Researchers seek fish guts and the money to study them

By EVAN KUTZ
Capital News Service

LANSING — Stomachs of more than 1,000 fish from lakes Huron and Michigan are in a freezer at Michigan State University awaiting dissection as part of a study critical to managing gamefish.

But a lack of funding has put on ice the project that’s important for gauging the health of predator-prey relationships in an ever-evolving ecosystem.

Now fisheries’ scientists are asking Great Lakes residents to contribute to a campaign to raise the $8,500 needed to pay MSU students to analyze what’s in the stomachs of those fish.

“It really is an important study, and an important time to do this,” said Michigan Sea Grant Extension educator Daniel O’Keefe, who worked with anglers to accumulate the stomach collection. “Hopefully a couple of years from now we’ll have lots of cool answers on what we found.”

The donations will help hire students to provide data to the public and resource management agencies. At the same time, the students will gain experience for careers in fisheries and fisheries management.

Katie Kierczynski, an MSU fisheries and wildlife graduate student, has already processed Lake Huron fish stomachs with the occasional help of lab assistants. She plans to finish before spring, when Lake Michigan’s samples are scheduled for processing. That’s a big task for a small team.

The work is challenging. Digested fish lose their skin first, making it unlikely to identify them from skin pigments. They must instead be identified by their bone structure, Kierczynski said.

“It’s easier to do the ones that are not digested as much,” she said. “You’ll get some that are four to five vertebra and some mush.”

She cuts the stomachs in half to identify a Great Lakes predator’s meal plan. That can include terrestrial insects like moths and beetles—but consists largely of other fish. Walleye can eat fish because of their larger stomachs.

Kierczynski is also examining lake trout with even larger stomachs.

O’Keefe had done similar analysis for his master’s degree.

“I can tell you, it’s a pretty cool job and it’s really fun. Sounds kind of gross, but it’s pretty interesting to see what they eat,” he said. “It’ll be a good experience for whichever students wind up doing this.”

O’Keefe spearheads many citizen science programs.

The diet study is a great way for anglers to contribute to knowledge of the Great Lakes, he said. He helped create a video that demonstrates how to cut out the stomachs, zip them into a labeled plastic bag and drop them off at a local Department of Natural Resources cleaning station freezer.

Evan Kutz writes for Great Lakes Echo.