“It’s great to be back in Ludington,” said Jenna Tews, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service treatment supervisor.
Tews oversees lampricide treatments for the Sea Lamprey Control Program, which is housed in a new biological station at First Street Business Park in Pere Marquette Township. Lampricide is a pesticide that targets and kills lamprey larvae.
The sea lamprey program is funded and administered by the Great Lakes Fishery Commission (GLFC) and carried out by Fish and Wildlife staff.
The staff moved to Manistee in 2017 for three years after soil contamination was found due to chemicals that leaked from metal containers during the 1960s on the grounds of the previous Ludington facility on South Jebavy Drive.
Today, lampricide is stored in plastic containers.
“We used to use corrugated metal cans that corroded. Now we use all plastic so that won’t happen,” Scott Grunder, supervisor of the Ludington station, told the Daily News during a tour of the facility on Friday.
They always intended to come back to Ludington, said Dr. Marc Gaden, the GLFC communications director and legislative liaison.
The new facility was completed in the spring and the staff moved in one month before the coronavirus pandemic hit, said Grunder.
Though currently working at 25 percent capacity, the Fish and Wildlife Service employees are glad to be back in Ludington.
“It’s the right zip code,” Tews said.
Formed in 1954 to focus on Great Lakes restoration, the GLFC is a cooperative program between the United States and Fisheries and Oceans Canada to reduce the population of lampreys.
“We work with our Canadian partners across the Great Lakes. We are both contracted by the (GLFC),” said Grunder. “It’s a huge program — one of the largest in the world dealing with aquatic invasive species.”
Eight U.S. states, a Canadian province, more than 25 Native American tribes in Canada and several universities are involved in the program, he said.
Lampreys are an invasive parasitic species that drain fish of blood, Uncontrolled, lamprey damage the Great Lakes ecosystems and fishing industries.
“When they deepened the (shipping) canals to enhance the passage of ships in the 1800s, that’s when (lampreys) migrated into the Great Lakes. By the late 1930s, they had invaded in all the Great Lakes,” Grunder explained.
The commission has a 58-year history in Ludington, which is one of the reasons it decided to build the new station here.
The new facility is on a 3 1/2 acre piece of land with three buildings — an office and lab building with bays for vehicle maintenance, a storage building for the various boats used during field work and a building to store the chemicals used to control the lamprey population.
“We spent a year, working with the commission and others, planning for this facility,” Grunder said.
The biological station is larger than the previous facility. It has several new features that were designed based on employee feedback, according to Gaden.
One addition is the wash bay, which allows the vehicles used to transfer chemicals to be safely cleaned.
“Everything you need in a facility like this, we have,” Grunder said. “It’s state-of-the-art.”
The main building has a timeline on a hallway wall to honor the lamprey program’s history — such as when Vern Applegate, the “Father of the Sea Lamprey Program,” began to study the sea lamprey life cycle in the 1950s. Applegate discovered the larval stage is when lampreys are most vulnerable to lampricide.
“They went through 6,000 different chemicals to see what will kill them,” Grunder said.
The new facility has 17 full time staff and 20 seasonal employees at its usual capacity.
The program is looking to expand in the future, but those plans are on hold due to the pandemic, Grunder said.
The Ludington station treats stream systems in the Lower Peninsula, as well as streams in Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. The staff also assists the GLFC biological station in the Upper Peninsula.
“We are doing limited office work and field work right now,” he said. “We are only focusing on local (streams).”
One of the stream systems the field crews are treating this summer is the Pere Marquette River.
Lauren Freitas, a biologist on the Ludington station’s control crew, and Dylan Oates, a technician, were treating the Big South Branch of the Pere Marquette River at Dickinson Avenue on Saturday.
Oates usually works on the larval assessment unit that determines which streams are infested with lampreys. The control unit treats the streams with lampricide.
