TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — Proposed cutbacks in federal spending could wipe
out years of progress toward controlling sea lampreys in the Great Lakes and
restoring fish species devastated by the parasitic invaders, officials say.
The U.S. and Canadian governments have cooperated since the 1950s on
reducing the population of lampreys, eel-like creatures that slithered into
the lakes from the Atlantic Ocean through shipping canals. A combination of
trapping, sterilization and application of poisons in streams where they
spawn has dropped their numbers by about 90 percent, enabling fish such as
lake trout to begin recovering.
But funding reductions over the next two years proposed by members of
Congress and the Obama administration could force the Great Lakes Fishery
Commission, the binational agency that runs the lamprey control program, to
scale back operations in crucial locations, spokesman Marc Gaden said.
“Even a short-term relaxation of lamprey control sets us back a decade or
more in fishery restoration,” Gaden said. “You’re talking about the
potential for significant numbers of lampreys to survive and go out into the
lakes to kill fish.”
Lampreys use their round, disklike mouths filled with sharp teeth to attach
themselves to fish and suck their blood, weakening and often killing the
hosts. With no natural predators in the Great Lakes and a wealth of
tributary waters providing ideal spawning grounds, it’s considered
impossible to eliminate them. Scientists continue developing new methods of
keeping them in check, such as using pheromones — sex scents emitted by male
lampreys — to lure females into traps.
Controlling lampreys is labor-intensive. Crews head into the field each
spring to set traps and look for streams where lampreys have laid eggs,
enabling the commission to decide which should be treated with a liquid
chemical that kill lamprey larvae but are believed to spare other fish.
About 480 tributaries have been treated since the program began, with 167
hot spots getting doses of the chemical every few years. In the typical
year, about 100 are treated.
A granular biocide is used in the St. Marys River, which forms a
60-mile-long link between Lakes Superior and Huron and is the biggest
lamprey spawning area. Its size and swift currents make the liquid
The U.S. share of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission budget, 90 percent of
which goes to lamprey control, was $21.7 million in 2010. Its fate in the
current fiscal year depends on whether it takes a hit as Congress works out
details of an agreement reached Friday to cut $38 billion in federal
A package of cuts approved earlier by the House and rejected by the Senate
would slash the commission’s budget by 20 percent in 2011. Supporters in the
Senate hope to keep the funding at last year’s level, “which would allow us
to deliver pretty much a complete program,” Gaden said.
After 2011 spending is determined, Congress will begin work on the 2012
budget submitted by Obama, which would allocate $18.7 million for the
commission — about 15 percent less than last year.
Such cuts would require the commission to choose between across-the-board
reductions in stream treatment or continuing full treatment in some areas
while doing nothing in others. Either option would boost lamprey numbers,
Gaden said. They are prolific, with each spawning female capable of laying
up to 100,000 eggs.
His agency has calculated that a 20 percent funding cut would allow the
population to rise from the estimated 320,000 at present to about 550,000,
causing a loss of about 9 million additional pounds of fish. Many victims
would die before they are mature enough to reproduce, further hampering
efforts to restore trout, salmon and other species.
Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat and co-chairman of the Senate’s Great
Lakes Task Force, told The Associated Press last week he would “fight hard
against any reductions in funding” for lamprey control.
John Atwell, a Lake Huron charter boat captain based in Port Austin, said a
lamprey population explosion could ruin his business, already badly damaged
by the collapse of the lake’s salmon fishery in the past decade because of
overpopulation and loss of prey fish. The likely culprit is the invasive
quagga mussel, which vacuumed up plankton that formed a vital link in the
About three dozen charter boats operated in his area seven years ago, Atwell
said. Perhaps 10 are left.
“With the salmon being gone, the charter captains are looking for lake trout
and steelhead and walleye,” he said. “If they let the sea lamprey get out of
control again it will decimate probably 50 percent of the fish ... one more