The King’s Short Reign: Salmon’s Rise and Fall in Lake Huron

Cross-posted at the Sierra Club Great Lakes Program blog on May 5.

My dad has a way of making friends with everyone and it was certainly true of the charter boat fishermen at the harbor in Harrisville, on Lake Huron. When I was a kid, he spent many a summer charming his way onto fishing trips with assorted colorful captains (and subsequently producing dull, wave-pitched videotapes of the outing). He would sometimes bring us along and though I can’t say I actually learned how to fish in big-lake style, the vocabulary of these lives became familiar to me: the white, sticky coolers filled with the day’s catch floating in a red slosh, the monitors that calculated the depth of schools of fish using electronic pictographs, the trash talking and inside jokes on walkie talkies to fellow captains, the early mornings, the sound of fiberglass hulls bumping gently against wooden piers. And the cleaning ritual afterward in a bloody room my sister once fainted in on a hot summer afternoon: the buckets of fish eggs, the clean knife slices made through the soft white bellies, the moist fish eyes staring blankly skyward.

The prize fish was the king salmon and if you caught one, your companion would take a smiling photo of you holding it aloft. An hour or more of rocking waves and false starts was suddenly punctuated by the frantic whizzing of fishing line being drawn out by this unseen leviathan. Its strength was shocking to my skinny kid arms as I attempted to reel it in. Eventually it broke the surface in fits and starts, still struggling, but halfheartedly. After bringing her into the boat, she joined her sisters and brothers in the cooler. Later mom would marinate its remains in lemon juice and we’d rediscover it, steaming and pink and wrapped in foil.

I was surprised to hear on NPR recently that the salmon fishery in Lake Huron all but disappeared seven years ago after the fish essentially ran out of things to eat. I was also surprised to learn that those prize fish were part a carefully orchestrated stocking program by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and that they aren’t native to Lake Huron at all. Like so many things, our experience of “the wild” was manufactured. Such stocking programs are profuse in Northern Michigan’s lakes and rivers where sport tourism is such a boon to local economies.

The charter boat captains probably didn’t care that the fish were non-native, but stocking programs have always raised red flags for me. Having heard so much about the dangers of exotic species in an ecosystem, I was always puzzled that dumping masses of fish into a body of water for the purpose of pleasing fishermen (and to control another invasive species of fish, the alewife, in this case) was a practice sanctioned and encouraged by the state. Wouldn’t such a blunt force disrupt the existing food web? Turns out, it can. One study conducted in the lakes of the Sierra Nevada found that stocked trout had damaging effects on native frog and benthic invertebrate populations. Another article on fish stocking practices in Sweden argues that these programs have failed to adapt to changing scientific understandings of introduced species. One DNR rep interviewed for the NPR story, Jim Dexter, provided a confusing quote that seems to illustrate the disconnect between natural resources management and ecology:

“It’s not a happy place. I mean, 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.” [emphasis added]

Since when does a quality ecosystem have anything to do with people’s (ahem, fishermen’s) happiness? Can the health of an ecosystem be measured by the success of a species that doesn’t really belong there? Dave Reid, the Lake Huron Management Supervisor for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, in contrast, cuts right to the heart of the issue:

“Previous fish community objectives did try to be everything to everybody, but I think we are coming to realize that we can’t sustain a fishery with those native species and non-natives living in harmony. We really haven’t come to grips with that.”

My dad stopped fishing with his friends on Lake Huron about ten years ago. I assumed he had grown tired of fishing or that the tackle shops in town closed for inexplicable management reasons. It never occurred to me that both were the result of the salmon’s disappearance. I talked to my dad about the story, expecting that he might bemoan the loss of the fish he once coveted but he accepted that Lake Huron didn’t really belong to the salmon. It belongs to the native walleye, the perch and the whitefish, among others. Such fish might not make as impressive a trophy photo, but they’re Lake Huron’s own unique legacy.

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