Egg Collection – Week 6

Week Six Update: (May 22-May 27)

Wil Wegman
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Resource Management Technician
Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry
Aurora District- 905-713-7730

 

Hi Everyone,

Another whirl-wind week on the wild and wonderful trapnetting circuit for the wily egg collection crew on G Pool.

It began on the beautiful Sunday morning of the Victoria Day Long Wknd as Wil and Brent set out to open the six nets. Once open,  they could fish 48 hours until they would be checked on Tuesday. We don’t normally need to leave our nets working this late into the season so expected to see plenty of boat action on both Little Lake and Gloucester Pool, and this was definitely the case on this busy holiday wknd. Most of the boaters we encountered were cottage based recreational anglers and several struck up conversations with us. All of them seemed fully aware of … and supportive of, our trapnetting program over the last decade. Being able to engage with these important local stakeholders on a busy wknd and have a positive presence was definitely an added bonus to opening our nets on Sunday.

Then came Tuesday.  We were anxiously expecting fuller than normal nets … based on the water temperature spiking to 16 degrees and a 48 hour set, but unfortunately this was not the case… With the exception  of one net that had over two dozen long nosed gar for us to deal with.  Gar typically move inshore as the weather warms and the water temps reach 15C. They love swimming near the surface on bright sunny days so we could see some cruising along before we even checked our nets. These prehistoric fish are extremely cool looking and we enjoy seeing them, however they can be a bit of a challenge when many of them have their long bills sticking thru the nets.  While we were hauling out gar from our nets we encountered what may be a first for this program… A few VERY ripe females that were very happy to see Brent so they spewed their small white, very sticky eggs all over him and the boat. If only we could find muskie that were so ripe and free flowing … but that’s typically not the case at all.

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Longnose Gar eggs sticking to our paddle

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Kate Gee with a small G Pool Gar

Kate Gee who was with us that day let us know that these gar eggs are unlike most other fish eggs in every respect in that they should never be eaten as caviar . They are quite toxic and can cause fairly severe illness—such as vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain, etc.  Some other interesting factoids about Longnose gar include:

Longnose Gar Facts

  • The Longnose Gar can survive in low oxygenated waters because of a highly vascularized swim bladder.  This swim bladder allows the Longnose to breathe air.  It usually uses both its swim bladder and its gills to breathe.  It surfaces and releases an air bubble to take in another before returning underwater.
  • Shy’s away from the surface when water gets colder.  But, when oxygen is low it cover its gills and uses the bladder only.  This allows for the organism to live outside the water for awhile if it is kept wet.
  • The Longnose Gar’s eggs are poisonous to humans, other mammals, and birds.
  • Longnose Gar scales were used by native Americans as arrow heads, ornaments, and tools.
  • Longnose Gar have been around since the time of dinosaurs.
  • Longnose gar have a year round open season and no limit in most parts of Ontario, but most anglers find them extremely difficult to catch so overall angler effort targeted at this species is very low. Their long, very hard snouts do not have conventional teeth like other fish – so most hooks don’t penetrate well to land these fish. Some fly fishers do have success, occasionally they can be caught on 3-4 inch jerkbaits if the lure is engulfed sideways … and some anglers have even had success using a strip of Velcro instead of a lure – as their small jagged teeth seem to clasp on.

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As water temps warmed up more bowfin were caught in the nets … including several males like this one held by Wil … It’s in full spawning colors with characteristic spot on tail

The next day (May 25)  the crew set out again … and the overwhelming sensation of another « Groundhog Day » (from the movie) was upon them. Low net catches were dominant from one set to the other … and no muskie were showing up. To add insult to injury the 2nd last net had one very big aggressive snapping turtle in it, that decided not to vacate the premises despite tearing several big holes in the net.  As we were repairing those … a call came in from Paul Methner of Blue Jay Creek Hatchery.  Despite Georgian Bay  originally being recognized earlier this spring as an unlikely back-up source for muskie eggs, more recent discussions between hatchery and other managers, field crews and MC, recognized that time was running out for Gloucester Pool to produce. One of the  trapnetting crews that was doing telemetry research in partnership with McMaster University up on Georgian Bay near Point Au Baril had a ripe male and two ripe female muskie in their nets. The crew did not have any egg sampling gear, and were not trained to take eggs, but the offer was made to hold those muskie, should Brent and Wil be able to drive up, meet the crew and go out on their boat to get the job done.  Special arrangements were made with the health lab and the two hatcheries … some evening family plans were quickly altered and off the they went to fish their last net on G Pool, before hitting the road north to hopefully …. finally get some eggs! As many Muskie Canada veterans may recall, the first couple of years of the Lake Simcoe Muskie Restoration Program, we relied on Georgian Bay families and it was only a few years in that the switch was made to relying more on G Pool, so using these eggs would be nothing new.

