Celebrating 60 Years of Successful Sea Lamprey Control, Science, and Cross-Border Collaboration

Jill Wingfield
Great Lakes Fishery Commission
May 29, 2015
Water Matters - Gloved hand holding a sea lamprey

In 2015, the Great Lakes Fishery Commission (GLFC) is excited to celebrate two momentous occasions in Great Lakes fishery management and restoration: the 60th anniversary of the Convention on Great Lakes Fisheries between Canada and the U.S., which finally ended parochialism in fisheries; and the 50th anniversary of the GLFC's lake committees, which ensure collaboration across borders.

The convention created the GLFC and tasked it with controlling the destructive sea lamprey, leading research for fishery rehabilitation, and forging cross-border collaboration. For more than a century, this type of collaboration was missing in the Great Lakes, much to the detriment of the fish and the people who depended on them for income, recreation, and subsistence.

Signatories of the Convention on Great Lakes Fisheries, which created the Great Lakes Fishery Commission. Credit: GLFC
Signatories of the Convention on Great Lakes Fisheries, which created the Great Lakes Fishery Commission. Credit: GLFC

Sea Lamprey Control

The GLFC’s sea lamprey control program has, without a doubt, been a critical part of the basin-wide effort to restore the fishery – and economy – after the devastation wreaked by the sea lamprey invasion in the mid-1920s and 1930s. Over the last 60 years, the GLFC and its partners have been able to reduce sea lamprey populations by 90 percent in most areas of the Great Lakes – a remarkable success.

Why is sea lamprey control important? Before sea lamprey control, lampreys destroyed 103 million pounds of fish each year. Today, because of the control program, that number has been reduced to around 10 million pounds. The GLFC strives to further reduce sea lamprey populations for the benefit of native fish recovery and the $7 billion fishery.

Sea lampreys use their large oral sucking disk filled with sharp, horn-shaped teeth surrounding a razor sharp rasping tongue to securely attach to a fish, rasp through the fish’s scales and skin, and feed on the fish’s body fluids. Credit: GLFC
Sea lampreys use their large oral sucking disk filled with sharp, horn-shaped teeth surrounding a razor sharp rasping tongue to securely attach to a fish, rasp through the fish’s scales and skin, and feed on the fish’s body fluids. Credit: GLFC

Research

Science is, and will remain, the foundation of all GLFC activities. The research program focuses on three key areas: fishery research, sea lamprey research, and science transfer (to communicate research to those who will apply it).

The fishery research program has supported myriad projects that have examined the interconnectedness of Great Lakes fish populations, demonstrated their vulnerability to various human-induced and natural changes, and confirmed that restoring native species – particularly predatory fish – will bring a more natural balance to the ecosystem.

The sea lamprey research program, through innovative research, has developed alternative control techniques such as barriers and traps, which are now essential components of the integrated control program. They are used in conjunction with lampricides, the workhorses of the program. The GLFC is investing significantly into the development and implementation of pheromones – natural odors used by lampreys to communicate – and the application of knowledge gained from mapping the sea lamprey genome, both of which hold considerable promise for the future of control.

Lake trout and whitefish, two key native species of the Great Lakes, were hit particularly hard by the sea lamprey invasion. Re-establishment of native fishes has been, and will continue to be, a top research priority for the fishery research program. Credit: P. Vescei
Lake trout and whitefish, two key native species of the Great Lakes, were hit particularly hard by the sea lamprey invasion. Re-establishment of native fishes has been, and will continue to be, a top research priority for the fishery research program. Credit: P. Vescei

Fishery Management

Today, fishery management on the Great Lakes is more cooperative than ever. Through the non-binding agreement, A Joint Strategic Plan for Management of Great Lakes Fisheries, the fishery management agencies of the Great Lakes – eight states, one province, three U.S. intertribal agencies, and several Canadian and U.S. federal agencies – have committed to manage the fishery through collaboration, consensus, strategic planning, and ecosystem-based management.

The plan, which uses the GLFC’s lake committees as “action arms,” allows agencies to leverage resources, avoid duplication of effort, develop shared objectives, and exchange valuable data. The result is one of the world’s finest examples of transboundary cooperation. The GLFC is committed to continuing its work with partners and stakeholders to build upon the existing relationships that make the Great Lakes fishery management community functional, collaborative, and successful.

As the GLFC reflects on its 60th anniversary and the 50th anniversary of the lake committees, the prevailing theme that emerges is a strong desire to sustain past successes while continuing to adapt to the many changes that inevitably will occur on the Great Lakes. The guiding principles, effective governing institutions already in place, and the solid foundation of cooperation built over six decades, leave the fish community ready and able to tackle the challenges of the future.

The Great Lakes Fishery Commission’s 60th annual meeting will be held June 10-11 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. More information about the meeting, including hotel information and a draft agenda, can be found here: Great Lakes Fishery Commission 60th Anniversary Meeting Notice and Invitation.

(Editor’s note: The IJC, under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, works with other binational institutions that address concerns relating to the Great Lakes basin ecosystem.)

Jill Wingfield
Great Lakes Fishery Commission

Jill Wingfield is communications program manager with the Great Lakes Fishery Commission.