Fish Lines Thanksgiving 2020 Edition

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Fish and Aquatic Conservation Program - USFWS Interior Region 3 Great Lakes

November 23, 2020

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Fish Lines is a monthly publication that highlights the recent news and work conducted by USFWS Interior Region 3 Fisheries personnel and their partners and friends. For questions or for more information contact the editor, email

Did You Know?

plexiglass barrier installed at Genoa NFH  Intrepretive Center desk

Friends Make Enhancements at Genoa NFH Interpretive Center


It has been quite a struggle to provide an environmental education experience while visiting the hatchery during the current pandemic, never mind make improvements to visitor services.

The station's culture buildings and the Great River Road Interpretive Center have been closed to visitors to protect the health of employees and the public. However, the Friends of the Upper Miss, the hatchery's grass roots support agency has taken on the challenge to make enhancements to the Genoa National Fish Hatchery (NFH) interpretive center and gift shop. These modifications were completed to improve visitor and staff safety once we are able to open up the buildings to visitors again. These enhancements include building attractive and functional polyethylene guards at visitor contact stations to reduce viral transmission. Hand disinfection stations were also added for further risk reduction.

Also included in the enhancements this fall is a new visitor kiosk. The kiosk is located on the outside of the Interpretive Center and is currently available to the public. It contains information put together by our former environmental education specialist Raena Parsons, and the kiosk was built by Friends group board members Ken Visger and Ron Walley and the hatchery maintenance staff. It is out in the open air and available for visitors to view. Currently the hatchery grounds, pond area and nature trails, are still open and available for public use. It is hoped that someday soon the Genoa NFH and it's facilities will be fully open to everyone. It is safe to say that we are fortunate to have our talented Friends group supporting our conservation mission.

Above: Poly guard installed on Interpretive Center front desk. Credit: USFWS

teams call image of computer screen with people's faces

Fresh Starts During Strange Times


Have you ever wondered what it would be like to start a new job during a pandemic; do all onboarding virtually; Meet coworkers and supervisors through Microsoft Teams (Teams); turn a field-based job into an online gig? Well, three new staff (Eric Adams, Carrie Skorcz, and Robbie Zambelli) at the Alpena Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office (FWCO) - Detroit River Substation have been through it and would like to share their experiences. There have been a few challenges, but the process has been rather seamless due to the helpful, welcoming, and patient staff at the station.

Robbie and I started the same week in August and Carrie a few weeks later. Living in the area, Robbie and I had it relatively easy. We went to the office individually, met with our supervisor (Jim Boase) for a few hours, received our computers, and returned home to begin teleworking. Carrie had a vastly different experience. Living in Australia, she interviewed at 8:00 P.M. her time via Teams. Once she received a formal job offer, she had to apply for a travel exemption to leave Australia. Due to US travel restrictions related to COVID it took her three days to get to Little Rock, Arkansas where she endured a 14-day quarantine at a local hotel before going to her family home. Shortly thereafter, she began teleworking and making plans to move to the Detroit area when it is safe to resume office and field work.

Coworkers and supervisors have been very helpful. They are always willing to chat and answer any questions we might have, ranging from timecards to which uniform items are the most comfortable. The safety team set up an onboarding channel on Teams that laid out a weekly schedule of trainings and readings we needed to complete and fulfil our onboarding requirements. The Grass Carp Response Program, which Carrie and I are members, has bi-weekly virtual meetings where updates from staff are given, ideas are shared, and basic team comradery has been built. This telework world is an interesting place to gain new insights into the lives of our coworkers by seeing personal home office space, wall art, and ‘meeting’ curious pets and children. It has been a welcoming experience for all of us.

Now that we have completed most of the onboarding requirements, we have transitioned to our core competency tasks. We have focused on taking DOI Talent and NCTC trainings that will help us with our current positions and our professional development. Carrie and I are working with the rest of the Grass Carp Response Program to implement a public outreach program, while Robbie is working with the Native Species team to examine Walleye habitat suitability. It is an interesting time to start a career with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and we are excited to see what the future holds.

