OKEMOS — In a small research facility near the campus of Michigan State University, a 4-inch brook trout eyes a school of 20 grayling fry who are hovering at the other end of an 8-foot-long raceway designed to simulate a trout stream. Suddenly, with a barely perceptible flick of its tail, the brook trout lasers through the raceway, sending a spray of water into the air.
For Nicole Watson, the researcher who is conducting this predation and competition study, the brook trout’s futility is encouraging.
“The grayling are really, really good at avoiding predation,” she said.
Watson’s lab is a piscine version of the Roman Colosseum in miniature — a laboratory that will help determine when and where Arctic grayling, an iridescent fish that has not been seen in Michigan for nearly a century, will return to their native waters.
Since May 2018, Watson has made two trips to the Chena River near Fairbanks, Alaska, returning with coolers containing “egg burritos” of grayling eggs wrapped in cloth. A doctoral student in MSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, she is in the second year of a trial that is currently focused on the predatory relationship between brook trout, brown trout and grayling.
Grayling once thrived in coldwater streams throughout the northern Lower Peninsula. They have been extinct in Michigan since 1936, having been overfished and logged into oblivion. Although previous attempts to reintroduce grayling in Michigan have failed, Watson and Michigan Department of Natural Resources officials are confident that this effort will be successful due to the success that fisheries managers in Montana have had. Montana is the only other state in the lower 48 whose rivers include grayling.
Instead of dumping year-old grayling directly into streams, as the Michigan DNR did previously, the agency will employ the use of Remote Site Incubators (RSIs) to rear grayling in the streams into which they will be released, said Ed Eisch, the DNR’s fish production program manager. RSIs are essentially large buckets through which stream water can flow. The buckets keep out predators, allowing the fertilized eggs to hatch in-stream and giving the grayling fry time to grow large enough to enter the stream.
In turn, Eisch and Watson said, researchers hope that the grayling will “imprint” in the waters into which they are released, returning to the precise location of their births to spawn.
Watson’s research is supported by the Michigan Arctic Grayling Initiative, a partnership between the DNR, the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, and 50 public, private and non-profit partner organizations. This week, the grayling-reintroduction project will achieve a milestone, when about 3,800 grayling fry will be transferred from Watson’s lab to the Oden Fish Hatchery near Petoskey. There, courtesy of a newly installed ultraviolet water-disinfection system, the grayling will be reared in isolation until they are confirmed to be disease-free and large enough to be transferred to a broodstock pond at the Marquette Fish Hatchery in the Upper Peninsula, Eisch said.
In Marquette, the fish will reach sexual maturity in three years, Eisch said.
“That would mean 2022 or 2023 would be the first year we could produce gametes (egg cells and sperm) for the RSIs,” he said.
So far, Watson said, the primary streams under consideration for the introduction of grayling are the Maple, Upper Jordan, Boardman and Upper Manistee rivers. However, the Michigan Arctic Grayling Initiative is still accepting nominations for other watersheds as well.
In addition to the predation studies she is conducting, Watson has been doing olfactory, retinal and alarm-cue response research on her grayling, tracking how the fish change their behavior individually and in schools when they feel threatened.
Professionally, Michigan’s effort to reintroduce grayling presents the chance of a lifetime for Watson, and she is all in. She sports a tattoo of a grayling that spans the length of her right tricep. She wears a silver grayling necklace. And on her left wrist is a tattoo of a coelacanth, a bizarre-looking fish thought to have disappeared 65 million years ago, when dinosaurs became extinct.
Only it didn’t disappear. In 1938, a South African museum curator discovered a coelacanth in a pile of fish on the deck of a fishing trawler. One scientist likened the finding to discovering “a pterodactyl in the Everglades.”
The discovery encourages Watson that Michigan’s coelacanth — the Arctic grayling — will once again thrive here.
“Just because you don’t know it’s there doesn’t mean it’s not,” she said.
Left unspoken was the corollary: Just because it’s not there now doesn’t mean it won’t return.
“The grayling are really, really good at avoiding predation.” Nicole Watson, MSU doctoral student