished them and destroyed the river habitats that were essential to their survival. I was lucky enough to see one that was caught in Reid Lake in Alcona County, perhaps a year or two after it was stocked in the lake (around 1988 or 1989). The angler who caught it didn’t know what kind of fish it was, so I told him about the DNR experiment at the time. It was certainly interesting to see a relic from our past; but sad to think of how much we’ve messed up the natural habitats found in Michigan.

    I read the 1992 report which provided an in-depth analysis of the DNR’s attempts to reintroduce Arctic grayling to Michigan. A number of reasons were listed as to why the stocking attempts were unsuccessful, from less suitable habitat to predation by other species of fish. Some of the most prolific predators were non-native species which the DNR has intentionally released into Michigan waters. It seems a bit odd to favor exotic species over our native fishes, but I realize that many people like to fish for salmon and non-native trout. So, it seems that it is largely a philosophical question as to what is a waste of money when it comes to fisheries management. Some favor native fishes, while others favor non-native species. Many people feel that the continual stocking of non-native species is inappropriate and a waste of money…and, as a fisherman, I tend to put myself more in that camp than the other.

  9. The stocking program I previously wrote of was the discontinuation of stocking coho salmon smolts in L. Superior in 1993.

  10. Another waste of money, much like the coaster brook trout restoration program. Both species require undisturbed ecosystems to exist, much less flourish. The MI DNR has done studies on both species and, at least at the time, decided that it was not worth the expense and effort to continue the programs. So now other agencies and entities are going to try to go where MI, based on good science, declined to go.

    I resent this waste of scarce funds, given that the State of MI discontinued stocking coho salmon in 1993 and decimated a tremendous sport fishery.

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