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A tiny discovery in Grand Traverse Bay is a big deal to Great Lakes researchers

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David Jude
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A discovery was made in the depths of Grand Traverse Bay in March. Researchers found a small fish nest that had eluded them for decades.

John Janssen, a freshwater researcher with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, said the discovery was “Nobel-prize” worthy.

“It’s never been documented before,” he said.

But this find was also an achievement of a lifelong goal for one fisheries biologist.

Deepwater Sculpin

If you work with fish in the Great Lakes you’re probably familiar with Deepwater Sculpin.

“If you went out and trawled in the middle of Lake Superior or Lake Ontario or Lake Michigan, guess what you’d catch in your trawl? Deepwater Sculpin,” says Fisheries Biologist David Jude with the University of Michigan.

He says Deepwater Sculpin are important prey fish for others like Lake Trout.

Deepwater Sculpin have a short, brownish-grey body that can get between 4-6 inches long. They have a wide fin and flippers that wrap around their bulging eyes and puckering mouth.

Sculpin also eat bugs and shellfish, so they can act as barometers for a lake’s health.

That’s why researchers are fascinated by Sculpin. But they can be a hard fish to track down.

“It’s hard to find them shallower than maybe 200 feet,” says John Jannsen.

Janssen says a lot of researchers are worried about declining numbers of Deepwater Sculpin in the Great Lakes. They aren’t sure what’s behind it.

But the answer may be held in one part of the Sculpin’s life that has eluded scientists:

They haven’t seen how they spawn.

Never-before-seen nests

Deepwater Sculpin nests are tucked away deep on the lakebed.

But that’s never stopped Fisheries Biologist David Jude. In fact, he’s seen them as a challenge.

“I’ve always had this passion about trying to figure out where Deepwater Sculpin spawn, because no one had ever documented it,” he says.

Jude has studied the Great Lakes for nearly 50 years, but the nest of the Deepwater Sculpin is his “white whale.” He has spent the last 4 decades in submarines, on boats and piloting underwater drones looking for Sculpin nests across the lakes.

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Researcher David Jude in the middle of his search for the nest of the Deepwater Sculpin.

Jude says sometimes he and his team went in blind.

“We think they spawn sometime in February but I didn’t know,” he says. “I didn’t know where either, what depth are they at?”

He would get teams together to go deep into the Great Lakes looking for answers, sometimes not coming back with much.

“I went down in a submarine back in 1986 when they brought a submarine into the Great Lakes,” Jude says. “But it was during the summertime and Deepwater Sculpin spawn in the winter time.”

So his Deepwater Sculpin nest eluded him. These trips continued for years. Jude would wait for the right crew or want to try a different lake or the same lake at a different time.

By this year Jude had few partners left to call. He ended up cashing in one more favor with a commercial fisherman in Suttons Bay. They went looking for Sculpin nests in Grand Traverse Bay in March.

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“THE STORMIN’ NORMAN,” the ship that David Jude and his partner took out to find the Sculpin nest.

The search continues

On a cold day late last Winter, Jude hopped on his friend's commercial fishing boat “The Stormin’ Norman” and outfitted it with his computers and tracking gear.

“There’s a 600 foot (deep) spot out off Old Mission Peninsula in Grand Traverse Bay. It took us an hour to get out there,” Jude recalls. “It was just a spectacularly flat, calm day, that doesn’t happen very often.”

Once they reached their spot Jude dropped an unmanned submarine into the water and started his search again. Jude piloted it through schools of Alewives while diving deeper and deeper into the Bay.

Over 2-3 hours he eventually started seeing Round Gobies, then lots of Deepwater Sculpin. But still no nests.

How much longer?

Eventually Jude says his thoughts started racing. He was thinking back on all the time he spent searching for Deepwater Sculpin nests like this over decades.

There, after spending hours driving his drone into the depths of Grand Traverse Bay, Jude started wondering:

How much longer can I do this?

“I was getting extremely disappointed, I thought ‘oh my god, I’m gonna spend all these years and time trying to find these nests [with no luck],’” he recalls.

Jude was about to give up on his search for good, when his partner spotted something on the monitor.

“There’s some kind of a depression on the right,” he said, pointing to something on the screen.

They spotted a branch on the lakebed, but it was covering something.

“So we got closer and I looked inside and there was a Deepwater Sculpin sitting inside,” he says. “There was a clump of eggs sitting right next to it.”

“Oh my god I can’t believe we actually found a nest!” Jude recalls thinking. “I was really, really elated.”

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David Jude
A Deepwater Sculpin above a nest of eggs.

A lifelong goal

Seeing this nest was an important discovery, according to Professor John Janssen from The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He says Deepwater Sculpin are a key fish for the Great Lakes and finally documenting this nest may help scientists learn more about them.

“You gotta know the basic life history and this is basic life history.”

Finding the nest was an important discovery to people who want to know why Deepwater Sculpin numbers are dropping. It was important to people who want to learn more about the Great Lakes and their ecosystems.

But mostly it was important to David Jude. Someone who spent 40 years looking for it.

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Max came to IPR in 2017 as an environmental intern. In 2018, he returned to the station as a reporter and quickly took on leadership roles as Interim News Director and eventually Assignment Editor. Before joining IPR, Max worked as a news director and reporter at Michigan State University's student radio station WDBM. In 2018, he reported on a Title IX dispute with MSU in his story "Prompt, Thorough and Impartial." His work has also been heard on Michigan Radio, WDBM and WKAR in East Lansing and NPR.