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Sea lamprey control in the Great Lakes could be better if Canada pays up

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Max Copeland
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Interlochen Public Radio
Researcher Nick Johnson shows off a sea lamprey's mouth at Hammond Bay Biological Station.

The sea lamprey is an incredibly destructive invasive species in the Great Lakes. It was responsible for devastating fish populations in the region in the 1950s.

The species is now largely under control now thanks to an international treaty, a specialized pesticide and millions of dollars from the U.S. and Canada. But Canada hasn’t been paying its full share for over a decade.

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Max Copeland
Mark Martin wears an electrofisher on his back. A device specially designed for sea lamprey surveys in creeks and rivers. He is holding two modified ski poles in his left hand that are part of the unit.

Ontario was the first of the Great Lakes to fall to this invader. For almost 90 years, Niagara Falls blocked them, but the sea lamprey eventually got past.

The Welland Canal was constructed in 1829 about six years before the first sea lamprey was discovered in Lake Ontario. According to Cory Brant in his book, “Great Lakes Sea Lamprey” it wasn’t until the canal was widened in 1919, that sea lampreys gained access to the upper Great Lakes. In fewer than 20 years, the predator was established in all five of the Great Lakes. Then in the late 1960s, the fishery had really taken a hit.

According to researchers, before sea lamprey, the Upper Great Lakes produced 15 million pounds of lake trout every year. By the early 1960s, the annual catch fell to less than half a million– a 98% decrease. Many officials believed that sea lamprey were the reason those fish numbers were so low.

The U.S. and Canadian governments knew they had to do something. In 1955, they created the Great Lakes Fishery Commission through a treaty.

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Max Copeland
An electrofishing unit on Grant Truskowski's back. He and his partner Mark Martin walk to the Betsie River to look for larval sea lamprey. The backpack electrofisher is a circuit board and a battery connected to two paddle scoops. Electricity stuns the larvae and researchers collect them in a bucket.

The primary role of the commission is to control sea lamprey. The treaty between the two nations specified a spending agreement. The U.S. would pay 69% of the cost of sea lamprey control and Canada would cover the remaining 31%.

Currently, Canada is spending $7.9 million, but according to the treaty it should be spending about $16 million.

Lakes Erie, Superior and Huron have more sea lamprey in their waters than the commission’s target. The spokesman for GLFC, Marc Gaden, says that’s a result of the underfunding.

“We need to do more lamprey control in the lakes where they’re above target,” said Gaden. “It’s as simple as that.”

Gaden says the U.S. is currently buying all of the lampricide used in Canada.

“Otherwise the Canadian sea lamprey crews would have nothing to apply,” said Gaden. “We’d have the crews, but they would have nothing to do in the field.”

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Max Copeland
Mark Martin scoops up some sand and a larval lamprey during his survey for larval sea lamprey in the Betsie River in Benzonia

Of the more than $8 million that Canada is not spending, about $2 million would go to operational costs and coordinating laws across the region. Another $3.5 million would go to sea lamprey control, which includes applying lampricide and surveying areas where larval lamprey are expected to be found.

The last big chunk of money that Canada is not spending, about $2.4 million, would go to fisheries research like that done at Hammond Bay Biological Station. Gaden said because of the way the funding breaks down, Canada is contributing nothing to research. Currently, the U.S. is picking up the balance.

The first lampricide was invented at Hammond Bay. Now, researchers like Nick Johnson work on developing new ways to combat lamprey, which can be difficult because they are so resilient.

“I respect sea lamprey,” said Johnson. “They’re able to survive in places most other fishes can’t survive.”

Some of the first researchers at Hammond Bay looked into eating sea lamprey as a means of control. But they couldn’t generate enough interest for a commercial fishery. That didn’t stop Johnson from throwing some in a deep fryer.

“I thought they tasted a little bit like pork,” he said. “At first I thought I’d just take a couple bites, but I ate more than I thought I was gonna eat.”

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Max Copeland
Researcher Nick Johnson lets a sea lamprey attach to his forearm at Hammond Bay Biological Station in Millersburg, Michigan

Sea lamprey control hasn’t changed much since it began. Johnson says the most solution is a combination of lampricide and barriers like dams.

“Without the barriers, you couldn’t use lampricides that kill the lamprey, but without the lampricides the barriers aren’t useful either,” said Johnson. “So, you need both.”

Dams keep adults from spreading, while lampricide kills larvae.

Larvae live burrowed in the bottom of the river for three to ten years which leaves multiple generations vulnerable at once. Afterwards, they transform and emerge ready to feed on fish blood. During their time in the lake one sea lamprey can kill 40 pounds of fish.

“Every sea lamprey catches more, kills more fish than I do every year and I love fishing,” said Johnson.

A single adult female can have about 100,000 eggs which means the number of lamprey could quickly skyrocket.

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Max Copeland
A jar full of sea lamprey eggs at the Hammond Bay Biological Station in Millersburg, Michigan

Johnson says if sea lamprey control were to stop, populations would come back within five years.

Some Canadians think it’s time for their country to pay its fair share of the treaty. Brian Masse is a Canadian parliamentarian from Ontario. He said Canada should pay the bill because it is hurting U.S. and Canadian relations.

“This is a small irritant, but it has significant consequences that are quite profound,” said Masse.

“If you’re continually playing with a penalty, in hockey you’re short handed,” he said. “You’re irritated because you can’t play your full game...I want to play on offense on the Great Lakes. I don’t want to play on defense anymore. I don’t want this to be about constantly trying to rectify solutions that we already know we have.”

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Max Copeland
Grant Truskowski looks closely at larval lamprey. He is looking for differences in the number of dorsal fins, lip color and tale shape that identify the invasive sea lamprey from native species like the American brook lamprey.

The Canadian parliament placed Motion 91 on notice on June 8 of this year. The motion would change the funding responsibility for the GLFC from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to Global Affairs Canada. That would ensure that the Canadian government pays the full amount of its treaty with the U.S. But, On August 15, The 43rd parliament dissolved. All outstanding legislation lapsed, and Motion 91 is no longer being considered.

Masse said he plans to bring this issue again when parliament returns on November 22, 2021.

IPR reached out to Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the department currently responsible for funding sea lamprey control, but it did not make someone available for an interview.

Instead Barre Campbell, who works in media relations for the department, read a written statement about underfunding the Great Lakes Fishery Commission.

“As costs escalate over time, new funding for the GLFC will be determined in consideration with funding given to other organizations,” he said.

The problem with sea lamprey is not a problem of efficacy. Scientists know what works. The only question is, will Canada start paying its full share.

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Max Copeland
Mark Martin uses tweezers to point to the larval sea lamprey. Of the two lamprey larvae in the center of the image, the larger one is the native American brook lamprey and the smaller is the invasive sea lamprey. Martin and Truskowski found five sea lamprey during their survey, which they left to die on the side of the road.

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