Aquatic Native Species and Habitat Restoration

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During the first five years of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, federal agencies and their partners worked to maintain, restore and enhance populations of native fish and wildlife species. The following actions were taken to conserve native species that were once broadly distributed across the lakes: Assisting with the delisting of the federally endangered Lake Erie water snake; Improving conditions for the following endangered and threatened species: bog turtle, Canada lynx, copperbelly water snake, Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake, Hines emerald dragonfly, Karner blue butterfly, Kirtland’s warbler, lakeside daisy, Mitchell’s satyr butterfly, piping plover, and Pitchers thistle; and, Implementing projects that led to 48 populations of native aquatic non-threatened and non-endangered species becoming self-sustaining in the wild.

Larval coregonids

Larval coregonids caught using the neuston net durning 2014 Nearshore Cruise aboard the R/V Kiyi. Photo Credit: Mark Vinson, USGS(Public domain.)

Multi-Agency Coregonid Restoration

Human activities have greatly impacted fish populations in the Great Lakes, including various Coregonus species such as deepwater cisco (e.g. bloater (Coregonus hoyi) and lake herring (Coregonus. artedi). The USGS, USFWS, NPS, BIA, and DOS are leading a multi-agency effort to restore Great Lakes coregonids. This extensive multi-year challenge has several key objectives including: (1) developing a Strategic Conservation Plan that defines restoration priorities for all the Great Lakes; (2) describing distinct populations segments and habitats of potential source populations; (3) establish monitoring for selected performance indicators; (4) develop science support for regional networks of coregonid rearing facilities; and (5) developing underlying science for understanding critical ecological relationships for Great Lakes coregonids and determining potential causes of failure of larval and juvenile fish to grow and mature within existing populations.

Coregonids have historically played a critical role in Great Lakes food webs. Deepwater ciscoes (for example bloater and kiyi) connect benthic (habitat associated with the bottom of the lake) and pelagic (habitat associated with open water of the lake) food webs through daily vertical migrations, whereas lake herring transfer energy horizontally between nearshore and offshore communities during spawning migrations. Current food web changes may make the Great Lakes more hospitable to coregonids, thereby creating a unique opportunity to pursue their restoration. Reduced pelagic productivity and increased benthic biomass enhance the role of coregonids in energy transfer, and declines in nonnative alewife and rainbow smelt increase the probability that coregonids could fill a bentho-pelagic offshore niche (Bronte, 2017).

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Citation:  Bronte, C.R., Bunnell, D.B., David, S.R., Gordon, Roger, Gorsky, Dimitry, Millard, M.J., Read, Jennifer, Stein, R.A., and Vaccaro, Lynn, 2017, Report from the Workshop on Coregonine Restoration Science: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2017–1081, 23 p., 

Image: Maureen Walsh with cisco (Lake herring)

USGS GLSC biologist Dr. Maureen Walsh holding a lake herring caught in assessment sampling on Lake Ontario aboard the R/V Kaho.(Credit: Brian Weidel, USGS. Public domain.)

Cisco Habitat Assessment

As part of the larger Coregonid Restoration effort, USGS will conduct a cisco habitat assessment.  Cisco are native shallow water fish that were formerly very abundant in the Great Lakes and serve as a foundational food source. USGS is investigating the qualities of successful spawning habitat in bays in Lake Superior and Lake Michigan where healthy, self-sustaining stocks still exist. This information will be useful to inform future management decisions in Lake Ontario where cisco were formerly abundant. 

Restore Native Freshwater Fish Populations to the Lower Great Lakes

Another project within the Coregonid Restoration effort is focused on restoring Atlantic salmon, bloater and cisco. These three key species of the native Lake Ontario fish community are extirpated (Atlantic salmon and bloater) or are at low levels of former abundance (cisco). Results from this effort will help to identify appropriate strategies for restoring these fish in Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. Re-integration of these species is a major step in increasing the resiliency of the native fish community and has never before been attempted in a water body as large as Lake Ontario.