Lake State students start salmon on their journey

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Sault Ste. Marie — Shortly before midnight inside a chilly fish hatchery in the Upper Peninsula, Jonathan Edwards gathered around a giant tub filled with Atlantic salmon that he helped raise while attending Lake Superior State University.

For nearly an hour, he and his fellow classmates witnessed a ceremonial unplugging of six tubs that released 40,000 fish into drains that flow into the St. Marys River.

The salmon were expected to journey through the Great Lakes and populate it for Michigan sport fishermen, supporting a $9-million industry.

Students in the ongoing project inside the Aquatic Research Lab also created 300,000 fertilized and hatched salmon eggs for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, whose staff will raise and eventually release the fish into the Great Lakes. The student program, along with the state partnership, means that nearly all of the Atlantic salmon in Lakes Superior, Huron and Michigan can be traced back to LSSU.

Now, the lab — among a handful in the nation that trains undergraduates and stocks public waters — could be headed for a much higher profile: The university is hoping to move into a new space inside a hydroelectric facility along the Sault Ste. Marie riverfront that will quadruple the lab's size and expand its capability and reach.

Though the university expected to move forward with the plan this year, the project has been stalled because of uncertain funding. For months, it had been a top project in next year's state budget, but it was cut within days of the university's annual salmon release.

But on that night in early June, the future of the hatchery took a back seat to the university's 29th release of salmon into the wild. LSSU President Thomas Pleger hosted a mock graduation ceremony for the fish. Students, faculty and other supporters stood around the tubs, snapping pictures and videos of the release.

For Edwards — who helped catch and raise all of the salmon — the moment was bittersweet. Reflecting on the past year and a half, Edwards said the work he's done hits home when friends around the state text him pictures of an Atlantic salmon they catch, or he sees pictures on Facebook.

"I think — 'Wow, those came from here,' " said Edwards, a resident of Manton, near Cadillac. "It's pretty amazing, knowing I had a part in the fishing industry for the state and that people enjoy it."

For nearly 30 years, Lake State, the state's smallest public university with 2,300 students, has been a leader in freshwater research and education, training students to work and manage hatcheries, and embark on a career in fish ecology, management or research. It provides students with a unique hands-on laboratory where they have raised about a million Atlantic salmon.

The off-campus lab, established in 1977, is housed in the Cloverland Electric Cooperative Hydroplant — a power plant in a historic facility built by Italian immigrants out of rock cut from the canal that made Sault Ste. Marie an island.

Initially, the lab's mission was to address fish sustainability and water quality and train students. But it has since become a partner with the DNR and an essential part of the state's sport fishing industry by training students to raise Atlantic salmon, a native fish of the Great Lakes.

Lake State fisheries students get hands-on experience. Though Michigan State University has a fishery program, it doesn't have a training lab. Similar programs exist across the country, but most are for graduate students, said Roger Greil, LSSU lab manager. A program at Mount Hood Community College, east of Portland, Oregon, also trains students in a hatchery, but that is a two-year program.

At Lake State, students catch 100 pairs of male and female salmon every fall. They strip each female of its 3,500 eggs and milt from the males, then fertilize the gametes in buckets. They test the fingerlings for disease and monitor them. Before they are released 18 months later into the St. Marys River, they clip one fin of every fish to tag them for future identification.

The salmon are small when they are released — about 10 to a pound. Eventually, the adult fish return to the St. Marys River to spawn in the fall, and the cycle begins again.

"The program started as a way for us to train students and it still is, that is our key goal," said Ashley Moerke, co-director of the Aquatic Research Lab. "But now, with us supplying eggs to the state, it is becoming a much bigger deal. It is extending beyond what our training program ever envisioned."

In 1984 the university got a grant to produce Atlantic salmon for the state. But LSSU's role expanded about four years ago when the number of Chinock and Coho salmon began to decline in the Great Lakes due to changes in the habitat. Atlantic salmon were proving to be more resilient, Moerke said, so the state increased its Atlantic salmon stocking program and tapped Lake State students to produce the fish in the lab.

A vision for a new lab emerged five years ago, and got the attention of Pleger, who became LSSU's 8th president in July. The future lab became the top campus development priority.

"The vision was we could expand our production, we could expand our teaching, we could have an education component that would help people realize how important the Great Lakes are, not only this particular salmon species, but all the research that goes on in the lab in addition to the salmon," Pleger said. "The thought was we could expand that to generate additional revenue for the campus through grant research and consulting research. We could serve more students and by having an educational facility, we would attract more tourists. There already's half a million tourists going through the Sault at the (Soo) Locks."

University officials submitted the proposal to the state's Capital Outlay Program, which provides funding for higher education building projects.

Officials recommended Lake State's proposal receive nearly $8 million from the state, while the university kicks in the rest for the $10.5 million project. Gov. Rick Snyder backs the project.


But at the end of May, all projects in the Capital Outlay budget were nixed in the state's $54.5 billion budget due to other funding priories, said Kurt Weiss, spokesman for the Michigan State Budget Office.

The university will resubmit its request to the state program next year, Pleger said. Already $1 million has been pledged to the project by the Great Lakes Fishery trust and private donors, one of whom has pledged to cover the salary of a full-time staff member to seek grants for the project.

The new lab, to be renamed the Center for Freshwater Research and Education, is to include a visitor center, classrooms and bigger research labs. The space also would enable LSSU students to raise fish for the state beyond the hatched eggs that are transferred to the DNR's Platte River State Hatchery.

For now, the students continue to work out of the current lab.

"You don't learn a lot until you get to see the fish, clean them, feel them and actually see disease and physiology," said John Milan, a Royal Oak resident, who will be a junior. "It's everything you don't learn out of a book."