Sep. 26—Little River Band leading effort to restore grayling
MANISTEE — It is said that there are stories told of nmégos, or Arctic grayling, once being so plentiful in Michigan's rivers and streams, "one could walk on top of them."
But history is also abundant with stories of short-sighted exploitation, including what led to the demise of one of Michigan's once most unique native fish.
In a statewide collaboration, the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, along with 50 other partners, are leading the initiative in the effort to bring back nmégos to the northern Michigan's rivers and streams they once flourished in.
The project, now five years in the making under the Michigan Arctic grayling initiation (MAGI), may be getting closer to reestablishing a healthy and sustainable population, thanks to traditional Anishinaabek knowledge and advancements in science.
Around the 20th century, nmégos went from being one of the most abundant fish in Michigan waters to completely disappearing from the ecosystem. The last record of one being caught was in 1936 in the Otter River of the Upper Peninsula.
The fish, arguably, could not be rivaled in its beauty. It's long, slender body is glittered with layers of silver iridescence and hues of blues and purples that descend the delicate build. But it's the huge dorsal fin that really sets nmegos apart from the rest, adorned in speckles of red, blues or greens.
Their disappearance is traced back to three major factors in the ongoing colonization that took off when the logging industry began to boom in northern Michigan during the turn of the century.
Miles of virgin white pine forests were ripped from the shorelines of Lake Michigan after the great fire in Chicago. Rivers that once flourished with Arctic grayling were used to transport all of the timber to mills for processing, leading to major habitat destruction.
The practice ruined stream beds and vegetation that are vital for spawning grounds, and erosion from logging turned the running rivers into sediment-filled waters. Additionally, because of the abundance of the Arctic grayling, anglers flocked and harvested in large quantities with no possession limits or regulations, according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
The final "nail in the coffin" was the predation and competition with introduced trout species to appease the growing fishing industry in Michigan during the early 20th century.
In efforts to combat the ill management of the natural resources, millions of Arctic grayling fry were stocked into Michigan streams and rivers. It didn't work. The DNR attempted again in the 1980s to reintroduce stocked, "hatchery-reared yearling into lakes and streams, but again to no avail," according to its website.
In 2011, the Little Band of Ottawa Indians with Michigan Technological University partnered to research and determine the feasibility of reintroducing Arctic grayling in the big Manistee River watershed.
Between 2011 and 2013, LRBOI and MTU conducted 100 surveys to assess abiotic and biotic characteristics of the big Manistee River tributaries located between Tippy Dam and Hodenpyl Dam, both upriver from Lake Michigan.
The assessments focused on evaluating some of the tributaries to the upper Manistee River and compiling the data to make sure it would be a healthy environment to reestablish a sustainable population of the Arctic grayling
The research conducted pointed to potential success, so in 2016, based on part of the findings of the 2011-2013 LRBOI/MTU report, LRBOI partnered with MNDR, MTU, governmental and nongovernmental organizations and other Michigan tribes in developing the statewide Arctic grayling restoration initiative.
"We simply cannot do this alone," said Archie Martell, LRBOI's fisheries division manager, adding that working together gives the project the best chance of success.
Since then, ongoing efforts implemented by the tribe's fisheries division has included partnering with other universities and conservation groups to study the tributaries. The work includes recording the water's temperature every hour in the spring (spawning season), collection of hydrological data, including substrate evaluation. This determines the number of pools, riffles and runs in the studied areas.
The tribe also deployed in-stream Remote Site Incubators in 2017, technology that was pivotal in the success of Montana's Arctic grayling reintroduction efforts.
RSIs allow the eggs to be reared directly in stream water, which imprints them with the stream's genetic codes, explained Martell. Early imprinting is key because the fish migrate far from where they will be released, and may fail to spawn in healthy, favorable environments.
Imprinting increases the likelihood of an adult grayling to return to the specific area they were released to spawn.
"This is the ultimate outcome in this effort," said Martell.
In 2020, the LRBOI published a 24-page stewardship plan with the purpose of guiding and outlining how to care for the Upper Manistee Watershed while introducing nmegos. It outlines the cultural history of LRBOI, and detailed stewardship goals and objectives supported by years of ongoing research.
Bringing back nmégos to the Manistee River reunites the "the lost connection between the Anishinaabek/ Little River Band of Ottawa Peoples and their heritage," Martell said.
Like LRBOI, other Anishinaabek tribes are pulling up their sleeves in the efforts bring back nmegos to their traditional waterways. The Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians nominated the Ottaway-Boardman River in Grand Traverse and Kalkaska counties for potential reintroduction efforts for the Michigan Arctic grayling Initiative in 2018.
Brett Fessel, restoration section leader and river ecologist for GTB's Natural Resource Department, said the tribe has been conducting surveys along 18 sites in the upper watershed of the Ottaway-Boardman River.
The tribe is specifically identifying and accessing potential habitat in the river's tributaries, conducting electrofishing surveys in assessing stream/river fish assemblages, especially in trout populations, to identify areas where competition and predation won't have a negative impact on the grayling.
"The Arctic grayling was once a native species in this river," Fessel said. "The research is really important in order to get them back and flourishing here ... wouldn't it just be so cool if one day the Ottaway River was abundant this native species again?"
Since the arrival of the first batch of grayling eggs from the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in 2019, the Oden State Fish Hatchery in Alanson has been rearing the first broodstock. They will be the parents of the potential future Arctic grayling population.
Earlier in the month, around 4,000 young, healthy fish were moved from the rearing facility to the Marquette State Fish Hatchery, a facility with conditions that will trigger spawning. The grayling will be reared in conditions that will mimic national conditions of the fish's natural habitat that include temperature and daylight change with the season and constant water movement.
"There is a strong tribal interest in reclaiming what was lost," Fessel said about the support and overall interest from Indigenous communities on the stewardship plan.
"If we want to honor this system (of the Ottaway-Boardman River), we need to return its native species."