Above: The Grass Carp Response Team on a bi-weekly virtual meeting. Credit: Ryan Young/USFWS      

two biologists implant a telemetry tag into a silver carp

Collaboration, Flexibility, and Rapid Response Facilitate Tracking of Invasive Carp in the Upper Mississippi River


Staff from the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) La Crosse Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office (FWCO) and from US Geological Survey (USGS) Upper Midwest Environmental Science Center have recently worked with Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MNDNR) and contracted commercial fishers to capture and release five Silver Carp implanted with telemetry transmitters in Pool 8 of the Upper Mississippi River (UMR) near La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Captures of invasive Silver, Bighead, and Grass carp have expanded in Pool 8 during spring and summer 2020. In March 2020, 35 Silver Carp and 15 Grass Carp were netted by commercial fishers during a two-day netting effort in Pool 8. For context, only 21 Silver Carp and 34 Bighead Carp have been reported from Upper Mississippi River (UMR) Pools 2-11 between 1996-2019, according to the USGS Nonindigenous Aquatic Species database. COVID-19 mitigation protocols restricted USFWS, MN DNR, and Wisconsin DNR’s efforts to respond to this large catch event.

However, biologists from all three agencies along with scientists from USGS have remained engaged on the issue of responding to these captures throughout summer 2020 with the intent of mobilizing all available resources to capture invasive carp in this region. When biologists from MN DNR were finally able to gain clearance to mobilize contracted commercial fishers to pursue carp in Pool 8 during October 2020, the husband and wife telemetry surgery team of Mark Fritts from USFWS and Andrea Fritts from USGS made preparations to respond to any capture reports. When notified of three Silver Carp captures on 13 October, we quickly mobilized from telework status to meet MN DNR biologists and fit the carp with tracking devices and get them back into the river. We responded again to tag a fourth and fifth Silver Carp on 21 and 23 October.

While individual invasive carp have been previously tagged and tracked in upstream locations of the UMR, this is the first time more than one has been tagged in a single operation this far upstream. These tagged fish will allow biologists from the multi-institutional UMR Asian Carp Team to learn more about the movements of carp in this unique region while also serving as guides that, hopefully, direct MN DNR’s contracted commercial netting crews towards schools of other invasive carp that can be captured and removed from the system during netting operations planned for late 2020 and spring 2021.

Above: Andrea and Mark Fritts performing surgery on Silver Carp to implant a transmitter used to track the movements of fish in Pool 8 of the Upper Mississippi River. Credit: Ben Larson, MNDNR

cisco fingerlings in mass marking trailer

Anniversary of Trial Mass Marking of Cisco with AutoFish Trailers


In 2018 Jordan River National Fish Hatchery began raising cisco for a restoration effort in Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay. Once the most common Great Lakes preyfish, the goal is to restore this once important native species, diversify the prey fish community and then eventually to provide fishing opportunities. US Fish and Wildlife Service biologists were evaluating ways to mark the stocked cisco to measure the efficacy of rearing and stocking success as well as to distinguish stocked cisco for wild ones captured in the lake. One mark being evaluated was adipose fin-clipping all stocked cisco. In September of 2018 about 2,500 fish were processed using an automated fin-clipping system where the performance and system-configuration were measured, along with species behavioral responses to the process. Just over 5,500 fish per hour were adipose fin-clipped with low mortality, which is far better than was anticipated. Novel marking and tagging of new species expands the lab’s potential to assist with evaluations of stocked fish and contributes to Great Lakes fishery management.

Above: Cisco in volitional entry waiting to be adipose fin-clipped. Credit: Kevin Pankow/USFWS

two biologists in a boat pulling in a gillnet

Cisco Reintroduction Efforts


Cisco are a relatively small, silvery fish native to the Great Lakes. They were the primary prey species in the Great Lakes until the invasion of the Alewife when the Welland canal was built. The Welland Canal allowed Alewives to move from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes. With the introduction of invasive species, such as Alewife, overfishing and habitat degradation Cisco populations declined in Southern Lake Huron. Since the collapse of Alewife in 2004-2005 in Lake Huron, Cisco have not expanded back to their previously inhabited range. Now stocking is being used as a method to help them re-establish in Southern Lake Huron where they were once abundant.

