Return of a Native

How a coalition’s efforts may help the Arctic grayling make a comeback in Michigan rivers
Students on a field trip feed the now-retired brood fish at one of the hatchery’s outdoor viewing ponds.

At almost the same time that the passenger pigeon was disappearing from the skies of northwest lower Michigan near Oden, another Michigan native — the iridescent silvery, dorsal-finned Arctic grayling — was also in serious trouble.

Like the pigeons that once darkened the skies with their numbers, the delicate fish that once were caught with abandon — the town of Grayling was named for them — were eventually wiped out from the Lower Peninsula’s streams due to overfishing, habitat destruction by logging, and other factors. In 1936, the last Arctic grayling was reported caught in the Upper Peninsula.

In about 1920, a state fish hatchery opened in Oden near the banks of Crooked Lake, about six miles from Petoskey, near where the grayling once swam. That hatchery is now playing a key role in an effort to return the Arctic grayling to Michigan. The endeavor involves DNR biologists, volunteers including the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, the Michigan Arctic Grayling Initiative, and a 10-year-old boy.

The idea to return grayling to Michigan waters began with failed attempts, the last of which occurred in the 1980s. Now, with the help of studies conducted by biologists in Montana, the Michigan DNR believes it has the answer: introducing fish from the time they’re eggs into a stream so the developing eggs actually “imprint,”  or learn where they’re located.

The first steps take place at an isolated building at the Oden Hatchery — and while you can’t visit it, the rest of the facility responsible for raising and releasing nearly 750,000 rainbow and brown trout annually is open for guided tours.

It’s a great way to introduce youth to science, biology in particular, and to give them an up-close, even underwater, view of wild fish, explain Christine Steensma,  an interpreter at the hatchery visitor center, and Pat Van Daele, the hatchery’s natural resource manager.

A visit starts at the interpretive center, site of the original hatchery building, and includes a walk-through of a railroad car operated by the former Michigan Department of Conservation, which transported young fish across the state when rail was the only way to reach many rivers in the early 20th century. Crews would then pour the young into streams from milk cans. Nowadays, the fish are driven to rivers in aerated tank trucks.

You’ll walk up a trail with your guide past interpretive signs to a below-ground viewing area where your family can press their noses against the glass wall to be immersed in a fish’s underwater environment. Visitors can feed fish at the hatchery viewing pond, where Van Daele says now-retired brood fish that provided the hatchery’s trout eggs live out their lives and entertain visitors.

Visitors can tour the indoor raceways similar to where the brood graylings were raised.

Back to our story. After biologists figured out how to improve survival, the first batch of grayling eggs arrived at Oden in 2019 from the Chena River in Alaska, outside Fairbanks, a favorite place for anglers to catch and release wild grayling.

Covid prevented the second batch from arriving until 2021. A third lot, brought back to Michigan in carry-on luggage by DNR employees, arrived in early June. They’re being raised in that special isolation building, where they’re tested for disease when they arrive. Even the water leaving the building is treated with filters and ultraviolet light, to ensure it doesn’t spread anything to Michigan fish.

The first 5,000 hatched grayling, each about 6.5 inches long, were transported by truck to the Marquette hatchery, where the water is better suited to raise these brood fish to provide eggs for release in streams yet to be selected.

Grayling and brown trout, introduced from Europe, don’t get along, so streams with few or no browns have to be carefully chosen to ensure the grayling’s survival. That selection, and introduction in special streamside incubators that will circulate the same water the fish will eventually inhabit, may come around 2025 if all goes according to plan.

Which brings us back to those volunteers, including Declan O’Reilly, age 10, one of the youngest supporters of the Michigan Arctic Grayling Initiative, which raises funds to help reintroduce the fish.

“I think it’s cool to bring (the grayling) back because Michigan deserves to have native fish instead of non-native,” O’Reilly says.

He’s raised more than $3,800 through donations, sales of T-shirts designed by his artist uncle, Matthew Shultz of Seattle, and other efforts. The money was given to the Petoskey-Harbor Springs Community Foundation, which holds the Arctic Grayling Reintroduction Fund created in partnership with the DNR and the Michigan Arctic Grayling Initiative.

Declan O’Reilly played a big role in volunteer and fundraising activities for the grayling initiative.

O’Reilly’s contributions were inspired by his visit to the Oden Hatchery.  “I went to the fish hatchery and I saw a sticker, and I liked it. It was about a fund to get money to help bring them back. I went on the website and looked at a video, and I got more into it,” he says. “On my birthday, I asked for money (instead of gifts) to donate to the project.”

Other initiative supporters include the Little River Band of Ottawa. Their work began in 2011, with the goal of reintroducing the fish to the Upper Manistee River system, and potentially the Ottaway-Boardman system near Traverse City.

There are lots of pieces to this story that all need to mesh to make the grayling’s return to Michigan a reality. Some estimates are that it may take 20 or 25 years before it’s known whether the reintroduction was successful enough so natural reproduction occurs.

By then, perhaps O’Reilly will be taking his own family to see what his foresight and that of others created: the return of the grayling to its native waters.

Michigan Arctic Grayling Initiative

Michigan Fish Hatcheries

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