FOTR interns find endangered red side dace for the first time since ’05
A recent survey of fish living in the Rouge River documented the first sightings of an endangered species in the river since 2005, an indication of improved water quality and fish habitat.
For the first time ever, the Friends of the Rouge (FOTR) group took on college student interns to conduct a survey of the river’s fish. According to the FOTR’s Volunteer Monitoring Program Manager Sally Petrella, this was “very unusual.”
“We take on many interns, but they usually work directly on our programs or in our office,” she said. “But (student intern) Bob (Muller) approached me wanting to do a survey as he has a lot of experience in sampling for fish and keeping and raising native Michigan fish. He’s studying environmental studies at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and needed an internship. And it worked out really well.”
However, Muller is not your average college student, at the age of 64.
Muller’s interest in North American fish began in high school, when he first started keeping them in an aquarium. For the past decade, he has written articles on the captive breeding of these species of fish.
However, his experience with fish began when he was a boy netting fish out of the Huron and Clinton rivers. But he had never collected fish in the Rouge River, which inspired Muller to suggest conducting a fish survey there.
“Last August, I sampled the Rouge on campus for the Environmental Interpretive Center and, in talking with them, they did not know what species of fish live in the Rouge on campus,” Muller said. “I met Sally (Petrella) then and, with my interest in fish and the fact that Friends of the Rouge offices are on campus, I approached them to see if they would like some fish survey work done.”
“It turned out really well for us,” Petrella said. “We actually don’t have the capability for fish work at FOTR. But having Bob, he brought his experience and he already had a collection permit from the DNR (Michigan Department of Natural Resources). We had a real need for work on our fisheries. The last fish survey conducted in the Rouge was back in 1995. Before we conducted the surveys this year, we consulted the DNR and DEQ (Michigan Department of Environmental Quality) to see how our interns could fill in any gaps they had in the data. Due to decreased funding, the DNR and DEQ have not been able to do these surveys, so we were hoping ours could fill in the gaps.”
One of Muller’s classmates, Kristina Blott, also showed an interest in helping with the survey, and together they surveyed the river’s fish at 22 sites along the Rouge River from May 15 to May 31, documenting close to 4,100 fish representing 23 different species.
“With the reputation of the Rouge as a polluted river, the quantity of species we found surprised me,” Muller said. “At least in the small headwater streams, the Rouge is relatively healthy, although it’s threatened as any time development happens, the normal drainage patterns of nature are interrupted — large amounts of runoff from the street and fertilizer from lawns is a major problem. This is about the largest threat to the fishes — the runoff muddies the water, which is not healthy for fishes. They need clean gravel for spawning. The muddied waters can eliminate the fishes’ ability to reproduce.”
The survey was conducted to help determine the current status of fish in the Rouge River. The two interns collected a wealth of data that will be able to tell the FOTR a lot about the river.
A few times a week over a period of three weeks, Muller and Blott would go to two different sites to monitor for fish, often working from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
“We would pick an area to start (at) and move up stream as we sampled so as to make the muddy water we stirred up move away from us,” Muller said. “About every 10 feet we would sample. Sometimes the seine — a 12-foot-long, 4-foot-high net with 6-foot poles on its end — would be dragged through the water and to the shore scooping up the fish. Sometimes it would be held in a position and people would run down the river toward it. If we were after minnows, we would use a fast run. If we are after daters, a group of fishes that live on the bottom, then we moved slowly, shuffling our feet side to side.”
“We sampled all the different habitats and collected every fish we could,” Blott said. “After taking measurements and pictures, we would put the fish right back into the river unharmed. When we switched sites during the day, we tried to work at sites located in the same stream so as not to transfer any micro-organisms that may be present in one stream but not in the next.”
Muller said the number of fish samples collected at each site ranged from 24 to over 400, and identifying and cataloging the fish often took more time than catching the fish.
Among the fish species found during the survey was the redside dace, a currently endangered species in the state of Michigan that has previously been found in the Rouge River watershed — but not in recent years.
“We were very happy to find them, and we were hoping we would,” Petrella said. “They have not been found in recent surveys. The last time the redside dace was found was by the Department of Natural Resources back in 2005.”
“We didn’t think we would find them,” said Blott, who will graduate with her degree in environmental sciences upon completion of the internship. “It gave us a bit of hope that the Rouge was in better shape than we thought it was. Finding the redside dace was the highlight of the surveys.”
Redside dace are small minnows — they grow up to a maximum of 4.7 inches long — and have a distinct white-yellow band extending from the snout to the tail that separates the dark back of the fish from a distinct red band on the lower side of the fish.
They typically spawn at the end of May, and when they do, the males become even more vibrant in color.
“When males are ready to breed, they tend to change color,” Petrella said. “The male has this gorgeous red stripe which is seen at this time of year when they are breeding. The first male we caught was in breeding condition. I was fortunate to be at the site at the time. He was gorgeous.”
The redside dace lives in small streams with adequate overhanging vegetation for shading of the stream, and with abundant, coarse, woody structure. They need cool, clear water.
The species is found in several disparate populations in southeast Michigan, such as the Rouge River drainage in Washtenaw and Oakland counties and the Huron River drainage in Washtenaw County.
Petrella said the redside dace was found at four of the 22 river sites sampled, including at Minnow Pond and Seeley Creek in Farmington Hills.
“The redside dace is a very sensitive minnow,” Petrella said. “It’s a good indication when you find it at a site. It’s a sign that the site is in good shape.”
“The redside dace were fantastic,” Muller said. “Being endangered in Michigan, we had to take the photographs streamside as we had to put them back into the creek. The DNR has not sampled in about a decade, so finding them still here is important. Redside dace are an indicator of good water as they need clean, clear water with a high oxygen content to survive.”
Other fish, including catfish, shiners and a fish that is often confused with the redside dace — the northern redbelly dace, which has a smaller mouth, blunter head, and red coloration laterally that may continue to the belly — were also found during the survey.
The northern redbelly dace are typically 2-inches-long with two back stripes and a red belly when breeding, according to Muller.
“On one site on Johnson Creek, we sampled over 80 northern redbelly dace,” Muller said. “They are another indicator of good water quality. I have sampled them several times, but always only three or four at a time, so 80 at once was a surprise. I believe they were spawning, and we just hit the time perfectly.”
They also found the northern hog sucker, which Petrella said was a “surprise” because it’s a “pretty sensitive fish.”
Also seen for the first time was the western banded killifish in Minnow Pond Creek.
“The killifish was not previously listed as living in the Rouge,” Blott said.
Next comes the time for compiling all the data and drawing conclusions from the survey.
“Now that sampling is basically finished, we will be spending our time on writing up a report of our findings — not nearly as much fun as jumping in the water,” Muller said.
“Hopefully, we will have a greater understanding of the condition the Rouge is in and where the fish are living. Hopefully our efforts will further encourage to keep on working on cleaning up the river. Maybe we will be able to bring people’s attention to the little fish in the watershed that people just don’t know about. Many people don’t know about all the little colorful minnows.”
“I thought the whole project was a wonderful thing for the Rouge River,” Petrella said. “We were able to collect data at a minimal expense, provide a learning experience for the interns, and involve our volunteers with the surveys. It was a great project. We are very appreciative of the interns’ hard work, and we’re hoping Professor Jerry Smith at the University of Michigan will take a look at our data. We hope the data will be able to tell us a lot of information about the stream.”