DNR investing in project on Au Sable River

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By SARAH LAPSHAN

Michigan Department of Natural Resources

Ed Eisch knows fish.

After 30-plus years working in the state’s fish production program — doing just about every job from technician to hatchery biologist, and now overseeing the entire effort — Eisch understands even the smallest details of what it takes to keep the state’s six fish hatcheries humming.

Those Michigan Department of Natural Resources sites, in Alanson, Beulah, Harietta, Manistique, Marquette and Mattawan, produce the fish eggs and fry that ultimately stock state lakes, streams and ponds, complementing natural fish production in these waters. That includes an average of 6 million to 7 million trout and salmon coming from the DNR’s cold-water facilities each year.

Eisch is confident that recent state investment in the fish hatcheries will not only keep the lights on, but also positively influence fisheries.

All six hatcheries have infrastructure needs, and all are set for some level of improvements — but Wolf Lake, in Mattawan, probably will see the most changes. One of the biggest is the proposed construction of a new, $6 million cool-water facility for rearing walleye and muskie.

The DNR is looking at biosecurity boosts at several locations: things like recoating the insides of rearing units and adding UV filtration to remove pathogens from the water.

“Recoating is important because the old coating starts to peel away and that creates divots in the units, which make great spots for waste material to collect and for bacteria to grow,” Eisch said. “Recoated rearing units provide cleaner places for fish to thrive.”

Some projects include maintenance and replacement of wells, possibly some dredging of ponds — more flow means healthier, fitter fish.

Other planned work is more structural. Visitors to the Platte River hatchery in Beulah might see areas where the rebar is exposed because the concrete is crumbling. These are needs that have to be addressed and fixed now, or else the buildings will face replacement down the road. That’s a much more expensive proposition. The DNR also will target electrical distribution systems for repairs and upgrades, especially at Wolf Lake and Platte. Those systems (each at least 40 years old) have aging components including switch gears, buried electrical lines that are replaced as they fail, transformers, motor control centers — big, important components that, in the end, add up to hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars.

A new approach to the Au Sable

Another department initiative seeing success on an iconic Michigan river has the capacity to better position other watersheds and fish populations. More than halfway through a two-year pilot project that applies structured decision-making to assess the resilience of the Au Sable River in the face of existing and emerging threats, results are promising.

Randy Claramunt is the DNR’s Lake Huron basin coordinator. He and Tammy Newcomb, DNR senior executive assistant director, are department leads working with Michigan State University experts on structured decision-making and a group of stakeholders representing the U.S. Forest Service, Michigan Trout Unlimited, the North Branch Area Foundation and fishing groups, among others. The DNR has additional representation from its fisheries, forestry, wildlife and executive divisions.

To understand where structured decision-making fits in, Claramunt said it all starts with a stream.

“If you restore a fish population in a stream, especially in a cold-water stream, the next logical jump is to habitat protection for that stream,” he said. “If the fish don’t have the cold water, woody debris and water quality, you’re going to be continually restocking that stream. Making that stream self-sustaining is the goal, but to get there you need to attack the in-stream habitat and the watershed.”

The challenge? None of that happens in a vacuum. A change on one branch of the river has implications downstream. In-stream habitat has to be holistic and consider the entire watershed.

“A watershed like the Au Sable River is the most dynamic stream in the state,” Claramunt said. “From the headwaters in the North Branch to the main stem through the ‘Holy Waters’ down past Mio Dam where it’s open to Lake Huron — that river changes dramatically, and boy, does it have amazing trout fishing.”

Unfortunately, it’s also a river experiencing several threats: thermal changes, climate change, flooding events, continued sedimentation … threats that aren’t going away.

“The question was, if we’re going to do habitat restoration or enhancements to improve the resiliency of the Au Sable River — which is, for the most part, a self-sustaining, incredible fishery — how do we pursue that resiliency,” Claramunt said.

The rise in challenges, paired with an already overstretched fisheries management staff and a passionate stakeholder base, presented an opportunity to try structured decision-making on the river.

“The power behind SDM is that stakeholders — the people who love, use and value the resource — not only help with goals and objectives, but they work with the data and the models right alongside us,” Claramunt said. “It’s not the DNR saying ‘You can’t look at our models.’ It’s us making sure we are clearly explaining the neural network models, the watershed models, and asking the stakeholders for their input on what models and data to use.”

The group uses data, population estimates, quantitative measures, values and qualitative input from the stakeholders, and then assesses the risks of different decisions.

The idea isn’t to define a set of actions — Claramunt said that’s a misconception about SDM, that you enter all the data, put in all the actions, and you get back a definitive “Do A, B or C” and you’re done.

Newcomb, who has used the SDM process to address cormorants, grass carp and salmon goals, agreed.

“It’s a great way to get people engaged, to ensure that all voices are heard and that no one entity sways the outcome,” she said. “This project is about a shared vision for a watershed highly valued by many different types of people with different interests. By using contemporary, scientific approaches to understanding landscape processes and how they affect river habitat and fish populations, we can develop an action plan with outcomes that have everyone pulling in the same direction.”

And when it comes to the Au Sable River, no one wants to make decisions that are high-risk. The goal, instead, is decisions with a far higher likelihood of reaching desired outcomes.

“The Au Sable is an incredibly beautiful, unique and valuable river. But structured decision-making has never been applied to a river system like this,” Claramunt said. “In my opinion, the Au Sable is the most dynamic river system for cold-water trout. If we can successfully use SDM here, now all of a sudden, we can apply it to the Pine River, to the Cedar River, and to a number of brook trout streams across the U.P.”

The Au Sable research, hatchery investments, energy upgrades and work done across all levels of the DNR with support from valued partners are all in service to healthy, world-class fisheries and the people who love to fish our waters season after season.

There is a passion there you won’t find anywhere else.

“Avid anglers live, eat and breathe this stuff,” said fish production manager Eisch.

“A number of years ago, my wife was a nurse working with the Area Agency on Aging and did a lot of really great things to help people who are getting older but who want to stay in their homes,” he said. “I started comparing that to what I was doing and began feeling like maybe I’m not making much of an impact here. Then I realized some people wait all week just to hit the water. Michigan fishing is their happy place. It’s salve for their soul. They need to be out there.

“It’s pretty cool knowing the work we do at the DNR helps make the experience that much better for them.”

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