In 2017, the first Cisco gametes were collected to be cultured in the federal hatchery system. Then in 2018 the Jordan River National Fish Hatchery (NFH) working with partners began stocking those Cisco as fingerlings into Southern Lake Huron. The gametes are collected in the fall from established populations in the embayment’s of the Les Cheneaux Islands and Drummond Island by the US Fish and Wildlife Service Alpena Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office (FWCO). Eggs are sent to Jordan River NFH to be raised until they are fingerlings. Then they are stocked back into Southern Lake Huron in Saginaw Bay at a spring and fall stage. This is the first year that stocked adult Cisco might be returning to spawn. Therefore, as part of the Lake Huron Restoration Plan, the Alpena FWCO is conducting gill net surveys looking for returning adult Cisco. Cisco return to spawn in the fall when they are three to four years old. Gill net surveys will continue to be conducted annually to identify if stocked Cisco are surviving to maturity and returning to the area to spawn. Captured Cisco will be examined to answer these questions: how old is the fish, how does its body shape compare to others of its species, is it a stocked fish and what did it eat? This will help Lake Huron managers make future decisions to the stocking and management of Cisco in Lake Huron.

Above: Alpena FWCO employees haul in a gill net which was set to sample stocked cisco that have reached maturity. Credit: Matt McLean/USFWS

Field Focus | Iron River National Fish Hatchery

a female youth hunter shows off a squirrel harvested in the north Wisconsin woods

Hunt Plan Implementation a Success


The Iron River National Fish Hatchery (NFH) is located in northwestern Wisconsin and sits on 1,200 acres of forested woodland. Due to the uniqueness of the hatchery’s large footprint, protecting the watershed and its water source for fish production and outdoor recreational opportunities, have always been a part of the station’s mission. Hunting on hatchery grounds has long been one of the resources available to the public to utilize property managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (Service). In the summer of 2019, Iron River NFH developed a hunt plan in accordance with two DOI Secretarial Orders intended to expand outdoor recreation and hunting opportunities that align Service regulations with State regulations. Coincidentally, hatchery staff have noticed a significant uptick in hunter use on the hatchery property this fall. It’s not uncommon to find multiple vehicles throughout designated parking areas or run into fellow outdoor enthusiasts while enjoying the natural experiences at the hatchery. This increased use could be attributed to the publishing and advertisement of the hunt plan, people looking for safe outdoor experience during pandemic restrictions, the weather, a combination of things, or something totally different. But one thing is for sure, if you plan on utilizing the grounds at Iron River NFH in the fall or winter months, you will see a lot of blaze orange and don’t forget to wear yours!

Above: Young hunter and her dog enjoying hunting opportunities provided by the Iron River National Fish Hatchery. Credit: USFWS 

a biologist holding a grass carp

About Grass Carp


Grass carp, are not charismatic megafauna. They are not the poster child for invasive species in the Great Lakes like their leaping relative, silver carp. However, grass carp silently inhabit the Great Lakes and are currently increasing in abundance and reproducing in Lake Erie Basin, which is considered the epicenter within the Great Lakes. To date, no bighead or silver carp have been detected in the Great Lakes. Grass carp are are primarily herbivores and have been stocked to control nuisance macrophytes. They were originally stocked to control vegetation in aquaculture facilities and like silver and bighead carp, escaped to nearby rivers and streams resulting from flooding and illegal stockings. Sterile triploids were first developed in 1983 and most states subsequently prohibited stocking of reproductive (diploid) grass carp. Grass carp are not permitted in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin; however, Illinois banned diploid carp but gives out permits to stock triploid fish.

In the Lake Michigan basin, more than 60 grass carp have been collected according to the Great Lakes Aquatic Nonindigenous Species Information System . Numerous grass carp, both diploid and triploid, have been collected throughout Lake Michigan, including the Lake Michigan side of the electric barrier in Chicago and Burns Harbor, Muskegon, St. Joseph, Kalamazoo rivers and most recently triploid carp have been collected in the Grand River. Lake Erie is considered “ground zero” for Grass carp in the Great Lakes and they currently have reproducing populations in the Sandusky and Maumee rivers and much research is being conducted, however, populations have spread and become established so eradication is presumably impossible. Given, the low catches of grass carp in Lake Michigan, prevention and control/eradication actions are still possible. It has been documented that Grass carp can have major impacts on recipient ecosystems. The most common is depletion of important aquatic vegetation. Modeling predicted that grass carp could reduce aquatic macrophytes up to 50% throughout the Great Lakes. Additionally, it was predicted that based on grass carp movements they would spread from the introduction site in the Chicago Area Waterways to nearby basins within five years.

