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Great Lakes Article:

Line Drawn in Water Against a Predatory Fish
Posted 10/07/2002

HILLSBORO, N.Y. - First came the lake, formed 10,000 years ago by a receding glacier. Then came the canals, linking the vast Lake Champlain to other waterways. Through the canals came the sea lampreys, and life in the lake has been out of kilter ever since.

Native to the ocean, where bigger fish keep them in check, lampreys have no enemies here. Beneath the serene beauty of the lake's surface, the eel-like fish prey on salmon and lake trout. They cut holes through the sides of the fish and remain attached for days, slowly sucking their blood.

The lampreys have also sucked the life out of the recreational fishing industry of the lake, framed on the west by the Adirondack Mountains of New York and on the east by the Green Mountains of Vermont.

Now state officials on both sides of Lake Champlain are working to mount a chemical attack on the lampreys, believed to number in the millions, in the hope of restoring the lake's historic ecological balance.

Fishermen have grown used to reeling in fish with lampreys stuck to their sides. "Sometimes you get two lampreys on one fish," said Jim Hotaling, who makes a living as a charter boat captain in this spartan Adirondack village. "We had one that looked like Medusa. You couldn't see the fish."

New York and Vermont, together with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, had tackled the lamprey scourge once before. In an experimental program that ran for years in the 1990's, officials treated a dozen streams and rivers with a lampricide.

The program worked. Fishermen and state officials noted a sharp drop in the number of fish wounds, as well as improved survival rates for lake trout and salmon. Recreational fishing improved, too, with a 76 percent increase in the lake trout catch and a threefold increase in the salmon catch.

But the joint chemical treatments came to an end, although limited treatments continued in New York, and the lampreys rebounded. "We're pretty much back to square one," said Brian D. Chipman, a district fisheries biologist with the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife.

After studying the results of the lampricide program, officials decided to pursue a permanent treatment effort. Five rivers and streams are being treated this fall: four in New York and one in Vermont.

A single attack by a mature, two-foot-long lamprey against a small trout can be fatal, scientists say. Larger trout and salmon may survive numerous attacks, but are left weakened. "We've handled lake trout with as many as 13 to 14 scars on them," said Larry Nashett, a regional fisheries manager for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

The most strenuous opposition to the use of lampricide has come from Vermont. A recent lawsuit charged that the state and federal agencies had not adequately reviewed the program's effects on other species, among other things. But in early September, a United States District Court judge upheld the environmental review and dismissed the lawsuit.

Even those who challenged the use of lampricide concede that officials have few alternatives. "Doing nothing is really not an option because the lamprey population is so severe," said Ben Davis, the environmental advocate for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, a plaintiff in the suit.

State officials are trying other tactics as well, from trapping lampreys in the smallest tributaries to erecting barriers across rivers to prevent the lampreys from spawning. But for now, the lampricide 3-trifluoromethyl-4-nitrophenol, or TFM, is the weapon of choice.

On a crystalline day, two dozen wildlife officials were spread along a bank of the Salmon River, five miles south of Plattsburgh, N.Y. They were overseeing the release of 60 gallons of the lampricide into the river. "I expect to kill tens of thousands today," Mr. Nashett said with an air of satisfaction.

By early afternoon, biologists started to see dead lampreys lying on the bottom of the Salmon River. Nearby, a minnow swam vigorously through the treated water, apparently unharmed.

"Lampreys are one of the most primitive fishes that exist on the face of the earth, and they are very sensitive to the chemical," said Gerald A. Barnhart, director of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation's Division of Fish, Wildlife and Marine Resources.

The chemical assault is aided by the sea lamprey's physiology and life cycle. The lampreys spend their first four years as filter feeders in dozens of streams and rivers that flow into the lake. There they grow to a length of six inches, not much bigger than an earthworm.

Then they transform themselves into parasites - or, as state officials prefer, predators - and migrate into the lake, where they live for 12 to 18 more months. During those months, the lampreys grow rapidly, adding 20 inches in length and two inches in girth as they feast on the blood of thin-skinned fish.

Mr. Barnhart said the lamprey's migration pattern was a "real blessing" in that it allowed tributaries to be treated every four years.

Still, a portion of several other fish species also succumb to the lampricide, including log perch and stone cats, a type of catfish. But those species are so abundant in the 490-square-mile lake that their loss from the lampricide is a mere blip, state officials say.

Some environmentalists say that correcting the ecological makeup of the lake can be slippery, with one intervention leading to another. They point out that the policy of New York and Vermont to stock the lake with hundreds of thousands of trout and salmon a year has provided lampreys with their favorite food, thus bolstering the lamprey population. That means more chemicals and, as a result, harm to other species.

"We are not very good as a society at trying to correct our mistakes," said Peter E. Bauer, executive director of the Residents' Committee to Protect the Adirondacks, an environmental group in North Creek, N.Y. "We built these canals, which changed the composition of the fish species, and now we're trying to change it back. But it's hard to turn back nature's clock."

Perhaps no group is as eager to see the treatments resume than the boat captains. Their livelihood depends on a robust population of lake trout and salmon, the two most popular species among fishermen.

Mr. Hotaling, 44, witnessed a startling turnaround in the lake's trout and salmon during the experimental treatments. Fish were bigger, with fewer scars, and were more abundant. Mr. Hotaling even opened a bait and tackle store here to complement his booming charter business.

But in 1998, the year after the joint treatment program ended, the scars and wounds on the fish returned. "It was like somebody flipped the light switch, and the lampreys took off again," he said, skippering his 24-foot Crestliner across the glassy lake. Fewer fishermen came, and this spring he closed his tackle shop.

Steve Bradley, a former boat captain who abandoned the business for a job in computers, is hopeful the renewed treatments will help the industry. "The potential is phenomenal," he said. "If you could catch 10- to 20-pound fish in that lake, with the setting you have there, it would just be a fabulous thing."

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