Fishing for Science (Part 6)

  • A DNR researcher working on the annual fish survey on Lake St. Clair. (Photo by Dustin Dwyer)

This week, we’ve been hearing stories about fish, for our series “Swimming Upstream.” For today’s story, Dustin Dwyer paid a visit to some researchers with the Department of Natural Resources. The DNR tracks fish populations at sites around the state. Dustin went aboard with the team on Lake St. Clair, and sent us this report:


(audio postcard being transcribed – please check back)

The Mind of a Fish (Part 5)

  • Charter boat captain Ed Patnode. (Photo by Dustin Dwyer)

All this week, Dustin Dwyer has been bringing us fish stories from around the state. And for today’s story, Dustin wanted to get into the mind of a fish. So, he met up with a charter boat captain on Saginaw Bay:

There’s no evidence that fish understand irony. But if they did, they might find irony in the fact that the people who best understand them are the people who get paid to kill them – or at least injure their lips slightly.

And perhaps no one I’ve met understands fish better than Ed Patnode. He’s so good at fishing, I saw him catch one by accident. I climbed aboard his boat, and a few minutes later a 14 inch small mouth bass is hanging off a hook he accidentally left laying over the side of the boat.

“I didn’t really catch that. He was on the line.” (laughs)

Ed’s been fishing all his life and he can tell you things only a fisherman would know – a fish’s favorite color, for example, it seems to be pink.

“It’s crazy isn’t it? It’s just nuts. But they love it.”

Pink and also green. And sometimes chartreuse or orange. Ed says out of the thousands of colors of lures they sell in catalogues, he only keeps a few on his boat. It’s a charter boat he ties up in Linwood, a small town on Saginaw Bay that advertises itself as Michigan’s Walleye Capitol.

Ed also does salmon fishing charters out of Manistee in the fall.

He decided to start running a charter boat about six years ago. Back then, he used to go fishing every weekend with a group of friends.

“It got to be expensive each weekend going. And so we were just trying to see ‘Hey, how can we cut our losses.’ It was really, really how do we get out there and get other people to help us pay?” (laughs)

And with a lifetime of experience, maybe even obsession, with catching fish, he certainly knew enough to do it.

More about Captain Ed

More about Jeff Godi


But as much as he knows about fish, there’s still more he wishes he could know.

“You know we’d be rich if we could tap into the mind of a fish, just get that fish to talk and tell us why do you like pink, or can you tell us what days you’re going to bite pink on and what other factors are influencing your decision to bite this pink lure today.”

One thing that helps is talking to other fishermen.

“Hey Jeff!”

And here in Linwood, there are a number of charter boat captains who are surprisingly helpful to each other. As I chat with Ed, he calls over Jeff Godi, who owns a charter boat called the Michigan-X. Jeff’s a lifetime fisherman too. So I ask him, what’s the big appeal of trying to figure out a creature that’s so hard to figure out?

“I realized as a kid that I just love to do these things. It hasn’t gotten old. You know, I guess that’s always the thought in the back of your mind. But there’s always variety, you know, different weather conditions, different people on your boat, different people to talk to.”

He says he’s had everyone from old World War II vets to teenagers out fishing on his boat. Jeff tells me his job can be as much about figuring out people as it is about figuring out fish.

But … let’s not try to get too deep here. Fishing is also just a lot of fun. And Ed can hardly hold himself back. Before too long, he tracks down a first mate, fires up the engine, and we go out to catch some walleye.

At first it’s slow, no bites. But to a charter boat captain, the idea of not catching fish just never enters the picture. Ed changes lures, he changes depths, he changes the speed of his boat. And soon enough he has me reeling in a walleye.

“Keep reeling, keep reeling … he’s in the boat!”

Ed gives me a high five. In the excitement of the moment, I forget to check the color of the lure.

But I bet it was pink.

For the Environment Report, I’m Dustin Dwyer.

