A Great Lake revival
The demise of alewives and salmon in Lake Huron brought something nobody expected: An explosion of native species. Is Lake Michigan next? And could a more diverse ecosystem offer protection against Asian carp and other invaders?
By Dan Egan of the Journal Sentinel staff
Linwood, Mich. — Ernie Plant's eyes get wide when he talks about how spectacular Lake Huron's salmon fishing was back in the late 1980s, when his dad would take him up north on Friday nights after his high school football games.
They'd spend fall weekends along the shore of the lake chasing the chinook that were chasing the alewives that ran so thick they even teemed in water-filled ditches along coastal roadways.
A Watershed Moment
Third of three parts
Published Dec. 7, 2014
"We never had a boat," said the sales manager at Frank's Great Outdoors, a gear and bait shop north of Bay City. "But we didn't need one."
When Lake Huron's salmon crashed a decade ago, Plant, who holds a degree in biology from Northern Michigan University, had no doubt the lake would eventually right itself and the fish would come back.
And fish did return — but they weren't the fish Plant or many others expected.
What has happened in the decade since the crash of Lake Huron's two dominant species — invasive Atlantic alewives and the giant Pacific salmon planted to gobble them up — is a remarkable story of nature's resilience. Efforts by lake managers to sustain the invasive alewives to keep the salmon fishing rolling had, for decades, pushed native species to the fringes.
But when the alewife dwindled and the salmon followed, there was an almost instant surge in native lake trout, walleye, smallmouth bass, chubs and emerald shiners.
"It all happened as soon as the alewives were gone," said Michigan Department of Natural Resources biologist Dave Fielder. "The natives started producing like crazy."
The remarkable result is that today the top of the Lake Huron food chain more closely resembles its natural self than anytime since the lamprey and alewives invaded in the mid-1900s.
"Lake Huron's fishery," said Jim Johnson, a retired biologist with the Michigan DNR, "is more stable and robust in the past four or five years than it has been in a long time."
It has everything to do with the disappearance of alewives, and little to do with Howard Tanner and Wayne Tody's grand salmon plan, crafted after alewives had over-run Lakes Michigan and Huron. Tanner said he was never interested in trying to bring back native species just because they were native. He wanted the best sport fishery he could fashion from the lakes — and for him that meant Pacific salmon.
And that led to managing the lakes in a manner that would preserve the invasive alewives for the salmon to eat.
Is there a crisis on Lake St Clair? Reports of declining to non-existent bait fish population including gobies has the Michigan DNR on alert after seeing smallmouth bass starving long after the spawn is over. Watch the short video for their explanations as to why.
By Howard Meyerson
GRAND RAPIDS, MI – Atlantic salmon will again be stocked at four Lake Huron locations in 2014. State officials are gearing up for the second round in a five-year experiment to determine if an Atlantic salmon fishery can be created there.
Approximately 100,000 yearling Atlantics were planted in the lake during the spring of 2013, but none appeared in the catch so far, according to state fisheries officials.
“We expect that all that to start rolling next summer,” said Todd Grischke, the Lake Huron basin coordinator for the Michigan DNR. “A lot can happen between now and then, but we will be evaluating the harvest each of the next two seasons and weaving that information into a long-term plan of where to go.
“Next year we are looking at stocking 130,000 yearlings. And, if all goes well, we will look at a 150,000 more in 2015 and stick to the same study design.”
Atlantic salmon may help fill the fisheries gap that was created in Lake Huron when Chinook salmon population collapsed in 2003 and 2004. Grischke and others are hopeful that they will fare better being a more opportunistic feeder. Chinook salmon rely on alewives which virtually disappeared. Atlantics are also thought a good compliment to the multi-species fishery that is developing in Lake Huron now. Walleye, steelhead, perch and some Chinooks are all being caught.
STOCKING TO INCREASE OVER NEXT TWO YEARS
The 2014 plan calls for increasing Atlantic stocking at each of the four locales that got them this year. The St. Mary’s River will get 50,000 yearlings in 2014, up from 35,000. Alpena/Thunder Bay will get 25,000 instead of 20,000, and the Au Sable River will get 35,000, up from 30,000. Lexington will get 20,000 rather than 15,000.
“I’m really excited about it,” said Frank Krist, an avid angler from Rogers City and the chairman of the Lake Huron Citizen’s Advisory Committee, a group of anglers convened by the DNR for discussion and review. The group recently reviewed the plan.
“The fish stocked this (past) spring will be big enough to be caught in the 2014 spring fishery,” Krist said. “And next fall about 30 to 50 percent of those fish will be mature enough to return to the stocking sites to spawn.”
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