SUNY Oswego, Cortland join forces with USGS and others on large-scale Great Lakes native fish conservation and restoration project

Researchers from SUNY Oswego and SUNY Cortland will work with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and other entities on a conservation and restoration project focused on native fish species in the Great Lakes, thanks to a $634,546 USGS grant, which is eligible to be extended on an annual basis through five years. SUNY Oswego biological sciences faculty member Dr. Nicholas Sard leads the project.

The project is funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (US EPA) Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and comes from USGS to SUNY via a Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Unit partnership. It will foster collaboration with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, the US EPA and the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe. 

Great Lakes fisheries are worth $7 billion and support over 75,000 jobs annually,” Sard explained. “Impediments like habitat destruction, overfishing and interactions with invasive species have drastically reduced population sizes and, in some cases, resulted in the extinction of native prey fish species. This project seeks to restore native fish populations like Atlantic salmon, cisco, bloater and kiyi, among other species, by studying remediation actions to overcome these impediments.”

Much of the work will take place at the USGS Great Lakes Science Center’s Tunison Lake Ontario Biological Station-Cortland, near SUNY Cortland and offers an opportunity for the institutions, faculty and students to partner on research. The project will involve developing and testing technologies to improve the outcomes of rearing native fish in hatcheries and introducing them into natural environments.

Collaborative research

Leaders and researchers with Oswego and Cortland were pleased with the opportunity to collaborate, work on this pressing environmental challenge and provide outstanding student research opportunities.

“This grant continues the significant research that faculty and students at SUNY Oswego conduct related to the Great Lakes and continues our strong support of sustainability and environmental protection of these significant resources," said SUNY Oswego Officer in Charge Mary C. Toale. "In addition, the grant supports continuing efforts to ensure our students are engaged in significant high educational impact practices such as undergraduate research, where students can thrive in the field and pursue their future goals. We are especially pleased to work with so many committed partners and engage with our SUNY Cortland colleagues on this important, vital work.”

“This is a tremendous opportunity for SUNY Cortland students and faculty to partner with their peers from SUNY Oswego and the Tunison Lab staff,” said SUNY Cortland President Erik J. Bitterbaum. “Experiential learning is a key part of the academic experience for students. The skills they develop in applying their knowledge toward solving a real-world problem will be essential in their future academic and professional careers.”

“Our aim is to build the future generation of researchers in fishery sciences, with a special focus on underrepresented groups in the field,” said Andrea Davalos, associate professor of biological sciences at SUNY Cortland. “This is a unique opportunity to develop a long-term cooperation with USGS Tunison Laboratory and SUNY Oswego.” 

Li Jin, a professor of geology and coordinator of SUNY Cortland’s environmental sciences program, called the project “an exciting opportunity for our undergraduate students to get involved in significant research efforts that focus on the conservation and restoration of native coregonine fishes in the region.”

“The involvement of undergraduate students in these critical research efforts is vital for the development of future generations of technicians and researchers who will play an essential role in advancing native fish restoration in the Great Lakes,” Jin said. “We believe that engaging students in real-world projects will equip them with the necessary skills, knowledge and passion to contribute to the long-term success of these endeavors.” 

“One of the priorities of SUNY Cortland is to provide our students with a transformational education through experiences that go beyond the classroom, including partnerships with organizations in our region,” said Mary Beth Voltura, associate professor of biological sciences at SUNY Cortland. “The USGS Tunison Lake Ontario Biological Station-Cortland, with its close proximity to SUNY Cortland and active research programs, provides an excellent opportunity for our students to extend their learning through interactions with scientists working in natural resource management at the national level.” 

“My colleagues at SUNY Cortland and I are working together to train future generations of technicians, biologists and researchers to enhance native fish restoration in the Great Lakes, especially seeking to expand opportunities for underrepresented groups,” Sard said. He added this is important because increasing the diversity of backgrounds, perspectives and ideas of those heading into this profession will result in better outcomes.

Student benefits

Participating students will receive a tremendous research experience and stipends, but also can expand their professional networks by working with partner agencies, among other opportunities.

“Students benefit from involvement in this project by gaining experience rearing native fish in hatcheries and studying ways we can improve restoration efforts directly in the Great Lakes,” Sard said. “Students will develop communication skills by presenting their research at a symposium at the end of the summer.”

Sard said his role in leading the project includes participating on an inter-organizational science priority panel with partner agencies and organizations that will help identify the highest priority science topics for the partners to tackle together. 

As a conservation geneticist, he already has ongoing experience leading projects involving “the development and implementation of innovative tools and approaches to aid in conservation efforts such as developing methods to unambiguously identify species, especially at early life stages and identifying all fish produced in hatcheries so that measures of success can be tracked after individuals are released,” he said. “I am mentoring students interested in fisheries science to help prepare the next generation of scientists that will continue to manage and conserve our excellent fisheries in the years to come.”

The project will examine what challenges currently hinder restoration efforts for imperiled fishes, as well as develop tools and approaches to better overcome such obstacles, which ultimately promotes a robust Great Lakes food web. Accordingly, such work benefits all those living in the Great Lakes region, including more than 30 million people in the U.S. and Canada connected to these freshwater bodies.

"In alignment with the region's senior fishery managers and the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, the USGS strives to be a leader in science to support the restoration and conservation of native fishes throughout the Great Lakes — a large-scale, complex challenge that requires 'all hands on deck,'" said Russell Strach, director of the USGS Great Lakes Science Center. "We are pleased to kick off this new partnership with the SUNY institutions in coordination with the other partners to accomplish the USGS' science mission while increasing diversity and preparing the next generation of fishery biologists on the Great Lakes."

“Coregonids have always been lynchpin fishes in the Great Lakes, both ecologically and economically, and for Indigenous fisheries,” said Jim McKane, chair of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission.

“Not only did coregonids, at one time, support lucrative commercial fisheries, but also they remain essential forage fish and they sustain First Nation and Tribal fishing,” McKane noted. “The collapse of coregonids in many areas was devastating to the lakes’ ecology. Coregonid restoration is a top priority and will require substantial collaboration among fishery agencies and scientists.  The Great Lakes Fishery Commission is excited to be a part of the cooperative work occurring between the U.S. Geological Survey and the SUNY institutions. This collaboration sets us on a course toward the recovery of these legacy species.” 

“New York State is committed to restoring native species statewide and this new cooperative funding agreement between the U.S. Geological Survey and SUNY bolsters our ongoing efforts to restore coregonines in the Great Lakes, specifically lakes Erie and Ontario,” New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Fisheries Chief Steve Hurst said. “DEC is proud to collaborate with our partners at USGS, continuing a proud history of finding innovative, strategic, and science-based strategies to restore and reintroduce native species so that they can once again thrive in New York waters.”

“Ultimately, the work associated with this project aids in the restoration of the Great Lakes and in the development of a diverse group of future fisheries scientists,” Sard said.