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Film details how lamprey nearly destroyed Great Lakes fisheries - and how people fought back

Sea lamprey (Petromyzon marinus)
T. Lawrence, Great Lakes Fishery Commission
Wikimedia Commons
Sea lamprey (Petromyzon marinus)

Invasive sea lampreys nearly eradicated gamefish from the Great Lakes in the mid-20th century. A new film tells the story of how lamprey changed the game of invasive species management.

T. Lindsey Haskin grew up fishing, boating and camping in Michigan as a child, but he said he didn't fully understand the significance of the Great Lakes until he left the region.

"I took it for granted that the Great Lakes were what they were," Haskin said. "But it had a big influence on me as a child."

Decades later, living in California, Haskin said he became more aware of water scarcity issues. It turned his attention back to the Great Lakes and inspired his 2009 documentary, which focused on threats like massive water diversions.

"People back [in Michigan] said, 'well, yeah, that's an interesting issue, but it's not the biggest challenge...'" he said. "They said, 'would you consider making a film about the things we're really dealing with right now?' So that [led me] to invasive species."

Haskin's latest film, "RELENTLESS," premieres at the Thunder Bay International Film Festival this week, alongside 50 other documentaries.

"RELENTLESS" explores the cultural and economic significance of fishing in Michigan — and how the Great Lakes, as we know it, were nearly destroyed by sea lampreys.

"Lake trout was basically gone from Lake Huron and Michigan, and it had already [disappeared] from Lake Erie and Ontario," Haskin said. "The only place where they were still left was in Lake Superior, and they were showing signs of being under attack."

Haskin said the film's title reflects the persistence of sea lampreys and the tenacity of scientists who fought back to save Great Lakes fisheries.

"There were a lot of people in Congress that were ready to throw in the towel and say this is a waste of money," Haskin said. "But these people hung in there and kept at it, kept their nose to the grindstone and found something."

A biologist stands in a river, holding a graduated cylinder, while another biologist watches
Teresa Homsi
Biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service measure how much TFM lampricide is being pumped into the Pigeon River, so they can adjust the levels accordingly on Sept. 5, 2022, outside of Wolverine. According to the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, TFM is routinely applied to 250 tributaries across the Great Lakes to keep sea lamprey at bay.

After several failed attempts, researchers successfully developed a chemical lampricide in 1958 known as "TFM," which targets larval lampreys.

The discovery was considered a "gamechanger" for sea lamprey control, and alongside other control methods, it contributed to a 90% decline in lamprey populations.

"The sea lamprey was the first that put the threat of invasive species on the map for people," Haskin said. "It made people aware of how dangerous invasive species could be in the Great Lakes and other ecosystems."

Despite the success of lamprey control, invasive species management requires constant investment to be effective. Today, federal authorities spend more than $20 million every year, just to prevent sea lamprey from bouncing back.

Haskin said we need to be vigilant about other species like invasive carp, zebra and quagga mussels and didymo.

"We control something like the sea lamprey and then something else can come in and disturb that whole balance again," Haskin said.

For more information about the Thunder Bay International Film Festival, see the schedule of events here. To learn more about the history of sea lamprey control, check out WCMU's past reporting on the Hammond Bay Biological Station.

Teresa Homsi is an environmental reporter and Report for America Corps Member based in northern Michigan for WCMU. She covers rural environmental issues, focused on contamination, conservation, and climate change.
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