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Nearly 2000 Arctic grayling released in three Michigan lakes as part of reintroduction effort

An Arctic grayling is shown swimming in West Johns Lake in Alger County after being released from hatchery captivity in November. The fish is white after traveling in a dark truck; it will darken and become more colorful as it adjusts to its new habitat.
John Pepin/Michigan Department of Natural Resources
/
Michigan Radio
An Arctic grayling is shown swimming in West Johns Lake in Alger County after being released from hatchery captivity in November. The fish is white after traveling in a dark truck; it will darken and become more colorful as it adjusts to its new habitat.

Some fish migrate to and from their spawning grounds regularly; the 1,800 Arctic grayling released in Michigan late last year completed a less conventional migration to their final home.

Their parents deposited them as eggs at a fish hatchery in Alaska. The eggs traveled by plane — in carry-on luggage — to Michigan, where the Department of Natural Resources tucked them safely into incubators at the Marquette State Fish Hatchery. There, they hatched and were raised to adulthood before riding in a truck to one of three northern Michigan lakes. Their final trip was from the truck to the lakes via bucket.

The release of these well-traveled grayling represents a milestone in Michigan’s plan to re-establish the species in the state: they are the first free-swimming grayling in Michigan in nearly a century. Their generation was so successful at surviving hatchery life — where illness and mechanical problems can pose threats — that there were enough extra fish to stock a few lakes and give anglers a chance to hook a Michigan icon.

“Any time you’re developing a broodstock, you always start with more eggs than you think you’re going to need. As it turns out, these two year classes of broodstock have done exceptionally well in the hatchery system. So it allowed us to have these surplus fish that are available to be stocked out and provide an angling opportunity really early on in this program,” said Ed Eisch, the fisheries production manager for the DNR.

Arctic grayling stocking at West John Lake in Alger County on Nov. 8, 2023.
John Pepin/Michigan Department of Natural Resources
/
Michigan Radio
Arctic grayling stocking at West John Lake in Alger County on Nov. 8, 2023.

In October, the Michigan Natural Resources Commission amended regulations to allow anglers to catch and release Arctic grayling; it is still illegal to harvest the species.

Grayling were once abundant in northern Michigan streams. They were an important subsistence species for the Anishinabek people, who call the fish “Nmégos.” They then became an important commercial and sport species in the state. But by 1936, overfishing, habitat degradation from logging, and the introduction of predatory species like brown trout had extirpated grayling from Michigan.

In 2016, the DNR, in partnership with the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, launched the Michigan Arctic Grayling Initiative. Their goal is to re-establish self-sustaining populations of Arctic grayling within its previous historic range.

The adult grayling released into Alger county’s West Johns Lake, Houghton county’s Penegor Lake, and Manistee county’s Pine Lake will likely not reproduce: they did not have a chance to imprint on the water as fry (baby fish) and won’t recognize it as a breeding ground. But Eisch said the program is quite close to establishing grayling populations that could reproduce.

“We’re hopeful that we may see our first eggs going into the remote site incubators in Michigan streams as soon as spring of 2025, so we’re getting really close to being in full production with this operation. We’d be at the point of actively stocking streams with fertilized eggs. That’s exciting stuff,” Eisch said.

The broodstock left behind at the Marquette hatchery will produce the eggs that will be placed in remote site incubators in Michigan streams. Ideally, the eggs will hatch in those streams, allowing the fry to imprint on them and use them when it’s time to reproduce. Eisch hopes that reproduction could happen within four to seven years.

“This isn’t a sprint. It’s going to take probably a decade at least before we can say with confidence we’ve been successful or we haven’t,” Eisch said. He added that Arctic grayling are worth the effort.

"Grayling were kings in the northern Lower Peninsula prior to their extirpation. They’re kind of an iconic species."

Beth Weiler is a newsroom intern covering the environment.
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