Reflections on the Lampricide

By: Arnold Baker

Life is often about being in the right place at the right time. Nineteen years ago my wife and I relocated from a busy urban area of Grand Rapids to an idyllic setting on the Muskegon River just east of Newaygo. I am a retired science teacher. My entire thirty-eight year career was spent teaching life science, physical science, and biology in the Grand Rapids Christian School system. Teaching was actually a fall back career when I lost a draft deferment while planning to get a master’s degree in graduate school in wildlife biology. The Vietnam War changed my career plan. With a biology major and chemistry minor and with a teacher shortage in science, I was fortunate to land a junior high science teaching position. I stayed in teaching for thirty-eight years and still coach and do some substitute teaching.

A couple of months ago, one of my neighbors told me about the project to capture young sturgeon from the Muskegon River just prior to a lampricide treatment. I jumped at the chance to get involved in some real live wildlife biology. Studies show that the YOY (young of the year) sturgeon from the Muskegon and Manistee Rivers are very susceptible to the lampricide used to kill the sea lamprey larval form. Some estimates show that up to eighty percent die during the treatment phase.

Getting the boat ready for the first night of fishing.

The active part of the project involved going out at night to capture these months old sturgeon and keep them in fish cages in the river until the day of the lampricide treatment. During the actual treatment, they would be transferred to large metal tanks until the river had cleared of the lamprey toxin.

During the weeks before I was involved in the actual project, I was fortunate to stumble across an excellent book that taught me a lot about the sea lamprey and its life cycle. The “Death and Life of the Great Lakes” by Dan Egan is a book that I highly recommend. The reader will learn so much about the ecology of the whole Great Lakes watershed. Chapters about the Erie Canal and opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, Asian carp, zebra and quagga mussels, and lethal algae blooms are all fascinating ones to read. But my favorite chapter was all about the sea lamprey and its role in decimating the native fish of the Great Lakes. Lake trout were especially vulnerable and nearly disappeared completely in the lakes. The lamprey spawning and life cycle forms and behavior were crucial facts that made my project involvement even more interesting.

Three workers from the Little River Band working on last night’s catch.

September 5th was a most memorable day. I knew that the professionals in charge of the sturgeon project had scouted the river for good places to put the sturgeon pens which would hold the captured fish. To see them actually show up with buoys, cables, posts, padlocks and several other pieces of equipment was amazing. They actually set up the holding area right in front of our home-right place/right time! I’m fairly sure I annoyed professionals with my dumb questions and giddy old guy behavior. I was just REALLY into this project.

Setting the first cage.

I would like to give a special shout-out to numerous people that planned and executed the sturgeon project. I met at least fifteen professional biologists and volunteers. I was especially impressed with the excellent science techniques, the emphasis on safety, the respect for the environment and the love and respect for the sturgeon and the project. Rob Elliott of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Corey Jerome, a biologist for the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, and Marty Holtgren of the Muskegon River Watershed Assembly were all great project leaders! Canadian biologists helped with the project and all the different professionals and volunteers worked seamlessly to accomplish the tasks necessary to complete the project. Good people doing a great job together to give the lake sturgeon a better chance to survive and thrive! I was able to be a small part of it all because I was in the right place/right time.

Lots of gear for the project.

About the sturgeon-they can live to be a hundred years old! Males do not reach sexual maturity until they are 12-15 years old and females are even older when they can reproduce. They can reach lengths of six or seven feet and in their later years they hardly grow at all in length, but their girth increases substantially. A large fifty year old female sturgeon swimming upstream to spawn is a monster that can produce hundreds of thousands of eggs! Sturgeon are ancient fish that have changed very little over thousands of years. The small eight inch fish that we targeted are both very tough and yet quite rare and vulnerable. For these reasons and many more, sturgeon capture our imagination. This is why for several nights four or five boats and up to 15 professionals and volunteers searched in the dark until one or two in the morning to capture the YOY sturgeon that might succumb to the lampricide. The crew I was with had been at it for nearly four hours when Barry yelled “fish” and just before midnight we landed our only sturgeon of the night!

Corey teaching Phil how to implant the electronic tracking probe into
the young sturgeon.

One night my job was to babysit about thirty young sturgeon. There are lots of raccoons around our house and a power failure could stop the bubblers and endanger the fish. I sat near the tanks from about 7:30 PM until 1:40 AM the next morning. Lots of time to think! Ironically, I think my most common thought was about TIME. Our wonderful new great grandson is about two months old. It is possible that his young life could last up to one hundred years-the same as the little sturgeon in the tanks. What will the year 2117 bring? Will mankind figure out how to save this beautiful planet home? Will a group of old sturgeon swim up our wonderful river to spawn a new generation of this ancient species? That is the essence of the sturgeon project for me.