“While they are larvae, we have a control method, the lampricide, to kill them, otherwise they transform and head out into the Great Lakes. One adult sea lamprey... can destroy up to 40 pounds of fish. In the next month, we are treating the infested waters of the Pere Marquette River, which is estimated to have 1.1 million sea lamprey larvae,” Tews told the Daily News while the team applied the lampricide.
The Pere Marquette River was first treated for lampreys in 1964, and has been treated every three years since. Most stream systems are treated on a three-to-five-year rotation.
“We treat when we can deliver the most effective treatments with favorable conditions. The Pere Marquette River has been historically treated at the end of July and beginning of August since we started doing it,” Tews said.
Tews has 15 years of experience in the sea lamprey program, first as a technician and now as a supervisor.
The field staff is smaller this year because of the pandemic, so the crews are only treating stream systems that don’t require overnight stays, Tews said.
When the field crews are active from April to October, they locate lamprey larvae burrowed into the stream beds and treat the rivers with the pesticide.
All the field staff are licensed to apply pesticides with the state and the lampricides are regulated by the U.S. and Canadian governments, Tews said.
The program uses two chemicals — TFM and an additive, Bayluscide. TFM was discovered in the late 1950s as able to kill lamprey larvae without harming non-target fish and wildlife.
Freitas and Oates started treating the P.M. River with the amber-colored TFM at 10 a.m. Half an hour later, the pesticide was at a level lethal to the lamprey larvae.
The larvae were expected to rise from the river bottom, swim in the lampricide and die in the next nine hours, Tews said.
“(TFM) turns the stream a yellowish color. You can really see it on clear steams,” said Freitas.
The Ludington crew started treating Big South Branch on Thursday and expected to finish the tributary on Sunday — if the weather held out, Tews said.
Rain changes the speed of the river and further dilutes the lampricide, meaning the team would have had to scrap their plans and re-evaluate before treating the rest of the tributary.
Before any chemicals are added to a stream system, the staff look at historical and preliminary data such as the river’s water volume, alkalinity and pH levels.
“Based on historical data and preliminary data, we determine access points along the system where, because of dilution, we have to add a boost of TFM,” Tews said.
The branch of the river by Dickinson Avenue was one of the locations where they needed to add TFM to boost the level of lampricide so it was lethal to lampreys.
Concentrated TFM is brought to the site in plastic cans, put in a container then pumped into a pipe strung across the river to ensure there will be no “hot pockets,” Tews explained.
The station can use several thousand cans of TFM on a single river.
“On the Manistee or Muskegon rivers we can use 1,200 to 1,500 cans. A lot of it depends on the water volume and water chemistry,” Grunder said.
Freitas collected water samples from downstream and upstream regularly during the treatment to asses if the lampricide was being released at the desired rate.
She used a spectrophotometer to read the color of the water for absorbance — or how much of the lampricide was in the samples.
The assessment of the samples determined if Oates needed to adjust the rate the pump sent the lampricide into the river, which he also checked regularly during the application.
“(Oates completes) a feed check — checking the metered rate of lampricide he’s applying per minute. That relates directly to the concentration (Freitas) analyzes from downstream,” Tews said. “When she comes back with the sample, you can see the whole analysis. We check to make sure it’s holding a consistent rate.”
Each application typically runs for 12 hours.
“We have people working around the clock. It’s a lot of coordination,” Tews said.
By treating the sea lamprey larvae before they enter the Great Lakes, lamprey populations have been reduced by 90 percent since the program began, Grunder said.
The white trucks with Fish and Wildlife logos and orange parking cones on the side of the road tends to attract attention from people driving by or floating down the river, Tews said.
“There are no recreational restrictions to TFM when it’s in the stream. People can kayak and tube in the water where there is TFM,” she said. “Some people ask, ‘you still do this?’ We come in and do a 98 percent-effective treatment (on the Pere Marquette River) and we will come back in three years.
“It’s an ongoing battle.”
Tews expects they will be finished with the Pere Marquette River by mid-August. The total cost to treat the river is estimated at $597,000.
More information about the sea lamprey program can be found at www.sealampreycontrol.org.