You could call it a project of magnificent scale. Researchers will test fish incubators in Michigan rivers this spring as part of an ongoing effort to reestablish Arctic Graying in our state.

Overfishing, forestry and the introduction of non-native sports fish led to the extinction of Arctic Grayling in Michigan by the early 1900s. For about 85 years, efforts to reestablish the population through stocking have been unsuccessful. Researchers said the stocked fish disappeared and were likely gobbled up by more aggressive trout species like brown and rainbow trout.

If Arctic Grayling can hatch, live and reproduce in Michigan rivers, it would be a “reel” win.

“Restoring Arctic grayling to Michigan rivers is something that’s near and dear to many people’s hearts,” said Troy Zorn, a Michigan Department of Natural Resources research biologist with the Arctic Grayling Initiative. “Restoration of this species is something we’ve tried a number of times over several decades, so it’s an opportunity to bring back one of Michigan’s natural resources.”

The opportunity to land an Arctic Grayling once lured anglers from around the world. The fish was so plentiful in the Au Sable and Manistee River watersheds that in the early 1800s the small town of Crawford permanently changed its name to Grayling.

Even among its salmonoid relatives like colorful rainbow trout and silvery salmon, Arctic Grayling are a showstopper. They flaunt a prominent dorsal (top) fin, often fringed with red and dotted in iridescent aqua.

The effort to reestablish Arctic Graying is not newly hatched. Rather than cast a wide net, the Michigan Arctic Grayling Initiative, led by scientists from Michigan Universities, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, began scouting river locations for the best habitats to raise fish from eggs to adults. Beyond finding the right types of flow, temperature and habitat conditions, the fish would also need room away from other fish that may eat them.

This spring, Northern Michigan University and MDNR Fisheries Division researchers will use Cherry Creek in the Upper Peninsula to test incubators using walleye eggs, which are similar in size and have similar incubation periods. They’ll also use eggs of other salmonid species for later experiments. Once they identify the best type of incubator, researchers hope to pair the ideal incubator with the ideal stream location to hatch Arctic Grayling eggs in Lower Michigan streams.

person holds arctic grayling fish
Images provided by Michigan DNR Fisheries Division

“We have to do our due diligence on evaluating our streams to find the best environment. Incubators are first, and then which stream is best,” said Todd Grischke, assistant division chief with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

The Consumers Energy Foundation is a long-time supporter of the project. It provided a $117,000 grant in 2016 to kick-start the effort. This year, it gave another $70,000 to support the incubator testing.

“The support is key,” Grischke said. “The most recent grant allows us to evaluate the different rearing methods, and it’s very important to introduce the fish in a way that is efficient and reliable and best suited to Michigan streams.”

About 40 partners, including agencies, non-profit organizations and tribes across Michigan support the work, including the Little River Band of the Ottawa Indians, which helped raise early awareness that got the attention of Consumers Energy fisheries biologist, Scott DeBoe. DeBoe suggested the partners apply for a Consumers Energy Foundation grant.

The Arctic Grayling Initiative is important to Consumers Energy, DeBoe said. Our company operates 13 dams across the state including on the Au Sable and Manistee Rivers. Caring for those rivers is part of our commitment to sustainability.

“We like to consider ourselves as stewards,” DeBoe said. “The holy grail of fisheries management in Michigan is to be able to restore the Arctic Grayling. There’s a lot of excitement behind it, and to think we could bring back a species and have sport fishing and make them naturally reproducing, you couldn’t accomplish much more as a fisheries biologist.”

Even if the project is successful, it will be a long time until anglers could catch an Arctic Grayling in our state.

“We talk about this in terms of a marathon not a sprint,” Grischke said. “It’s not a project where we stock it tomorrow, and we have Grayling. It is a 10 to 15-year project. The previous efforts to just go ahead and stock them didn’t work. We’re doing it incrementally and doing it right to give ourselves the best chance of chances.”

In 2021, the Consumers Energy Foundation contributed $1.3 million to support environmental projects across the state as part of its commitment to the planet.

“We’re dedicated to strengthening environmental stewardship, reducing environmental impact and preserving the natural beauty of Michigan,” said Carolyn Bloodworth, the Consumers Energy Foundation’s secretary/treasurer. “We’re pleased to continue to support this important work to bring Arctic Grayling back to Michigan rivers.”