Scientists discuss efforts to restore extinct fish species in MI

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A new report shows one-third of all freshwater fish species globally are threatened by extinction. They’re vanishing at an alarming rate with 16 species disappearing in 2020 alone. 

Scientists in West Michigan say the threat is just as serious in the Great Lakes state as it is for the rest of the world. 

According to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, several fish species in the state including the lake sturgeon, lake trout and cisco are threatened. They cite deteriorating conditions, competition from invasive species and other issues for their diminishing numbers.

“You know that’s sort of your canary in the coal mine,” said Dr. Carl Ruetz III, a professor of water resources at Grand Valley State University’s Anis Water Resources Institute in Muskegon. “If you think about the fish, the fish are an indicator of the ecological health of the system. If you’re having a lot of fish that aren’t doing well, that’s not a good thing.”

Fresh water fishes are disappearing at an alarming rate from rivers crisscrossing the state.

“If the fish are not doing well in our streams and lakes, that’s sort of an indicator of bigger problems that are eventually going to become an issue for us as humans as well because we need that clean water,” Ruetz said. “If you just think about how important outdoor recreation is and when you start thinking about outdoor recreation, I think a lot of Michiganders start thinking about our rivers, lakes, our Great Lakes. Trying to protect those so they are clean, and we have the recreational opportunities for fishing is pretty important to us.”

Those opportunities could be cut short by problems associated with the construction of dams, overfishing, invasive species and chemicals from farming and industry. All of these have taken their toll on the Great Lakes Basin and greatly reduced fish species like the sturgeon and cisco. It’s already wiped out the Arctic grayling.

“The grayling went from being so abundant that people were catching hundreds a day to not existing anymore by the 1930s. They were completely wiped out,” Ruetz said. “If you read some of the historical reports from the 1880s, you’ll hear about groups of people coming up from Chicago or Detroit and going to like Grayling, Michigan and over four or five days catching 400, 500, 600 to 1,000 Arctic grayling in a week of fishing.”

Attempts have been made to reintroduce this exotic-looking fish, which still exists in southwestern Montana and Alaska, unsuccessfully in the past but all hope is not lost. 

“They’re trying to go at it, I would say, in a much more scientific perspective this time around,” Ruetz said. “There’s an initiative between the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Little River Band of Ottawa Indians to try to reintroduce the Arctic grayling into Michigan.”

On top of that, they have liquid courage from Iron Fish Distillery on their side.

“The distillery makes charitable contributions and we tied that really to the launch of our first spirit which is the Arctic grayling label, commemorating this fish rye whiskey which is sold statewide,” Iron Fish Distillery partner Richard Anderson said. “Bringing back the Arctic grayling to us is a barometer of which way the environmental health of our watersheds is going. If we’re successful in reintroducing the Arctic grayling, which was a fish that thrived and was prolific in Michigan rivers, if we can bring this back, I think everybody in the state of Michigan can take a lot of pride in the progress that we’ve made.”

So far, the Benzie County-based distillery has already donated thousands of dollars to the initiative, which hopes to restock Arctic grayling to the waters of the nearby Betsie River.

DNR says the first brood of Arctic grayling is already in the state. They arrived from Alaska to the Upper Peninsula, where they will be quarantined and raised before being released into the wild. 

“We’re probably like five to 10 years off before they start stocking Arctic grayling back in Michigan streams. COVI-19 has definitely slowed things down,” Ruetz said. “But just like us, these fish are in quarantine too, to make sure they don’t bring any diseases into the basin.”

Reintroducing these fish could be as important as protecting the ones already here for the good of the ecosystem. 

“Prevention is often the best solution. Prevention and protection,” Ruetz said. “In the end, I think it’s pretty clear. We’re all dependent on clean, freshwater, right? If we don’t have freshwater, we’re not going to be able to survive, and neither will these fish.”

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