The research vessel Kiyi crosses into Canadian waters early in the afternoon on the second day of its annual fish trawling survey around the perimeter of Lake Superior. Aside from the dashed lines on the navigation chart, from the water there is no way of telling where the border lies, or any reason to for that matter. While the border signifies the political boundaries separating two nations on land, the lake itself is one large ecosystem, indivisible by the marks on the charts.
Kiyi is owned by the United States Geologic Survey and operated by the Great Lakes Science Center (GLSC) in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The primary mission for Kiyi is to collect data on fish populations by trawling selected sites, or "stations" around Lake Superior. The vessel is equipped with both wet and dry labs to facilitate its research on the largest body of fresh water in the world. Fish samples are counted, measured, and weighed according to species. Fish monitoring, according to the GLSC, "leads to a better understanding of the processes that shape the fish community." In some instances samples are collected for other biologists doing research in areas outside of the scope of Kiyi's mission. The management of the Lake Superior fisheries is a joint venture among Canadian, American, and tribal agencies, and the information gathered on Kiyi adds to the growing index of knowledge these agencies use in regulating commercial and recreational fish harvests.
Over the next three weeks Kiyi will work a small portion of Minnesota's north shore and all of the Canadian waters along the lake's northern and eastern shores before turning west along the south shore toward its home base in Ashland, Wisconsin. Along the route are approximately ninety stations where Kiyi will trawl the lake bottom for fish. Biologists have been sampling fish from these same locations since 1978, according to biologist Jason Stockwell. Jason is Kiyi's BIC for this trip...known officially as "biologist in charge." On this trip Jason's team is comprised of a second biologist, Dan Yule; Lori Evrard, the team's technician; and Lindsey Lesmeister, a biology student at Northland College in Ashland.
Every station has its own unique backdrop, all marked with spectacular beauty that only Lake Superior can deliver. The Minnesota north shore is a nearly razor-clean billion-year-old fault line cutting sharply northeastward, creating a lakeshore known for its gravel beaches, numerous rivers and streams, and of course, deep cold water. The Canadian shore is littered with islands, bays, and inlets: prime fishing locations. On the western end, the shoreline is faced with rock cliffs comprised of quartz sandstone, red dolostone, and red shale towering hundreds of meters above the shore; vertical, rust-covered walls of rock that look as if a giant chisel has severed them from the earth. To the east is the nearly impenetrable coast of 2-billion-year-old Canadian Shield rock, a shore scoured by glaciers, covered with dense conifers and always at the mercy of the full sweep of Lake Superior's wrath. In contrast, the south shore of the lake is punctuated with dunes, miles of sandy beaches, the amazing landscape s of the Pictured Rocks, and the sail studded islands of the Apostles.
While the scenery can be breathtaking, it's what is under the water that excites the interests of the research team on Kiyi. Using a variety of research strategies, from the relatively low-tech trawling of the lake bottom, to high-tech hydroacoustic sampling of the water column, the team works together to form a comprehensive picture of the aquatic activity in the lake at each station. As technology drives the research processes into the future, the biologists are excited about the possibilities of being able to more accurately forecast the forage-predator relationships within Lake Superior, ultimately leading to a more efficient and productive fishery.
48° 21.578 N 89° 13.328 W Station 401: MacKenzie Bay Station, Thunder Bay
Kiyi slips out of the south entrance to Thunder Bay harbor in the early morning hours, heading toward its first station of the day. A large salt water vessel, the Greek registered Toro, sits at anchor in the shadow of the Sleeping Giant, a massive land formation that will be our backdrop for the day's work. As Kiyi heads northeast towards MacKenzie Bay, the site of station F401, located in the northeast corner of the larger Thunder Bay, the giant recedes in the distance and the bay takes on a shimmering translucence, reflecting the clouds and the nearing shoreline.
