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Fish tale: ‘Very good’ chance of Arctic grayling’s return

Pictured is an angler releasing an arctic grayling while displaying its sailfin. (Courtesy photo)

LASING — Arctic grayling died out in Michigan in the 1930s but could make a comeback.

“The chances are very good,” said Todd Grischke, the assistant chief of the Fisheries Division in the Department of Natural Resources. “We are probably three to five years out from actually having Arctic grayling back in the stream.”

In 2016, the state partnered with the Manistee-based Little River Band of Ottawa Indians to bring back the grayling. The fish, known for its sail-like dorsal fin, once prospered in Michigan rivers until overfishing, habitat changes tied to overlogging and competition from non-native species killed them off.

Now, the Michigan Arctic Grayling Initiative has more than 45 partners, Grischke said. They include outdoors groups such as Trout Unlimited and the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy, colleges such as Grand Valley State and Lake Superior State universities, Native American tribes such as the Keweenaw Bay and Hannahville Indian Communities and government agencies.

Overlogging ruined the grayling’s habitat. The practice killed vegetation and ruined stream beds, Grischke said.

“The habitat today is very different from what it was back in the 1800s when Arctic grayling were so numerous you could almost walk over them,” he said.

Grayling thrive in clean, cold streams with a good mix of gravel and a healthy water flow. There’s a search underway for tributaries — branches off main rivers — that would make good places to reintroduce grayling, Grischke said.

“We still believe that the habitat in some areas is appropriate and will work for Arctic grayling. We just need to find those,” he said.

Overfishing is another reason grayling disappeared. They were a popular sport fish, and their meat was sent to restaurants in Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia and other cities, said Nate Winkler a biologist with Conservation Resource Alliance, a Traverse City-based nonprofit environmental organization in Michigan’s northwest Lower Peninsula.

When habitat destruction and overfishing made catching grayling more difficult, Michigan brought in other species to catch commercially, Winkler said.

“As grayling were being exterminated, anglers wanted to be able to fish for something, so that’s when the brown trout especially were being stocked in rivers farther south,” he said. Brook trout and steelhead were also stocked.

Today, competition from steelhead, brook and brown trout, as well as coho salmon that were introduced in the 1960s, presents an obstacle to the grayling’s return.

Since grayling are docile, they likely couldn’t coexist with aggressive steelhead or coho salmon. That means they’d likely have to be reintroduced in tributaries upstream from a barrier keeping out those species, Winkler said.

Grischke said testing is underway to see how grayling interact with other species and how densely a stream could be populated and allow grayling to coexist.

Michigan unsuccessfully tried to reintroduce grayling in the 1980s. But Montana officials recently brought the fish back to some of their streams and provided a successful model, Grischke said.

Montana uses incubators, which are containers such as 5-gallon buckets, and puts them in streams designated for grayling. The incubators contain fertilized eggs and gravel. The eggs are buried in the gravel, similar to how they are when produced naturally.

The incubators used pipes to allow the stream to pass through so that when grayling hatch, they are immediately introduced to their natural habitat.

That appears to work better than raising them on a fish farm and trying to have them adapt to a new environment, Winkler said.

The grayling fry will eventually swim through the outflow of the incubator and into the stream, the process is highlighted in a report from Michigan Tech University.

“I think that more than anything, (the incubators are) going to help this effort because nothing of that magnitude was tried in the first attempt,” Winkler said.

The Little River Band of Ottawa Indians is testing the method on the Manistee River with rainbow trout eggs, Grischke said.

The Michigan Arctic Grayling Initiative received only $25,000 in state funding, Grischke said.

That isn’t nearly enough to reintroduce the species, so the group set a goal to raise $1.2 million. It’s raised around $700,000 so far through grants, contributions from foundations and philanthropists, individual donations, merchandise sales and other means, he said.

The Iron Fish Distillery in Thompsonville has introduced Arctic grayling-themed bottles of whiskey and bourbon. A portion of sales go to the initiative, Grischke said.

Aside from the value of having native species in streams, the cultural importance of grayling drives the effort to reintroduce it, Grischke said.

“There’s a town named after the fish, the city of Grayling,” Grischke said. “The fish holds a lot of importance historically.”

Regardless of the success of reintroduction, Winkler said he hopes people have learned the harm that they can cause.

“It’s a cautionary tale that’s quite expensive and quite sad,” he said.

Editor’s note: Lucas Day writes for The Great Lakes Echo.

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