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Sea lamprey resurfaces as invasive lake threat, spurring Wisconsin to consider new control programs

by Tim Anderson ~ September 2013 ~ Stateline Midwest »
On a recent fishing trip off Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin Sen. Robert Cowles made a surprising — and unwelcome — catch. It was a sea lamprey, one of the most destructive invasive species ever to enter the Great Lakes.
“I had not seen one since I was a little kid fishing with my dad,” Cowles says.
That discovery has since led Wisconsin lawmakers down an unfamiliar path — considering the use of state dollars for sea lamprey control, which has long been left to the federal governments in Canada and the United States.
A bill proposed by Cowles (SB 134) and a companion measure in the Assembly (AB 155) call for the state to spend a half-million dollars to build a new sea lamprey barrier, improve an existing one, and increase chemical treatments proven to control populations.
“This is one invasive species that we need to keep under control,” Cowles says. “Letting it get out of control could be damaging for many, many years.”
Native to the Atlantic Ocean, sea lampreys came to the Great Lakes early in the last century via shipping canals and wreaked havoc on the native ecosystem, decimating populations of native lake trout and other fish species.
This devastating impact led to an unprecedented binational collaboration to control the sea lamprey population. More than a half-century later, those efforts continue, at a cost of millions of dollars a year.
After his discovery, Cowles wondered: Was his encounter with a sea lamprey a chance event, or was the aquatic invader making a comeback?
The answer was the latter, he says, and it means Wisconsin should take preventive steps to protect its Great Lakes fishery — and all of the economic activity that comes with it.
The bills have already advanced in House and Senate committees, and were expected to be taken up this fall by the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee. Money for the projects would come from a mix of general fund revenue and Wisconsin’s Great Lakes Trout and Salmon Stamp.
The stamp, required in order to fish the Great Lakes in Wisconsin, funds trout and salmon stocking programs.
But Cowles says those programs would be no match for an out-of-control population of sea lampreys.
Marc Gaden of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, the agency formed in 1955 to lead the binational effort, cites three areas of acute concern: Lake Erie (which he says has “catastrophically high” lamprey populations), northern Lake Huron and northern Lake Michigan.
In recent years, federal funding for control programs has fallen by more than $3 million, limiting the use of chemical treatments.
“Resources have been whittled back, and this is the consequence,” Gaden says, noting that when treatments decrease, lamprey populations rise.
Though states have always been partners in the basin-wide program to control lamprey, Gaden says, direct state funding has been uncommon. Today, however, if federal funding for control continues to lag, the region’s legislatures may decide to assume a greater role in stopping a potentially destructive — and costly — takeover of the ecosystem.