Old specimen provides new insight into invasive algae

Capital News Service

LANSING — Some aggressively stealthy invaders may be more aggressively stealthy than we thought.

Consider the starry stonewort, a green alga from Eurasia that now thrives in many inland lakes in Michigan and that can outcompete native plants.

Its first documented discovery in North America was in New York in 1978 — or so scientists believed.

Then through a combination of old-school and new-school technologies they discovered that earlier samples had been collected from the St. Lawrence River in Quebec, possibly in 1974 but maybe even earlier, a new study says.

Starry stonewort — Nitellopsis obtusa to scientists – “prefers slow-moving, developed waterways,” according to the study by researchers at the New York Botanical Garden. It’s found in “numerous inland lakes from Minnesota to Vermont, and from Lake Ontario and inland lakes in southern Ontario.”

It was first detected in the state in Lake St. Clair in 1986, and can “now be found in lakes in the Lower Peninsula, particularly the southern region,” including St. Joseph County’s Lake Templene, according to the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

“Thick mats of starry stonewort cover lake bottoms that effectively block fish access to suitable spawning habitats,” DEQ says.

The study said, “There are numerous examples of Eurasian invasive species introduced into North American via St. Lawrence Seaway shipping routes.”

And the new discovery supports the theory that starry stonewort also arrived by way of the St. Lawrence, according to Kenneth Karol, the lead author of the study and an associate curator at the New York Botanical Garden.

How did that discovery come about?

In approximately 1974, an algae scientist at the Université du Québec collected and preserved a specimen that he found during his research into water quality, Karol said. That scientist sent the unidentified specimen to another researcher who “put it on his shelf” and didn’t do anything with it.

When that researcher died, the New York Botanical Garden inherited his collection, which then “sat on our shelf” until the institution began to digitize its collection of 7.8 million plant specimens, including 300,000 algae specimens, Karol said.

And that’s when he and doctoral student Robin Sleith of the City University of New York put it under a microscope and identified it as starry stonewort. Sleith coauthored the study published in the “Journal of Phycology.”

“It’s really cool that we can use these relatively old natural history collections to understand invasive and native species,” Karol said.

The process is leading to other scientific discoveries as well. For example, he said, “I’m getting very usable DNA from samples in the 1800s, so we can look at the genetics from, say, specimens from the Old World over time and space.”

Noting that starry stonewort is considered “rare and endangered” in the Old World but aggressively invasive in North America, he said scientists are trying to understand why that is. The answer may lie in genetics, in the presence or absence of predators, or somewhere else.

The process is leading to other scientific discoveries. “I’m getting very usable DNA from samples in the 1800s, so we can look at the genetics from, say, specimens from the Old World over time and space,” he said.

In addition, the research may help scientists learn about hotspots for invasions, he said: “Where these boats are picking it up and moving it around. Hopefully we can curb that movement and control the invasion.

Michigan DEQ’s Water Resources Division says starry stonewort could have arrived in the state in a ship’s ballast water and then was spread by waterfowl or boats.

The Department of Natural Resources says, “Control efforts — mechanical or chemical removal — for starry stonewort are currently underway in some areas and have historically been led at the local or regional level. The management responsibility, including financing the effort, usually rests with the owner of the infested property.”

Catch and release kills many fish

Capital News Service

LANSING — Catch and release was meant to help sustain fish populations. But a four-year study shows it may do the opposite.

Almost half of lake trout caught in Lake Huron and Lake Superior die after they’re released, according to the recent study published by the Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Research Station in Marquette. 

The trauma of getting caught and the difference in air and water temperatures stress the fish, said Shawn Sitar, the author of the study. “It reduces their survivability.”

By 40 percent to be exact.

The researchers trained anglers to tag trout and record every detail of the catch and release process. Any factor that could indicate a stressful or traumatic experience of the fish provided better information on which of the fish died.

“The study was rather demanding because they wanted 600 fish,” said Marquette resident Joe Buys, who helped catch the fish. “We recorded things like how the fish were hooked, the temperature of the water and the depth of where the fish were caught.”

To calculate trout mortality – death rates — two groups were collected, tagged and then released back into the lakes. One group was caught by commercial fishing nets that didn’t use traditional catch and release methods and one group was caught recreationally by anglers who did use catch and release. Over the span of four years, when tagged fish were re-caught, the anglers reported the catch to Sitar’s team.

The strongest indicator of trout mortality is the water and air temperature when the fish were caught. Because lake trout is a cold water fish, warmer temperatures are an intense stressor, Sitar said.

The study dispelled some previous assumptions.

Historically, both biologists and anglers assumed that when trout are caught, they die if their stomachs bloat from the change in pressure when they’re pulled quickly from deeper to shallower water.  However, Sitar found little connection between fish that showed bloating, or barotrauma, and those that died.

“What we found in our study, the number of bloated fish that were tagged and released by our anglers had the same return rate as those that weren’t,” he said. “That tells us the mortality rate being so high is related to the trauma and temperature difference, rather than depth.”

Barotrauma was found in 32 percent of the fish caught for the study in Lake Superior.

