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Nobody knows how many fish species are in the Great Lakes region.
But I plan to change that. I am a fish biologist at Michigan State University , and I will spend the next year searching for every one documented in the region. That’s 179 species of fish.
I will determine which are still here, which have disappeared and if new ones have found their way here and have yet to be documented. Some species, like the bluegill, are found just about everywhere in the region. Others, like the spotted gar, are so rare I can count where they could be on one hand. Still others are secretive and enigmatic, like the pirate perch whose anus lies directly below its mouth (as a side note, the scientific name for this species is sayanus).
My quest to capture every species is much more than (ahem) a fishing expedition. Fish are a wet, slimy version of the proverbial canary in the coal mine. They are bellwethers for environmental problems that arise from the activities of people on the land.
Their number and type are powerful indicators of the health of the Great Lakes. One-third of the 100 million humans in the Great Lakes region get their drinking water directly from the lakes. Many others obtain water from wells deep within the ground. With every toilet flush, load of laundry and pot of boiled pasta, this water weaves its way back into the Great Lakes to eventually be used by humans again. But first, fish will have a turn to swim, breathe, and yes, go to the bathroom. Perhaps we should pay more attention to what fish are doing.
The species of fish that live in the Great Lakes and its surrounding waters tell a story where people almost always play the villain. People whose lives revolve around fish are storytellers, and part of my plan is to listen to tribes, anglers, commercial fishers, and academics to help provide the prologue for how changes in fish affect us all. Although us people tend to look at the Great Lakes by standing on its many shores, my goal is to view the Great Lakes from inside out.
With a fish-eye lens, shall we say.