So why should we care about Grass carp which have swam under the radar in Lake Michigan? There is a lack of published research addressing ecosystem-level impacts and mechanisms of establishment. As part of the Green Bay Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office early detection and monitoring program for aquatic invasive species, we are particularly concerned with Grass carp distributions across the Lake Michigan Basin, ploidy, and whether there is reproduction and recruitment occurring. We will continue to target grass carp where they have been detected previously as well as other sites that have been identified as having appropriate spawning habitats. Population characteristics can be used to inform potential management activities.

Above: A Grass carp collected by the USFWS during scheduled survey work. Credit: USFWS

There's always more to our story...

a view of a coded wire tag

The Life Cycle of a Coded Wire Tag


The Great Lakes Fish Tagging and Recovery Laboratory, headquarted at the Green Bay Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office (FWCO), has been operating since 2010. The lab operates four state of the art mobile automatic tagging trailers containing machines that automatically clip the adipose fin and inject a coded wire tag into the nasal cartilage of reared salmon and trout, which eventually are stocked into the Great Lakes.

The cornerstone of the process is the coded wire tag (CWT), a 1.1 millimeter by 0.25 millimeter stainless steel wire. The wire has a six digit code laser etched in four offset rows. The code is linked to species, strain, year class, hatchery of origin, and stocking location.

Code 640148 began it’s life at Jordan River National Fish Hatchery on August 25, 2010, where it was injected into over 40,000 Lewis Lake strain lake trout. On May 22, 2011, these fish were stocked at Boulder Reef in northern Lake Michigan, which is part of the Northern Refuge complex. At stocking the fish were about seven inches and weighed one tenth of a pound. One of these fish survived in Lake Michigan for eight years, eventually being caught by an angler on June 22, 2019 near Kewaunee, Wisconsin. The fish was a 30 inch, 13 pound female when examined by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service technicians. The snout, containing the CWT, was collected and taken to the lab where it was extracted, read under a microscope and stored at the Green Bay FWCO. The tagging, stocking and field data is now held in a relational database, along with hundreds of thousands of other data on recovered fish, where it will be used for analysis and research for years to come.

Above: Microscopic view of 1.1-millimeter coded wire tag. Credit, Lindsey McKinney/USFWS

eDNA sampling

There's DNA in the Water? 


Lake Herring (Cisco) and Lake Whitefish were one of the most abundant prey and commercially harvested fish species in the Great Lakes. In Lake Huron, Cisco and Lake Whitefish saw significant declines due to overfishing, habitat degradation, and the introduction of invasive species, such as Alewife and Rainbow Smelt. Recent declines in Alewife and Rainbow Smelt populations have reduced competition creating an opportunity for both fish populations to increase in Lake Huron.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and partners are interested in determining whether either species Cisco or Lake Whitefish are utilizing tributaries to the Great Lakes. The Alpena Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office (FWCO) is working with partners around the Great Lakes to sample tributaries that may historically have had, or currently have either of these species spawning in them. The Alpena FWCO is sampling two Lake Huron Tributaries, the Thunder Bay River and the Cheboygan River. Determining the presence of a rare or elusive fish species generally can be difficult requiring a significant amount of time and resources.

Current advances in technology allow us to determine the presence of a particular species DNA in the environment. From the start of November until the first week of December the Alpena FWCO will conduct environmental DNA (eDNA) surveys in the Thunder Bay and Cheboygan Rivers by collecting multiple water samples. Once the water is collected, the DNA is concentrated into a pellet, stabilized, and shipped to the Great Lakes Science Center in Ann Arbor. There they can screen the sample for the presence or absence of Lake Whitefish and Cisco DNA. Results will help determine if there are spawning stocks of Lake Whitefish or Cisco in either of the two rivers or the other tributaries being sampled by our Green Bay FWCO. This project is a collaborative effort across the Great Lakes by several federal, tribal, and non-governmental agencies interested in the conservation of Lake Whitefish and Cisco.

