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How GoPro cameras could bring Great Lakes fisheries research into sharper focus

Visitors walk the beach and wade into Grand Traverse Bay at the tip of the Old Mission Peninsula in July 2022. The top of the Mission Point Lighthouse offers a sweeping view. (Photo: Ed Ronco/IPR News)
(Photo: Ed Ronco/IPR News)
Visitors walk the beach at the tip of the Old Mission Peninsula in July 2022. The end of the peninsula marks the confluence of the East and West Arms of Grand Traverse Bay. Chris Hessell, a fisheries biologist with the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, says emerging research on genetics and movement shows that certain fish populations might vastly differ between the two arms of Grand Traverse Bay. A new project using underwater video cameras could start to unravel why. (Photo: Ed Ronco/IPR News)

Tribal fisheries biologists are leading the way on a project that will submerge cameras to get a better idea of how fish populations are interacting and changing.

- New research using cameras will deepen our understanding of Great Lakes fish communities.

- Video footage at northern Michigan reefs will document animal behavior and interactions.

- The data will give researchers a clearer idea of how and why fish utilize certain habitats.

The Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians is gearing up for research that will help biologists better understand how aquatic ecosystems are doing.

This spring, the band’s fisheries team will start using underwater cameras in select areas of Grand Traverse Bay and Lake Michigan.

It’s part of a partnership with several other federally recognized tribes in northern Michigan, plus state and federal fisheries researchers.

Chris Hessell, Great Lakes fisheries biologist with the Grand Traverse Band, says the idea is to capture video footage of fish communities without disturbing them.

He says the team is starting with reefs — structures made of boulders and cobblestones in the water — because they’re common spawning sites for fish.

“These cameras will now allow us to sample multiple areas within a day,” Hessell said. That hasn’t been so easy with a small team and time-consuming surveying methods.

He says the goal is to start with reefs later this year, and eventually survey the entire lake system.

“We might find some limestone ledges, we might find large log clusters – things where [the] habitat might cause fish to congregate,” Hessell said. “Then we can see how those, within the system, operate and do more of a basin-wide assessment.”

Hessell says that’s important to understanding how aquatic communities move and interact.

“We’re finding out that the difference between West [Grand Traverse] Bay and East [Grand Traverse] Bay are almost as different as … Green Bay and Leland. There’s a genetic difference in some fish, the way fish move are different,” he said. “These areas are so close to each other but the fish are just not doing what we originally expected.”

Video sampling is a step to helping researchers understand those differences. Hessell says camera research is well-established in marine fisheries, “so we’re trying to bring that to the Great Lakes system in a cost-effective way.”

He says the band’s surveying is currently done with gill nets to collect important data like fish maturity, sex, age and weight. But that method removes fish from the ecosystem.

“It’s really difficult to say we understand a system when the system’s constantly changing. [The Great Lakes] are just completely different than they ever were.”
Chris Hessell
Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians

Camera gear will allow biologists to observe how fish communities behave and interact without the same level of disturbance.

Hessell says they’ll use both gill nets and cameras to get a full picture of how aquatic animals move and interact, which isn’t all that different from the ways humans move and interact.

“People need to utilize grocery stores, gas stations, fast food restaurants — so you have these different components within urban development where you have people utilizing different facilities for different needs,” Hessell said.

He says fish do the same thing, using different areas for different amounts of time and for different reasons. But we just don’t fully understand how or why.

Gill net sampling, he says, is like sampling the dynamics at one grocery store on one day. It’s valuable data, but it’s not enough.

With cameras, “we can sample multiple habitats within the same day,” Hessel said. “It definitely allows us to get a broader understanding of the area within a single time frame.”

He says the cameras — which will be GoPros mounted on pods and submerged for about 40 minutes at a time — could sample as many as 20 sites in a day.

In other words, it’s like getting a glimpse into who’s shopping at different grocery stores on opposite sides of town at similar times of day.

Hessell says having that raw data over many years will be invaluable.

“It’s really difficult to say we understand a system when the system’s constantly changing,” he said. “[The Great Lakes] are just completely different than they ever were.”

But hopefully, he says, with this new project starting in the spring, how those changes play out in aquatic communities will start to come into focus.

Ellie Katz joined IPR in June 2023. She reports on science, conservation and the environment.