The Great Lakes Fishery Commission estimates that more than 40 million people in the U.S. and Canada depend on the Great Lakes for food, drinking water and recreation. A state-of-the-art research vessel, called the “Muskie,” is currently making its way through Lake Erie collecting data samples for the U.S. Geological Survey.
The 70-foot long vessel isn’t your average boat. It’s rigged with advanced sonar and noise reduction technology, and high-end microscopes for testing fish samples. Director of the USGS Great Lakes Science Center, Russell Strach, says the boat has everything you’d find in a lab and more.
“It also has hydroacoustic capability, that’s a technique where you can essentially penetrate sound into the water and get an image of the fish or schools of fish. We can actually identify to species based on those sound waves and determine general abundance and density,” says Strach.
Strach says the USGS researchers aboard the vessel are on Lake Erie to monitor the fish population for evidence of invasive species and environmental changes.
“The scientific data that we’re gathering is mostly used to ensure that these species are around for many generations to come. It’s for the sustainability. It’s so that the states and the province can set harvest restrictions at the right levels, so that commercial fishing remains robust and sport fishing remains healthy.”
Biologist Mark Rogers is one researcher who works on the “Muskie.” A big part of his job is to collect fish, then dissect them to find out what other species the fish consumed. Rogers says the boat’s equipped with advanced hydraulic gillnetting to aid in fish collection.
“This is a tool that we use to drag on the bottom and sweep the fish populations to see what’s there and how many there are. It’s a really great sampling tool for sampling the fish community that lives on the bottom of the lake. We can do it across different habitats, we can do it across different depths, different areas of the lake and really learn what the community composition looks like,” Rogers said.
The USGS researchers are also keeping an eye out for a primitive species of fish called sea lamprey. In the past, the lamprey was a cause of great concern in the Great Lakes. Communications Director Marc Gaden, with the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, explains that one sea lamprey has the ability to kill more than 40 pounds of fish in its life span.
“The mouth is ringed with sharp teeth and in the middle is a file like tongue that bores a hole through the scales and skin of a fish and literally feeds on the fish’s blood and body fluids, so these things are nasty. What I’m doing is if I stick it to my arm it sounds like a suction cup. When I release it I have to break the seal to get it off my arm,” Gaden says.
Gaden says the lamprey population has been reduced by 90 percent since the 1960s, but it’s still important for researchers to look for signs of them in fish samples. Democratic Cong. Brian Higgins lent his voice in support of the work that the USGS vessel is doing.
“As we develop the land we also have to be vigilant about the water itself, and we’ve come a long way. In 1968 the Environmental Protection Agency declared the Buffalo River and some of its tributaries biologically dead. Because of millions of dollars of investment toward the remediation of the Buffalo River we’re seeing that those same officials are predicting that the Buffalo River will be swimmable within five years, and the fish caught there consumable.”
Higgins says even though the USGS had to absorb budget cuts triggered by the sequester, projects like this will continue to monitor the health of the Great Lakes.
“We’re fighting, and were working with both Democrats and Republicans toward resorting Great Lakes funding to ensure that the biological integrity of the Great Lakes, Lake Erie, and the Buffalo River, and Niagara Rivers are sustained,” says Higgins.
The “Muskie” spent two days on Buffalo’s canalside. It’s now making its way to Port Dover, Ontario to continue its study of Lake Erie.