A couple hours later, Wil and Brent met up with fellow MNRF staffers and master trapnetters Lawrence and Stephen from MNRF’s Lake Huron Fisheries Management Unit. On their big beautiful steel boat we travelled out to the nets and quickly picked up one male, deposited him into a big tub with fresh water and  then headed to the other net where a smaller male and two females were anxiously awaiting to donate their contributions to the cause . Although the females were both quite small, the crew still hoped plenty of eggs could be collected … but unfortunately only one small family from each – one for Blue Jay Creek and the other for Fleming was all they had in them.  The male did his job for both … the eggs were hardened with hatchery water, transferred from bowl to jars, disinfected with ovadine, rinsed and rinsed again and again and again until it was time to deliver them to shore and the hatcheries.

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Lawrence of the Lake Huron Management Unit (LHMU), Wil and Brent with one of the egg donors

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Lawrence and Stephen of LHMU and Brent with the male donor

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Wil with the first egg collection of 2016- two very small families

 So … although the families were small the hatchery managers were thankful the skunk factor was now behind all involved. Paul Methner had already travelled down from Manitoulin Island’s Blue Jay Creek where his eggs were handed over and the trip back down to Coldwater was made to hand off the Fleming eggs to their hatchery manager Mark Newell who drove up from Lindsay.   “The family was small (est 2500-3000 eggs) but looked good with very few dead eggs to be picked once they were deposited in the incubation trays at the hatchery,” said Mark.

On Thursday May 26 the crew tried to beat out the impending weather and partially succeeded at all but one of their six net sites. By the time they got to it,  a stiff on-shore breeze was developing and just as they were about to check for fish a large rogue gust of wind blew them further onto the rest of the net …  tangled things up … and bringing them quickly within site of two very large muskie within the house portion of their net! They quickly regrouped, opened the zipper, assessed the condition of each fish … and amazingly one was a ripe male and the other a ripe female! With even heavier on shore winds threatening – the decision was made to leave the two fish for the next day when a safer and more effective egg collection could be made! Meanwhile, the first small family remained in good condition at Fleming with a relatively normal level of dead eggs to pick.

Friday May 27th.  Normally this is an office day for the crew.  However both hatcheries were anxious to collect eggs ‘whenever possible’ and the manager of Health Lab at Guelph University – Steven Lord was willing to wait around that Friday to collect fluids for disease testing. In order to expedite runs to the two hatcheries and to Guelph, two MNRF crews in two separate boats were deployed to Coldwater to get the job done. One of those crews was happy to report another female had been captured … so after all the nets were checked … she was put in the large tub and travelled from Port Severn in Little Lake with Brent, Kate and Wil down to G Pool to meet up with Stephen, Carolyn and Gabby.  The other two muskie were taken from their overnight accommodations and both were in exceptional condition. Neither had ever been captured during the trap netting program before … as tags were absent. Incredibly this was the biggest male on record … coming in at 49 inches; just a touch shorter than the Double Nickels (55+) female.  Unfortunately … the smaller female was now hard (not uncommon for smaller fish) but both big male and big female were ripe. The crew collected enough eggs for each hatchery and split them into two separate jars for each.

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Carolyn Hann (foreground) holds bowl for egg collecting while Brent  extracts eggs and Wilmaintains control of this 40 pound super strong female

 

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Brent (foreground),  Wil (background) and Carolyn (middle) caring for eggs before they are transferred to jars- below

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A quick group photo after a successful egg collection and sampling with the 55.5 inch female. From left to right: Brent, Wil, Steve, Kate and Carolyn. Photo taken by Gabby

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Wil is taking scale samples here for ageing and genetics, while Brent steadies the muskie and Carolyn is ready with the scale envelope

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Brent (left), Wil and Kate with the largest males ever used in an egg collection = 49” long, 19.5” girth & 26.7lbs. It was the warmest egg collection ever- with air temps pushing 28C and water temps well over 18C

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The icing on the cake is always a healthy live release after the muskie have been sampled and contributed to future stocking efforts on Lake Simcoe

 

After the egg collection was made, the team went into action to deliver the goods to the respective locations as quickly as possible. Gabby made the long trip down from Coldwater to Guelph and battled crazy traffic but got the fluid samples to the lab in time.  Carolyn drove south to Lindsay … stopping every half hour to check eggs and ensure no clumping was taking place. Then she would rinse and add fresh hatchery water before she left the eggs with Mark at Fleming.  Mark reported that, “ There was a somewhat larger than normal number of dead eggs to pick on the day of receiving (670) but not a number of significant concern.”

