Lampreys could Sidetrack Channel Near Dam

Fears of a sea lamprey invasion might scuttle a plan to create a channel this summer that would allow the River Raisin to bypass the Waterloo Dam near Veterans Park. The project is part of a continuing effort to improve fish migration upriver from Lake Erie and provide better opportunities for anglers, canoeists and kayakers, but some are worred it could lead to a sea lamprey infestation in the river. Four dams on the river were altered last year; two dams were removed and arched rock ramps were installed at two others, creating mini-rapids and freshets.

The second phase of the project would modify two more dams just east of the Roessler St. bridge and slightly downstream east of Sister’s Island, according to Patrick M. Lewis, director of engineering and public services for the City of Monroe, and permits have been issued for the work. Rock arches and rapids will be created at those dams, similar to what was done at dams near the water treatment plant and Winchester St. bridge last year. But a plan to develop a channel through Veterans Park that will divert the river’s flow around the Waterloo Dam awaits approval due to questions about whether it will increase the chances of parasitic sea lamprey invading the river. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality are studying the issue and whether the bypass channel would allow sea lamprey to migrate up the river from Lake Erie.

“We’re currently in the process of going out and doing barrier inspections and larval assessment surveys,” said Jessica Barber, a fish biologist with the USFWS. “We’re hoping to get all field work completed by the middle of June, but that’s really dependent on water levels.”

She said the federal agency learned about the channel project through a fishing blog.

Sea lampreys are a parasitic invasive species that attach themselves to adult fish and use a sucker-like mouth to grind wounds into the side of the fish and suck out body fluids, often killing the host fish.

A single lamprey can destroy 40 pounds of fish and they target the largest adult fish, explained Dale Burkett, director of the sea lamprey control project for the Ann Arbor-based Great Lakes Fishery Commission. Lampreys prey on all species of large Great Lakes fish, including lake trout, whitefish, walleye, catfish, and sturgeon. Removing the dams on the river in Monroe is part of a plan to make it easier for game fish to migrate from Lake Erie up the river, but the concern is that lamprey also will travel upstream, spawn and multiply.

Officials are expected to decide by Aug. 1 whether to allow the Waterloo Dam work or nix the plan. Mr. Barber said it might be allowed, but require application of a lamprey-killing chemical treatment.

“The underlying issue is whether or not that would allow adult lamprey to access an area suitable for spawning,” Mr. Burkett said. “That would be the threat to Lake Erie.”

The work on the dams is expected to cost about $1.5 million, mostly paid from federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grants. The Waterloo Dam project, which would include a footbridge over the new canal, is expected to represent about a third of the cost of the dam work this year, Mr. Lewis said. He said the two smaller dams in Monroe, plus a dam on the river near Ida-Maybee Rd., probably would see work this year and contracts would be sought within about a month.

“As far as we’re concerned, this project is going to happen,” Mr. Lewis said. “The only hiccup is what will happen at the Waterloo Dam.”

Mr. Burkett said the lamprey problem has been under reasonable control since the late 1960s, largely because about $18 million to $20 million is spent annually on sea lamprey control throughout the Great Lakes region. But the critters can devastate the fishery if they get out of hand.

“Individual projects like this need to be evaluated for their threat potential,” he said. “The River Raisin is kind of a microcosm of the larger issue.”