New Vermont Rules Could Hurt Lamprey Control Efforts, Says Program Head

Aug 5, 2016

A federal official with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says a policy change in Vermont means the agency won’t be able to use chemicals to kill parasitic sea lamprey in Lake Champlain for at least two years.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fish biologist Bradley Young says the federal agency was applying for a permit to use a chemical known as TFM to treat three Vermont rivers. The chemical treatment is known to kill the larvae of sea lamprey, a parasitic species that attaches itself to fish and sucks their blood.

Young says the sea lamprey control program using the chemicals has been successful for 26 years in Lake Champlain.

“Half-way through the permitting process, we were notified that there was a change in the Vermont Department of Health’s  policy on what they believe is the appropriate drinking [water] standard in Vermont,” he said. “So the value that had been used for 26 years prior in the program has been changed to a new value because of new concerns claimed by the Department of Health.”

Young said that the new standards will make it impossible for the federal service to treat Vermont rivers with TFM this year.

“They haven’t completely forbidden us to treat,” he said. “They’ve set new standards, which make it functionally not logistically possible for us to treat.”

Young said the new standards would require weeks to months more staff time, because they would entail far more monitoring and public notice.

“That increases the amount of work for us to have to notify all the citizens who are now in this expanded advisory zone,” he said. “We have to deliver water, potentially, to all these people, according to Vermont state regulations.”

Young said Vermont’s standard for the acceptable concentration of TFM in drinking water was previously 35 parts per billion. He said the state of New York considers water safe at 50 parts per billion. States around the Great Lakes also have a higher threshold.

Vermont’s new standard, Young says, is three parts per billion. Young said the Health Department wants to get more information about risks of TFM in drinking water, and lowered the limit until it gets that information.

"So Vermont already had the most strict standard of any state that regulates this chemical, and they made it even more strict." - Bradley Young, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

  “So Vermont already had the most strict standard of any state that regulates this chemical, and they made it even more strict,” he said.

Mary Borg, the deputy director of the Watershed Management Division at the Department of Environmental Conservation, confirmed that the changes were based on input from the Vermont Department of Health.

“The Department of Health is responsible for setting the limit of TFM that is allowed during lampricide treatment, and historically it’s been set at 35 parts per billion and the Department of Health looked at that this year and has changed that limit and set it now at 3 parts per billion after a reevaluation of it,” Borg said.

As a result of the new policy, Young says the sea lamprey control program won’t be able to treat any waterways in Vermont for two years.

“The Laplatte River has become an emerging large producer of sea lamprey and that’s because – most likely, I mean we can’t prove this, but it seems to make intuitive sense – we’ve really sealed off all the rest of the lake, and that’s an area that’s … become a refuge for them,” Young said. “And for that reason, that river is now a key nesting, spawning and rearing ground for sea lamprey, and we need to control that to maintain the kind of success that we’ve achieved thus far.”

Officials with the Vermont Department of Health declined to speak about the issue.

“We are sending all requests about this to the governor’s office,” said Gillian Morgan, who works in communications for the department.

Governor Peter Shumlin's office released the following statement in response to VPR’s inquiries:

“The Governor remains 100 percent committed to administering an effective lamprey control program, as he always has,” it said. “The Governor wants to be clear that this Administration has no intention to end the lamprey treatments. He understands the importance of that program to the health and integrity of the Lake Champlain fisheries, and the many Vermonters and visitors who come to the Lake to go fishing. He also understands the need to ensure we protect drinking water based on the best available science. Currently there is discussion among a number of federal and state government agencies and other stakeholders as to the best path forward on treatment this year. We expect a determination on that by next week, and will provide an update at that time.”

"Currently there is discussion among a number of federal and state government agencies and other stakeholders as to the best path forward on treatment this year." - Statement from Gov. Peter Shumlin's office

Sen. Patrick Leahy, who has championed lamprey control efforts in the lake and worked at the federal level to secure funding for them, said his office is involved in helping the state and federal agencies come to a solution that works from a public health and environmental perspective.

“I’ve supported the sea lamprey control program for 25 years, and it has been highly successful in restoring salmon, lake trout and other large fish to Lake Champlain," Leahy said in a statement. "The state issues the permits and determines safe application levels of the lampricide.  My office is working with all of the state and federal agencies involved to help resolve this in the long term.  In the meantime I’ll continue to seek the funding necessary to operate the program.”

The program has been widely touted as a success by both state and federal officials. A 2010 press release from the State of Vermont said the lamprey control program had delivered.

“With fewer sea lampreys in Lake Champlain, more trout and salmon are now surviving to older ages and larger sizes,” the release said. “Continuation of current sea lamprey control efforts and ongoing innovations are expected to lead to further improvements in the trout and salmon fishery of Lake Champlain as well as the entire aquatic community.”

Young said the chemical used for the treatments, TFM, is not being used in concentrations that would be harmful to humans. In fact, Young said he’s not aware of a single case, ever, anywhere in the world, in which TFM had negative effects on human health.

“There’s never been even close to a documented case,” he said. “It’s because the concentration is so, so far below what it would take to cause any effects. I can say that – of course the Department of Health would tell you that they don’t know that until they have the study. But something tells me that the 50 million people living around Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, New York, Minnesota, Indiana, Illinois, for the last 50 years haven’t risen a ruckus about problems with this chemical being used for sea lamprey control in their lakes, and that if it had been a problem, you would have heard of it over the last 50, 60 years there.”

The Great Lakes Fisheries Commission, in a fact sheet about TFM and sea lamprey control, says that “[e]xhaustive laboratory tests – more than 40 years’ worth – show that at the dose needed to eliminate sea lampreys, TFM is nontoxic or has minimal effects on aquatic plants, other fish, and wildlife.”

The fact sheet goes on to say that “[s]tudies have also shown TFM to be nontoxic to humans and other mammals.”

Marc Gaden, the communications director and legislative liaison for the Great Lakes Fisheries Commission, said he supports the state’s efforts to gather data on TFM in drinking water but that it’s important not to slow down lamprey treatments.

“What we’re really concerned about is any lapse in lamprey control of course, because it would take the Lake Champlain ecosystem many, many years if not a decade to recover from that,” he said. “And at the same time, we want to make sure that Vermont is able to issue the permits so that the lampricide can be used.”

Gaden said other states using TFM have not raised similar questions because the lampricide isn’t used near drinking water intakes. He said TFM has been used since 1957 without any human health effects.

Whatever conclusion Vermont comes to about safe levels of TFM in water, Gaden said the Lake Champlain ecosystem needs lamprey control.

“Our experience in the Great Lakes is easing up on lamprey control even for short amounts of time leads us to a place where it takes us years to recover from that,” he said. “These are very noxious and harmful predator fish, the lamprey, and what they do to native fish of Lake Champlain is quite destructive.”