The only other study looking at catch and release mortality in the Great Lakes had concluded only 15 percent of fish died. But that study was conducted by attaching fish to shower curtain rings that were attached to buoys, Sitar said. While a good first attempt, it isn’t the most accurate method for measuring mortality. More research was needed.

Catch and release is intended as a conservation technique. After a fish is caught, a quick measurement is made to see if state regulations require it to be thrown back.

Another technique is to limit how many fish can be caught instead of the size of what’s kept.

States often wrestle with how to control recreational fishing by limiting the size of keepers or through fish quotas, Sitar said. Both the Minnesota and Wisconsin DNR enforce a quota on the number of fish.

Sitar’s study is a good compass for how to regulate fishing, experts say.

“When Sitar’s study came out, we realized we still need to account for how the fish are hooked when they’re caught,” said Brad Ray, a fishery biologist with the Wisconsin DNR. To account for the high mortality rate, the 25-inch minimum length was lowered to 15 inches, Ray said.

Most Great Lake states, like Wisconsin and Minnesota, enforce a 15-inch minimum for most fish caught, Sitar said. But because there are so few actually caught it’s not usually a problem.

There aren’t many solutions to solving catch and release mortality, Sitar said. Fishing during colder parts of the season resulted in less mortality. He also recommended reeling in fish at a slower speed.



Woods, whiskey, women and widow-makers caught in lumberjack songs

Capital News Service

LANSING — Winter was the time of year when the North Woods rang with the sound of axes and saws felling giant white pines.

It was the late 1800s, the Golden Age of American Lumbering, and the supply of trees was endless.

That last statement would prove untrue, of course.

In reality in northern Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, the timber moguls, surveyors, speculators and lumberjacks were merely following the path of clear-cutting and exploitation that had already moved westward from Quebec and Ontario, from Maine and New Brunswick, from New England and New York.

Demand for timber seemed insatiable as Americans moved westward, building Midwestern cities like Chicago and settling the prairies of the Great Plains with farmhouses, barns and shops. Railroad routes stretched further and further, with their mega-appetite for wooden ties.

But what of the lumberjacks whose perilous labor built the fortunes of timber barons and who endured the hardships and hazards and isolation of those North Woods?

Life was in jeopardy. Death loomed as branches – widow-makers – fell, as logs jammed in rivers swollen with spring melt and as diseases ravaged lumber camps.

The “Pinery Boys: Songs and Songcatching in the Lumberjack Era” (University of Wisconsin Press) throws light on the lumberjack culture of the era. It’s a revised and retitled version of a 1926 book by Franz Rickaby, an English professor who traveled 917 miles, mostly by foot, from Charlevoix, Michigan, to North Dakota to collect songs of the “quickly disappearing” shanty boys, the lumberjacks.

Some songs describe them sitting around the lumber camps at night, smoking pipes, telling tall tales and playing music.

But others reflect harsher realities, such as a song about a tragedy in Minnesota “concerning a young shanty-boy so tall, genteel and brave. T’was on a jam on Gerry’s Rocks he met a wat’ry grave.”

And consider this one that contrasts labor recruitment promises with grim truth:

“It being on Sunday morning, as you shall plainly see
The preacher of the gospel at morning came to me.
He says, “My jolly good fellow, how would you like to go
And spend a winter pleasantly in Michigan-I-O?
The grub the dogs would laugh at. Our beds were on the snow.
God send there is no worse than hell or Michigan-I-O.
Along yon glissering river no more shall we be found.
We’ll see our wives and sweethearts, and tell them not to go
To that God-forsaken country called Michigan-I-O.”

Some lumberjacks left the Great Lakes region to fell virgin forests elsewhere. One such song tells of a “heart-broken raftsman from Greenville” who worked on the Flat River and whose name “is engraved on its rocks, sands and shoals.” Spurned by his sweetheart, he vows:

“I’ll leave Flat River, there I ne’er can find rest.
I’ll shoulder my peavey and start for the West.”

The songcatcher, Rickaby, was “the source of deeply rooted insights into the gritty, almost forgotten reality” of the “singers and makers” of the songs of the North Woods, retired Professor James Leary of the University of Wisconsin, Madison writes in his introduction to the book.

Rickaby’s granddaughter, Gretchen Dykstra, writes in another chapter about his quest for songs.

“He slept in deserted camps on beds of cedar chips and in dark bunkhouses on grimy straw mattresses,” Dykstra wrote.

Rickaby described finding two songs “from a toothless shanty boy in a small lumber camp” near Allenville in the Upper Peninsula: Entering the lumber camp on an old logging road, “on all sides I saw the charred and fire-eaten stumps of what must have been magnificent trees, the hauling out of which this road was made.”

Coming out of the North Woods at the end of the season carried its own risks, many lumberjacks learned, especially the risk that their hard-earned wages could disappear quickly on liquor and women.

Here’s how one song put it:

“But here’s a proposition, boys; when next we meet in town,
We’ll form a combination and mow the forest down.
We then will cash our handsome checks, we’ll neither eat nor sleep,
Nor will we buy a stitch o’ clothes while whiskey is so cheap.”