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The Grand Rapids Press, Electric barrier on Pere Marquette turned off; chemical treatment continues for sea lamprey by Howard Meyerson

The Grand Rapids Press, Electric barrier on Pere Marquette turned off; chemical treatment continues for sea lamprey by Howard Meyerson
Appeared:  January 31st, 2010

SCOTTVILLE — Attempting to stop sea lamprey with an electric barrier has become a thing of the past on the Pere Marquette River, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials. The federal agency recently announced it no longer will operate its electric weir there and will resume treating the river only with chemical lampricides.

Officials said the aging barrier didn’t work well and would be too costly to replace. So its river-bottom electrodes won’t be powered up this March as they have been since the 1980s.

“We’ve reduced the larval populations (sea lamprey) in the river to 10 to 20 percent of what the average is without the barrier, but that is still thousands of larvae that still require treatment,” said Greg Klingler a biologist with the FWS Marquette Biological Station.

“We get some benefits from the (electric) weir, but it’s not cost-effective.”

Critics are pleased with the decision. Some claim the electric field hinders the upstream steelhead migration. Others say its presence spoils the river.

No one is happy about the need to continue chemical treatment of the river with TFM, (3-trifluoromethyl-4-nitrophenol), a lampricide used to kill lamprey in their larval stage. It is applied every three to four years and has no toxic effects on other fish, although it can affect certain aquatic insects.

The electric barrier was to have made chemical treatment obsolete.

“Having the electric weir and chemical treatment is a double insult to the river,” said Paul Bigford of Branch, president of the Pere Marquette Watershed Council. “Neither seems to eliminate the lamprey, and even though they have had the electric weir running at quite an expense, it has not made a single TFM treatment unnecessary.”

Bigford said his group agrees with the FWS decision to turn the device off.

So does Kevin Morlock, owner of Indigo Guide Service in Walhalla. Morlock, a fishing guide, said he plans to advertise that the electric barrier is kaput.

The Pere Marquette is his company’s “home” river. Winter steelhead fishing, he said, has suffered since the barrier went in. He and other anglers have challenged the FWS to improve fish passage around the barrier.

When the barrier was built in the late 1980s, there was no way for migrating fish to get by it. It was modified twice during the ensuing years to make it easier for migrating fish to get upstream. It will pass from 2,000 to 7,000 steelhead annually, according to Klingler, who estimates 50 percent to 70 percent of the run gets upstream.

“I’m 100 percent in favor of its removal,” Morlock said. “It’s had a significant effect on the upstream migration of steelhead and the downstream migration of young salmon.

“We were originally assured that the fish barrier was going to allow unrestricted fish passage. They made it sound like the bugs were worked out and we would get rid of the evil chemicals. I believed it, and I am embarrassed that I supported it.”

Electric lamprey barriers have been in use on three Michigan rivers, including the Jordan and Ocqueoc rivers. They are among the various methods the FWS uses to control lamprey in an effort to meet a Great Lakes Fishery Commission goal of reducing TFM use by 20 percent this year.

The agency also uses trapping, sterile male releases and low-head dams where appropriate.

The Jordan River electric barrier was turned off four to five years ago and removed last year for similar reasons. The Ocqueoc River barrier continues to operate effectively, Klingler said. But electricity is turned on only when water levels rise to a point that lamprey might swim over the low-head dam that was built to stop them.

Building a similar dam on the Pere Marquette would likely be infeasible, Klingler said. Replacement of the barrier was estimated at $500,000, plus another $60,000 to $70,000 a year to operate. TFM treatments cost $500,000 every three to four years.

It is uncertain whether lamprey migrated upstream before during or after the electric barrier was turned, but they managed to get upstream. TFM is more of sure thing, Klingler said. It kills several lamprey year classes at once.

Lamprey trapping will continue at the electric barrier site. The animals caught there are used in the FWS sterile-male program. But the site will be less productive without the electricity, Klingler said. It typically contributes 250 to 300 male lamprey to the 1,500 to 2,000 collected from Michigan rivers for the program.

“I’ve got no qualms about treating the river with TFM in the future,” said Jim Dexter, the Lake Michigan basin fisheries coordinator for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment. “It’s a good decision with regard to the FWS and fish commission business model, too.

“That barrier was expensive to operate and maintain. It was time consuming and it didn’t work the way everyone had hoped. The river still needed to be treated with TFM.”

E-mail Howard Meyerson at hmeyerson@grpress.com and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/HMeyerson

Photo Credits and Captions:
1st photo – Courtesy Photo | U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  The electric lamprey barrier facility on the Pere Marquette River in Scottville was deemed ineffective, so U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials turned it off.
2nd photo – Courtesy Photo | U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  A close-up of an eel-like sea lamprey, considered an invasive species.
3rd photo – Press Graphic
4th Photo – Howard Meyerson | The Grand Rapids Press.  Anglers drift in search of salmon on the lower Pere Marquette River in the fall.