The Environment Report in a collaborative project with Michigan Watch is looking at salmon fishing on the Great Lakes. Salmon fishing has meant a lot of tourism dollars for cities along the coasts. But, changes in Lake Huron have caused a collapse of salmon. In the final report of the series “The Collapse of the Salmon Economy,” Lester Graham looks at what happened and whether other lakes will lose their salmon.
Fishing for salmon on some parts of Lake Huron is still a big deal.
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But for most of the Lake Huron port cities, salmon fishing has collapsed. Blame it mostly on zebra mussels and quagga mussels. They were brought into the Great Lakes in the ballasts of foreign cargo ships. Quagga mussels now cover most of the bottom of Lake Huron… filtering out the algae and plankton which are the base of the food chain. That’s caused the collapse of alewife, a fish that salmon eat.
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources continues to put about 1.4 million small chinook salmon into the lake each year, but last year. But, last year only a thousand chinook salmon were caught. Considering the cost of raising all those salmon, that comes to about $475 per fish caught.
The DNR is now proposing to dramatically reduce the number of salmon it releases into Lake Huron because there’s no food for the fish.
When the salmon started disappearing, so did the charter fishing boats and with them tourism dollars for the communities along Lake Huron… about a million dollars for each port city.
Many charter boats moved to Lake Michigan where salmon fishing is still good.
C.J. Baker operates a boat for Puddle Jumpers Charters. He moved from Alpena on Lake Huron to Ludington on Lake Michigan. He’s angry that the government hasn’t done more to stop invasive species such as zebra and quagga mussels from ruining the Great Lakes.
“Because this stuff should be regulated by the feds and these ships should not be hauling this stuff in here. It’s a billion dollar industry here.”
Back along Lake Huron, the restaurants, motels, and other businesses that relied on salmon fishing tourism couldn’t just pull up anchor and move.
“The collapse of the salmon fishery out here has been devastating to the area.”
Russ Wellman operates Wellman’s Bait and Tackle in AuSable.
He says while many other bait and tackle shops went out of business, he’s changed the emphasis of his store, turning it more into a party store, offering snacks and whitefish sausage… and fishing lures for other fish still in Lake Huron.
He says, of course, for the DNR to continue stocking a million salmon a year makes no sense.
“When they plant these salmon in the river right now, I mean, that’s the only small fish out there and that’s what the walleye are eating, you know.”
In fact, since the disappearance of alewife and salmon, other native fish like walleye are doing well, eating those little hatchery raised salmon.
Jim Johnson is a biologist based at Michigan’s Alpena Fisheries Research Station. He says the small towns along Lake Huron have been hurt, collectively losing tens of millions of tourism dollars. Now the worry is whether we’ll see the salmon fishery in other Great Lakes collapse.
“In Lake Michigan, we’re talking a billion dollars lost in the coastal communities of that side of the lake if the chinook salmon fishery were to collapse — not that it will.”
Johnson is quick to stress Lake Michigan is different from Lake Huron. In fact, this year there were more alewife in Lake Michigan and the salmon fishing has been good. But fisheries experts are concerned.
Mark Gaden is with the Great Lakes Fishery Commission which monitors fishing across the Great Lakes.
“It wouldn’t be at all surprising if Lake Michigan and Lake Ontario for that matter which are similar as well would follow the same pattern as Lake Huron.”
They’re worried that the Pacific salmon that helped make the Great Lakes a world-class fishing spot might disappear.
With Michigan Watch, I’m Lester Graham for The Environment Report.
This series “The Collapse of the Salmon Economy,” was reported and produced by Lester Graham and Bridget Bodnar in a collaboration of Michigan Watch and The Environment Report.
I’m Rebecca Williams.