Lake Erie’s newest ally in the fight against invasive species and habitat endangerment is making its first public appearance in Buffalo:
A 70-foot, aluminum-clad, state-of-the-art ally, to be exact.
The research vessel Muskie, a $4.1 million “floating laboratory” stationed in Ohio and operated by the Great Lakes Science Center, debuted as Lake Erie’s principal research vessel last summer, replacing a 50-year-old craft with outdated technology.
The Muskie traverses Lake Erie throughout the year, collecting troves of longitudinal data on the populations of fish that make Lake Erie the single largest fishery in the Great Lakes region.
On Thursday, the Muskie arrived at Canalside for two days of free public tours, part of the center’s efforts to promote its work and the importance of protecting the region’s defining natural resource.
Officials who spoke at a news conference kicking off the visit Thursday morning said research conducted aboard the Muskie directly impacts the vitality of Buffalo’s waterfront.
Science Center director Russell M. Strach said a network of local agencies use data collected by the center’s fleet of research vessels to manage the populations of fish essential to the sport and commercial fishing industries, which together generate an estimated $7 billion dollars annually throughout the Great Lakes region. Half of all commercial fishing in the Great Lakes happens on Lake Erie.
One agency using the center’s data to solve local problems is the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, a group of Canadian and U.S. researchers tasked with protecting Great Lakes fish from threats both domestic and foreign.
The commission’s oldest foe is the sea lamprey, an eel-like species of fish native to the Atlantic Ocean.
Marc Gaden, communications director for the commission, said the lamprey was among the first non-native species to invade Lake Erie when it slithered its way down the Welland Canal from Lake Ontario around 1920.
Gaden donned gloves to demonstrate what makes the lamprey, several of which were on display in fish tanks near the Muskie, so deadly to local species of fish.
The creatures’ round, jawless mouths bristle with rows of pointed teeth, which they use to drill holes in the sides of their prey. And since none of the their natural predators are native to the Great Lakes, lampreys can wreak havoc on local populations of trout and salmon if left unchecked.
Gaden said the commission has reduced the total lamprey population throughout the Great Lakes by 90 percent since the 1950s using a combination of “lampricide” and other tactics. But a recent spike in the number of lampreys present in Lake Erie has researchers scrambling to locate and eliminate new sources of the unwelcome predators in Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River, among other connected bodies of water.
“Right now, lampreys in Lake Erie are way above target,” Gaden said. “We still need to find the smoking gun,” he added, referring to the source of the latest influx of lampreys.
Aboard the Muskie, research fishing biologist Mark Rogers gave visitors a tour of the vessel’s facilities, which include a 40-foot trawl deployed by hydraulic winches, a fully equipped laboratory, and a pair of hydro-acoustic transducers mounted to the bottom of the ship’s hull that use sound waves to locate fish beneath the boat.
Researchers aboard the Muskie use that equipment to collect and test samples of fish in order to gauge the abundance, health, age structure, and feeding patterns of the total population.
Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, who first invited the Muskie to Buffalo, was on hand to praise the science center’s efforts, which he said were especially crucial in Buffalo, a city whose industrial past continues to pose unique environmental challenges.
Although Higgins said local leaders have made strides toward breathing economic, recreational, and environmental life into Buffalo’s waterfront, he emphasized the need for continued investment in the health of the city’s natural resources.
The public is invited to tour the Muskie from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday. The ship is docked at Canalside and is accessible from the boardwalk.