When Kiyi arrives at the station, Captain Joe Walters positions the vessel at a pre-determined coordinate for the first of several tests the biologists perform at each station. The first test determines the water's turbidity, or, how far you can see beneath the water. In this simple test, a steel disc (a Secchi) is lowered over the side until it is no longer visible. On average, the measure is around nine to ten meters. In bays and areas closer to shore, the number can drop significantly depending upon the composition of the lake bottom, wind conditions, and phytoplankton levels. A second test, called a BT cast, uses a bathythermograph to check the station's water temperature.
Once the initial tests are complete, Dan Yule lowers a monitoring device he refers to as a "towed fish" alongside the ship. In essence, this is a highly sensitive fish finder. A transducer sends sound waves, called "pings," from the "fish" to the lake bottom throughout the length of the trawl. This hydroacoustic method of research records information about the biomass of fish in the water column above the trawl net.
At the conclusion of each trawl, the BT cast and the Secchi tests are performed again, and additional water samples are taken to test for zooplankton levels. These samples are stored and cataloged for analysis at the lab in Ashland and kept on file with samples taken in previous years. On occasion the biologists will also gather substrate samples of the lake bottom.
48° 38.463 N 86º 20.317 W Station 422: Heron Bay, Ontario
As Kiyi moves eastward following its overnight stay in Rossport, Ontario, the wind continues to freshen as the survey team works stations along the relatively protected shore at Jackfish Bay and Terrace Bay. By the time the vessel moves towards its final station of the day at Heron Bay, the wind is blowing at a steady 30 knots. A thick fog bank along Pic Island quickly settles any thoughts captain Joe Walters has about staying close to shore as he eases Kiyi away from the island towards the open lake. A little wind is easier to deal with than a lot of fog.
Kiyi is beginning its third season on Lake Superior. The 107-foot, 300-ton trawler was built by the Patti Shipyard in Pensacola, Florida as a replacement for the much smaller 50-ton Siskowet. Kiyi gives the researchers at the LSBS the ability of effectively penetrating remote regions of the open lake, and can operate up to two weeks without replenishing supplies, making it ideal for the spring lake survey.
The wind, blowing from the south-southwest, has picked up by the time Kiyi arrives at Heron Bay. The role of the ship's navigation crew is to bring Kiyi to a predetermined set of coordinates for each trawl. The geography of the lake bottom dictates that each trawl begins closer to shore, usually in 15 to 20 meters of water, and proceeds out to depths of 100 meters at the end point. At Heron Bay, as Kiyi arrives on station, the survey team quickly completes the BT cast and Secchi test while Keith Peterson, Kiyi's deck foreman and engineer, prepares to stream the trawl net.
The net used for the survey work is a 39-foot Yankee bottom trawl. The team sets the net to a standard opening of 10 feet high by 30 feet wide. Electronic monitoring devices called "net minders" are attached to the lines to monitor the trawl from the dry lab once the net is on the bottom. For the net to achieve its optimum efficiency Kiyi needs to trawl at 2.5 miles per hour. As Kiyi makes its turn to line up for the transect, beginning at 48° 38.463 N by 86º 20.317 W, the wind is now gusting up to 40 miles per hour on the port beam. Behind the vessel, the net is drifting far to the starboard side. To counteract the wind and keep Kiyi on track, Joe has to keep the wheel hard over, thus "crabbing" the ship along the course. Under these conditions, the opening of the net becomes skewed, and the integrity of the station survey is compromised. Joe flips on the radio to catch the forecast coming out of Thunder Bay and calls off the trawl, hoping that by morning the winds will die down.
Working boats close-in to shore has made up a big part of Joe's career. Joe is a veteran of nearly 22 years in the Coast Guard, working on buoy tenders and ice breakers from the Great Lakes to Alaska. On ice breakers like Bristol Bay and on buoy tenders like Sundew, Joe learned how work close to shore, often venturing into shallow water to set navigation buoys. After retiring from the Coast Guard, Joe hired aboard Kiyi in 2001 and finds the work familiar, and no less challenging.