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Carolyn checking eggs en route to Fleming before rinsing and adding fresh water. “It’s kind of like our own little tailgate party,” she said

Wil drove north to Parry Sound following the same egg-care protocol to drop the eggs with Michaela from Blue Jay Creek who drove down from Manitoulin Island. Here Wil and Michaela also met up with Ryan … who had driven from Pearson International Airport in a truck fully loaded with fish food for the muskie and other species raised at the Blue Jay Creek Hatchery. Here the three staff quickly transferred all the contents from one truck to the other … and then each was off to go their own separate ways from there.

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Michaela and Ryan unloading feed for fish at Blue Jay Creek

 

Update 7: Saturday May 28-Thursday June 2nd

Although the weekend of May 28th and 29th would be the first one the crew had completely off in six weeks, there was certainly no rest for the devoted hatchery staff at Blue Jay Creek and at Fleming. Critical, almost around the clock care of the precious muskie eggs is compulsory to ensure success down the road.  Even with the most experienced and dedicated staff however, Mother Nature can throw unexpected obstacles into the best laid plans – something the trapnetting crew was all too familiar with. The first text from Mark Newell to Wil came in late Saturday  afternoon letting him know things did not look good with the eggs and that he had already picked out 8,000 dead ones over the last 8 hours.

Below are further details provided by Mark Newell:

“On Saturday May 28  is when the rollercoaster went into its steepest dive. The first family of eggs showed significant (over 50%) dead eggs. The die off continued the full while that the picking was happening with eggs dying off almost as fast as we could pick them. By the end of the day we were down to fewer than 5% eggs remaining. We examined a few of the remaining eggs under a microscope and there was no sign of an embryo. This pattern of complete loss all within the 36-72 hours after spawn window is a very strong indicator of unsuccessful fertilization. Couple that with the lack of embryo in the few remaining “live” eggs at the end of the period the presumptive determination at the hatchery is that fertilization did not happen in this batch.

 Also on May 28 we saw an enormous die off of eggs from the larger, Gloucester Pool batch. As many as 8200 eggs were picked. This is an unusual, but not unprecedented loss for this stage of development. Given our already low numbers and the loss of the first small family it was pretty devastating. We had hoped this one batch was going to save the year.

 On May 29 we saw further loss, of ~4700 eggs from the second family… it seemed by the time the picking was done in the early afternoon on Sunday that the egg loss had tapered off quite a bit and examination of the remaining eggs showed signs of embryo presence.

 On May 30 we continued to lose eggs (at a much lower rate) and by day end we had picked ~600. The remaining eggs still looked good and embryos were clearly visible

 On May 31 lower mortalities gave us a break from the bad news and only 185 eggs were picked.

 On June 1 fungus had made its expected appearance, the egg shells are softening and embryos have developed a tiny bit of pigmentation. We picked just over 400 eggs today.

 The initial estimate of numbers received (~25,000) now seems to have been a bit high, so doing the math we may have as many as 3000-3500 viable eggs left as of June 1st. It is hard to estimate numbers when they are spread out over several incubator trays.”

From Paul Methner at Blue Jay Creek on the morning of June 2nd … a very promising update was provided. Similar to Mark’s issues with the first batch … they too experienced serious failure with their Georgian Bay eggs.  Paul expects about 60 of those eggs that have now hatched remain … which still would provide some genetic diversity. Additionally and even more encouraging … after a very trying Saturday May 28th with eggs dying …the situation appeared to stabilize by the next day- Sunday. “Today, we have plenty of healthy eggs left, which should provide us with more than our target of 500 muskie come fall. If all goes well, thanks to all the improvements we’ve made here at the hatchery, this number could increase,” Paul told Wil over the phone. Some of the improvements made include better lighting system, a better feeding system, a visit by several staff to Mark Newell’s successful muskie hatchery and even hiring a former Fleming student who worked for Mark in the hatchery.

On Monday May 30, two crews of Midhurst and Aurora MNRF staff figured the decision to collect trap nets that day was the right one, when the water temperature at their boats that morning was already 21 C.  One theory for the poor fertilization of eggs could possibly lie with the rapid increase in water temperatures that may have reduced the effectiveness of the male’s sperm. The two crews split up and collected all six trap nets, and then transferred them back to Midhurst district..

The first eggs from the G Pool collection began hatching the morning of June 2nd …. And both hatcheries reported that this continued on to June 3rd.  There were several of these eggs that were duds but at time of writing this an accurate number was not possible.

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Back on shore Friday May 27 at the Sexsmith’s Lakeside residence after the successful egg collection.  Here for almost ten years,  MNRF Midhurst and Aurora District crews have been able to store their boats and all their gear for the duration of the spring program.  Both crews are extremely grateful to Michelle and Malcolm Sexsmith for their major contribution to this program Above, from left to right: Steve, Carolyn, Malcolm, Gabby, Kate and Brent.

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Friday June 3rd … all six trapnets were spread out and allowed to bake in the sun to dry out.  Nets were cleaned with stiff brooms to remove filamentous algae, several holes were repaired, and then all were repacked for next time.