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Fish passage restoration on Manistee River may support reintroduction of locally extinct species

The state will be replacing failing, road-stream crossings along the upper Manistee River, thanks to $2.5 million in federal funding.

The project could make the river more appealing to arctic grayling — a fish species that disappeared from the state around 90 years ago.

The state plans to stock grayling eggs in Michigan streams next spring. While the Manistee River has not been officially chosen, the fish passage project makes the coldwater stream a solid candidate.

"It's not necessarily a guarantee, but it certainly helps the argument that the Manistee should one of the first systems selected for this restoration effort," said Ed Eisch, with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. "There's already a lot of good habitat there."

The state has tried and failed to re-introduce the arctic grayling several times since it vanished from Michigan waterbodies in 1936.

Eisch said it took decades of research and collaboration with officials from Montana, one of only two other states in the country with historic grayling populations to learn what the species needs.

Turns out, Eisch said, grayling will not spawn if they're introduced into rivers as adults or juveniles.

"When they hatch, they imprint on the water they're in, and they want to get back to that (to spawn)," Eisch said. "But if they're reared in a hatchery (and released), they're searching forever for their home water, and they can't find it."

Eisch also called arctic grayling a "nomadic species" that need miles of undisturbed waters to thrive — another aspect the Manistee River restoration would address.

"They like to roam, it's in their genetics," Eisch said. "So, a high degree of connectivity is one of the key things we're looking for in the streams that we select for this initiative."

Three other Michigan rivers are also receiving federal grants to fund dam removals and replace culverts to help other species like freshwater mussels, bass and perch.

The state stocked three Michigan lakes with 1,800 grayling, which were "surplus" fish from hatcheries. They are not expected to reproduce, and though harvest is not permitted, anglers are welcome to catch them.

Once the state stocks fertilized eggs, Eisch said the hope is that arctic grayling can develop a self-sustaining population.

Editor's note: In the interest of transparency, we note that the Michigan Department of Natural Resources is a financial supporter of WCMU.

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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