Assisting Joe in the pilot house is Mike McCann, a native of Port Clinton, Ohio. At a young, age Mike worked on fishing tugs for the Port Clinton Fisheries on Lake Erie before joining the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1975 as a seaman / fisherman aboard the 45-foot research vessel Musky II out of Sandusky. Over the years Mike has worked on all of the GLSC research vessels on the Great Lakes: Kaho, Grayling, Cisco, and Siscowet. When the Sandusky research station was scheduled for closing in 1988, Mike relocated to the Ashland field station on Lake Superior and quickly grew to appreciate the splendor of Lake Superior.
Rain or shine, concealed beneath rain slickers, mud boots, life vest, hard hat and sunglasses, Keith Peterson is the steady presence on Kiyi's trawl deck. Keith has worked for the USGS since the early 1990s when he joined the crew of the research vessel Siscowet. Prior to that, Keith fished with his father out of Red Cliff, the fourth generation of his family to fish on Lake Superior. For a short time he even owned his own fishing tug, Vagabond, but was forced to give up his license when new state regulations forced many out of the fishing business. Keith gets a big smile on his face as he jokes about how he can now fish and actually make a living at it.
Lake Superior Biological Station History
The Lake Superior Biological Station in Ashland is the Lake Superior field station for the Great Lakes Science Center, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. When it was founded in 1957, the initial goal of the LSBS was to provide data on the status of trout in Lake Superior, as part of a joint effort of the United States and Canada, under the supervision of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission.
The origins of the Great Lakes Science Center can be traced back to the 1920s when graduate students Walter N. Koelz and John Van Oosten, of the University of Michigan, began studying the lake whitefish and other large lake species (known as coregonids) under the auspices of the U. S. Bureau of Fisheries. Prior to 1920, only periodic surveys were conducted on the Great Lakes, with the majority of work done along the Lake Michigan shoreline, primarily because of the large number of fisheries located along that coast.
The collapse of the Lake Erie cisco (herring) fishery in 1925 prompted state and federal agencies to establish the Great Lakes Biological Laboratory in 1927. While the collapse of the cisco population created an initial public outcry, procuring the funding needed to conduct extensive and long-range studies proved to be more like catching fish: at times, hit or miss. In the 1940s, the invasion of the sea lamprey devastated the upper Great Lakes trout fisheries, providing the impetus for increased funding for research, but by that time much of the damage had already been done. It would take decades for fish resources to recover.
The 1960s would see the beginning of new challenges for the management of the Great Lakes fishery as a whole. Increased man-made pollutants caused havoc with fish populations along the lower lakes, western Lake Erie in particular, where large blooms of blue-green algae were recorded. Detailed research was also conducted on fish containing high levels of DDT in fatty tissues, leading to a nationwide ban on the use of DDT in 1972.
Today, the Great Lakes Science Center continues to build upon the legacy created by Koelz and Van Oosten. The center has been instrumental in the efforts to restore native lake trout across all five of the Great Lakes and has met with some success. On Lake Superior, wild trout now account for 90 percent of the lake trout population, setting the standard for the other lakes. In addition, the Science Center continues to support multiple scientific missions by conducting topical studies in areas like toxicology, metals, and genetic and hydroacoustic sampling.
A Lasting Legacy
The Lake Superior fishery is a precious resource. Meeting the needs of its commercial and recreational users is a balancing act that requires constant monitoring and effective management. The role of the biologist as a naturalist on Lake Superior has long passed, and the emphasis today is on management. Fishery and wildlife biologists, such as those from the Lake Superior Biological Station in Ashland, play an important role in helping to understand the health of the fishery, which in turn enables managers to more effectively regulate fishing on the lake.
The research being done on Kiyi is only a part of work that goes on across all of the Great Lakes. Fishery research biologists believe that Lake Superior has a healthy fishery, yet they continue searching for the connections between the information they gather from their trawling surveys, substrate mapping, acoustic sampling, and other methods of research, to help to form a clearer picture of the Lake Superior ecosystem. "We need to listen to what the lake is saying," says Dan Yule. As biologists, they hope that what they're listening to now will be heard for generations to come.
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