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Salmon fishery on the rocks

The Chinook salmon was initially introduced to the Great Lakes in the 1870s. Michigan, New York and Wisconsin reintroduced the Chinook salmon to the Great Lakes in 1966.
Photo courtesy of USFWS
The Chinook salmon was initially introduced to the Great Lakes in the 1870s. Michigan, New York and Wisconsin reintroduced the Chinook salmon to the Great Lakes in 1966.

There’s a decision looming for Lake Huron that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago. The state must decide whether it should keep putting chinook salmon in the lake. The fish has been the driving force behind sport fishing in the Great Lakes. But the salmon’s future in the Upper Lakes is now questionable.

It’s hard to overstate how drastically salmon transformed the Great Lakes after they were introduced more than 40 years ago.

Ed Retherford is a charter boat captain on Lake Huron. He says in the old days on a weekend in Rockport he’d see cars with boat trailers backed up for a mile or two waiting to launch. But that’s all gone now.

“You’d be lucky, except maybe for the brown trout festival, you’d be lucky to see twenty boats there on a weekend. It just decimated that area. You can imagine the economics involved.”

Chinook or king salmon practically disappeared from Lake Huron about seven years ago. Most of the charter boats are gone now because the kinds of fish that remain are just not as exciting to catch as salmon.

State officials figure little towns like Rockport lose upwards of a million dollars in tourism business every year without the fishery.

The salmon’s demise followed the disappearance of its favorite food, little fish called alewives. Scientists say there were too many salmon eating the alewives and problems lower down on the food chain caused by invasive mussels.

State fisheries biologist Jim Johnson says salmon would rather starve than eat something besides an alewife.

“So at first, the salmon went through a period of just being starved out. They didn’t have enough to eat. They wouldn’t switch to eating round gobies and they died of malnutrition.”

The changes in Lake Huron since have been significant.

Neither salmon nor alewives are native to the lake. And with them out of the way, native fish like walleye have come back.

The state continues to stock one and a half million Chinook salmon in Lake Huron every year.

But Jim Johnson says the walleye eat most of them. He says Lake Huron can’t support a big salmon fishery any more.

“It’s just not realistic. The lake doesn’t offer that and there’s nothing the DNR can do to change that.”

The question now is whether to stock any chinook salmon in Huron at all. Giving up on the most popular sport fish in the Great Lakes is hard to swallow but most people see the writing on the wall. So even if stocking continues, it will likely be a fraction of what it once was.

On the other side of the state, there are now worrying signs that the same fate might be in store for Lake Michigan.

There are lots of salmon in Lake Michigan today.

But charter boat captain Denny Grinold says something went wrong last fall. He says the big salmon, the four-year old fish that come up into the rivers to spawn in August, never showed up.

“You keep looking for ‘em. You keep looking for ‘em. You go out and you fish the patterns that you’ve fished in the past. Those large Chinook should be there and they just weren’t there.”

The warm water and lots of windy days last year might account for the missing fish. But research provides no comfort for the future.

The DNR has created a system of red flags to evaluate the conditions for salmon in Lake Michigan. These are based on things like how much food is available, the weight of the fish and how many are being caught.

Twenty of the 30 flags have been triggered.

The manager of Lake Michigan for the Department of Natural Resources, Jim Dexter, says the lake is not a happy place.

“The lake is very perturbed. It’s certainly not a stable, quality ecosystem. I mean it’s working right now. It’s producing a fishery. People are happy but it’s tenuous.”

There’s not much the state can do to change anything.

If the experience of Lake Huron is any guide, it’s the presence of those little feeder fish, alewives, that is critical.

At the moment, there are believed to be fewer alewives in Lake Michigan than at any time on record.

-Peter Payette for The Environment Report


Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.