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Non-profit trains citizen scientists to collect fish data from the Great Lakes

People stand in the water, holding both ends of a large net.
Kaye LaFond
Michigan Radio
Stephen Hensler, co-founder and executive director of the Cerulean Center, rolls up a seine net with volunteers at Antrim Creek Natural Area. The Cerulean Center is a non-profit trying to get the public involved in Great Lakes Research.

A new nonprofit is training citizen scientists to collect data on fish in the Great Lakes. They think it could be a game-changer for research in the region, and even help prevent the establishment of invasive species.

It’s a perfect July day at Antrim Creek Natural Area, a nature preserve on the Lake Michigan shoreline just south of Charlevoix.

Stephen Hensler is giving instructions to people gathered around a cooler.

“Count the rays on the anal fin,” he calls out. “Or check his ID. One or the other.”

The group is identifying and measuring one of the dozens of fish they caught that day, by dragging a net called a “seine” for 50 feet along the shore.

Hensler carries the tiny creature, a fish called a sand shiner, back into the waves.

“OK, I’m gonna release it,” he says.

He’s the co-founder and executive director of the Cerulean Center, a non-profit dedicated to Great Lakes research. Its stated mission is to “advance understanding of the Great Lakes ecosystem.”

But, more than that, the Cerulean Center aims to get the public involved in doing research.

Today, many of the people identifying, measuring, and counting fish aren’t trained fish biologists. They’re volunteers.

A hand is holding a tiny fish.
Credit Kaye LaFond / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Stephen Hensler, co-founder and executive director of the Cerulean Center, holds a tiny fish during a volunteer data collection event.

Hensler and his colleagues showed them what to do when they arrived on the beach. Now, he jokes, the operation is basically running itself.

“It's a good activity to do for people of all ages,” he says. “I mean, it's pretty fun and it's a low barrier to entry.”

Dale Treese is a retired nurse who lives just down the road, in a town called Ellsworth. She says she’s loving volunteering today.

“It amazes me how much these people that are teaching us know,” she says. “They're like, obviously fish doctors and they're so friendly and so informative and you can ask any question and they're gonna answer it for you. It’s amaaazing.”

She says she learned how to identify fish, and how to do it without harming them.

“I see how they're counting the fins, I see how they're measuring them,” she says. “I see what kind of sampling they're taking, and how we handled them with our wet hands and not dry hands, so I’ve learned an awful lot.”

Seining fish today is part of a larger project for the Cerulean Center. Hensler says they are trying to get a better picture of the fish community in Grand Traverse Bay.

“You can find things published about individual species or a few species at a time, but this we're trying to actually look at all the species together,” he says.

He thinks knowing more about what already lives in the bay will help scientists detect any changes. So will having more private citizens on the lookout.

“You know we get a new non-native species here for example, we might have a chance of identifying it and reporting it before it gets a chance to become invasive,” he says.

The Cerulean Center’s sampling project in Grand Traverse Bay will continue through 2020.

Kaye is an alumnus of Michigan Tech's environmental engineering program. She got her start making maps for the Traverse City-Based water news organization Circle of Blue, and, since then, she's been pretty devoted to science communication and data visualization.
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