Professional Insight

Marty Holtgren
Environmental Consultant
Encompass LLC

We caught 27 fish, which is a lower total than expected, but our approach was the same as in previous operations. We went out in force with four or five boats each night from 7:00 PM to 1:00 AM from September 5th through the 11th. We searched thoroughly in locations that have been productive in the past and new locations as well. I am confident we found many of the fish that were still in the river to be found. We know that young sturgeon slowly migrate downriver through the summer and fall and higher flows in June may account for the lower numbers found in the river in September.
The Little River band of Ottawa Indians, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Michigan DNR supplied boats, equipment and experienced technicians. Many volunteers participated in the collections including Arnie Baker, Micah and Ryan Huppert, Kevin Feenstra, Matt Roy and MRWA board member, Wayne Groesbeck.
Although the final tally was below expectation, it is impossible to draw any firm conclusions regarding natural reproduction. In the Muskegon River and other Lake Michigan Basin rivers, reproduction is cyclic with higher and lower years. Additionally, many other natural factors offer possible explanations.
The good news is that there were fewer fish in the river at risk from the lampricide treatment and it was accomplished by a multi-agency commitment to helping the sturgeon.

Robert Elliott
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

We used 3 to 5 boats each night from 7:00 PM to 1:00 AM from September 5th through the 11th (7 nights). We also had 3 boats out on the 12th after the lamprey treatment to look for any dead sturgeon and found none (a good indication) and we did find 1 fish on the 12th that had survived the lamprey treatment (also a good indication).
The susceptibility of sturgeon to the lampricide (TFM) is primarily only an issue for the sturgeon that live in the Muskegon and Manistee Rivers due to some of the natural water chemistry characteristics of those rivers (high alkalinity) and common to rivers in this part of Michigan.

We found fish where we expected to find them, where we had found them in the past. We note designated index sites, which are 1000-meter sections of stream that are typically productive. In the Muskegon, the most productive spots are upstream and downstream from Maple Island Bridge, and downstream from Bridgeton Bridge.
We typically expect to locate fish in stretches of river that feature an inside bend creating a deeper pool on the outside adjacent to shallower water on the inside, creating a variety of water velocities across the river and a bottom of mixed sand and gravel.

While it is impossible to draw definite conclusions on why the fish count was lower than in previous years it may well be that most of the sturgeon had already moved downstream and out of the river. Higher than normal flows and warm temperatures are two factors that may result in faster growth and earlier departure but the data is not conclusive.

I have examined the USGS data available from the gage station just below Croton Dam for the past 5 years (graphs available online at ) and have compared the sizes of the YOY sturgeon we caught this year to those captured in previous years.

2017 does not appear to have been any warmer than other years since 2013, and the size of the fish this year was no different from previous years, so temperature (and thus growth) probably was not a reason for the lower number. If anything, 2016 appears to have been a bit warmer during August and early September, but overall, this river has had very consistent temperatures over the past 5 years.

However, there was a period of unusually high flow in late June of 2017. This may have resulted in more fish moving further down river earlier in the summer and ultimately leaving the river before our sampling this year. It is hard to know for sure at this point without further data. Future assessments out in Muskegon Lake might help show if 2017 was a normal reproduction year and fish just moved out of the river earlier, or if it was just a year with lower than average reproduction – those typical up and down cycles commonly seen in many fish populations that Marty described.

Corey Jerome
Fisheries Biologist
Little River band of Ottawa Indians

The lampricide treatment commenced on Sunday at 10:00 A.M. at Croton Dam with a supplemental boost site to maintain potency later in the day at Ed Henning Park in Newaygo. There were additional sites throughout the length of the river. The treatment includes a yellow dye so technicians can tell when the lampricide has reached a given location and how long before the river is clear of chemicals.

That tells us when we can safely return the fish to the river along with clear communication with USFWS Sea Lamprey Control teams regarding the timing and status of the treatment within the river. We always try to put fish back as close as possible to the location where they were captured and as soon as possible after the treatment has had sufficient time to clear the river. We found relatively few fish upstream from the Bridgeton Bridge, the furthest upstream sampling, and we released those fish at Ed Henning Park during the sturgeon release.