Above: An Alpena FWCO staff member collecting a water sample that will be screened for the presence of Cisco and Lake Whitefish eDNA on the Thunder Bay River, Alpena, Michigan. Credit: Chris Olds/USFWS)

Fish Tales

Great Lakes Invaders Virtual Workshop


In early October, staff from the Alpena Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office (FWCO) – Detroit River Substation, Green Bay FWCO, and Ashland FWCO collaborated with Randy Singer, fisheries collection manager at the University of Michigan, Museum of Zoology (UMMZ), to host a virtual Great Lakes Non-Native Fish Identification Workshop, streamed live via Microsoft Teams. In previous years, this annual training was hosted at UMMZ’s research collection, where specimens are available for a hands-on learning experience; however, this was not possible in 2020 because of the pandemic. In a typical workshop, attendance is limited to approximately 20 people due to the number of available stations with specimens; however, the virtual format allowed for over 160 people from more than 40 agencies, consulting firms, and universities across multiple states to register and attend.

The workshop was developed in 2015 to meet the needs of the Aquatic Invasive Species Early Detection and Monitoring Program (AIS EDMP). The focus of the workshop was to help staff learn how to identify potentially new non-native fish species in the Great Lakes and compare them to similar looking or “doppelgänger” native fish species. US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) staff and partners routinely work in locations that are at higher risk for new species introduction. Non-native species from around the globe have invaded the Great Lakes through several pathways, including ballast water discharge from commercial ships and aquarium releases. Having knowledge of the characteristics of exotic fish that have high potential to become injurious will be invaluable to managers working to reduce the risk of future invasions.

The workshop began with a pre-quiz, which asked attendees to identify native and non-native species, to highlight the importance of accurate native species identification. Without accurate native species identification, the chances of correctly identifying a similar non-native species in the field is low. During the presentation, the presenters showed the identification characteristics of 41 high-risk non-native fishes that have been listed by the USFWS Ecological Risk Screening Summaries (ERSS) and Great Lakes Aquatic Nonindigenous Species Information System (GLANSIS) based on their introduction risk, establishment potential, and impact potential. Stories from the field about the misidentification of non-native species and the capture of new non-native species were shared. The presentation also provided identification tips for hard to identify native species that have been encountered in field assessments.

Although the virtual workshop was different than past years, more people were able to attend and participate that otherwise would not have been able to. The presenters successfully conveyed the message that many exotic fish have similar characteristics to native fish species in the Great Lakes, and accurate fish identification skills are critical for early detection and rapid response.

Safe in Nature


With the pandemic continuing, exploring nature may bring some relief from being inside all day. As the leaves turn to orange and red some of nature’s greatest events are occur during this time of year. Birds are migrating south, fish are migrating upstream, and animals are preparing for winter. No matter what your pastime maybe in nature, the US Fish and Wildlife Service wants everyone to be safe and enjoy the outdoors.

Being safe doesn’t mean having a plan for every event imaginable, but rather taking certain precautions to limit your risk on land or water. One of the most important things that an individual can do is tell someone where you are going, how long you plan to be out, and when you plan to let them know you are done with your adventure.

The outdoors is an amazing place to explore, but unfortunately, many accidents happen in nature. The second most important thing you can do to limit the risk of injury is always remember to wear your safety equipment and practice safety procedures.

Whether you are on boat, climbing into a deer stand, or just out for hike on a nature trail there is always a way to limit risk. Personal floatation devices and deer stand safety harnesses were designed to save lives and should be worn. While out hiking always remember to watch your step and walk a trail within your experience level.

Being safe should always be a top priority. If you are new to an area and need information you can always contact the states natural resource help desk, a conservation officer assigned to the area, or an information center if you are visiting a national wildlife refuge. In a real emergency remember to call 911.

Some of the best memories can be made while enjoying nature. Please enjoy the great outdoors this fall and always remember to be safe.

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