Next time, we’ll tag along with researchers as they do their annual fish survey on Lake St. Clair. That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Fending Off Sturgeon Poachers (Part 4)

  • A juvenile lake sturgeon. (Photo courtesy of USFS, Rob Elliott)

This week, we’re focusing on fish for our series Swimming Upstream. And today, Dustin Dwyer has a story about one of the most fascinating fish in the Great Lakes. Sturgeon have been around for more than 100 million years. Each fish can live more than a hundred years, weigh more than a hundred pounds and stretch eight or nine feet long. But sturgeon have also been the target of overfishing and poaching. Dustin caught up with one group in northern Michigan that’s trying to save them:

So about a month or two ago, I was sitting along the bank of the Black River, way up near Onaway. And I was next to Jesse Hide, who has lived in this area all his life, and watched sturgeon all his life. We were keeping an eye out for sturgeon heading up the river to spawn.

“There’s one coming up right there … he’s coming back down now.”

The long, spear-like fish occasionally poke their heads out of the water, like a submarine coming to the surface.

We’re sitting right next to a deep pool where Jesse says the sturgeon like to spawn. It’s not really in full swing yet. If it was, you could tell.

“The males, if you think about it, they’re like a torpedo and they’ll curl to where they’re like the shape of a banana, and they’re really, really quick sideways movement and it’s like a thumping, (imitates noise) like that.”

Hide says it’s so violent, you can feel it through the ground.

Also, get this, if you come across a sturgeon, you can pet it, and it doesn’t seem to mind.

“If you grab a tail, they’ll freak out. They will. They’ll take right off and make a big ruckus, but when you’re just touching them and stuff, it don’t bug ‘em.”

But Hide says that’s also part of the problem. These water giants are a little too gentle. And in the shallow waters of the Black River where they spawn, they’re incredibly vulnerable. Hide has seen evidence of poaching.

“One had been killed and whoever had killed the fish had tied it up. And we found the fish before they actually had a chance to come back and get it.”


The survival of sturgeon is pretty important to Hide and his whole family. His mom founded the first and only Michigan chapter of a group called Sturgeon for Tomorrow.

Every year, the group rounds up volunteers to sit on the bank of the Black River, to guard this area as the sturgeon swim here to spawn.

For many volunteers, it’s a chance to see one of the Great Lakes’ most awe-inspiring fish.

“It’s a unique fish because it’s a prehistoric animal, you know.”

Jack McAfee is one of the volunteers on guard.

“And I can’t believe that people would poach them and come out here in the river when they’re spawning and catch them and things like that. But this is the reason the guard is here.”

Ann Feldhauser coordinates the volunteers for this river guard. She says sturgeon are extremely valuable because of their eggs.

“And a female sturgeon if it reaches a hundred pounds or more can produce gallons of eggs which can then be processed and sold on the black market as caviar.”

There was a time when sturgeon were pulled out of the Black Lake by the hundreds. Most of it was legal, but there was some poaching too.

Now, though, among the volunteers I’ve talked to, no one has ever even seen a poacher. No one here has to pack a pistol or be ready to fight. They discourage poaching just by being here.

And sturgeon are making a comeback.

But it can take sturgeon at least 15 years to reach reproductive age, and even then they don’t spawn every year.

So it’s a slow process.

For the Environment Report, I’m Dustin Dwyer.

Tomorrow, Dustin tries to understand the mind of a fish. That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

A Dam Problem (Part 3)

  • Chris Pierce works to remove a dam on the Manistee River. (Photo by Dustin Dwyer)

All this week, we’re focusing on stories about fish for our series, “Swimming Upstream.” Dustin Dwyer traveled all around the Lower Peninsula for the series, and for today’s story, he went to the site of a former trout farm along the headwaters of the Manistee River, near Grayling. Dustin went to learn about the complex world of dam removal:

The Flowing Well trout farm was built half a century ago. Dotted along the river here are a number of little dams, each one only 4 or 5 feet high, built out of simple wood planks. But if you’re a fish, this might as well be the Hoover.

“You cannot swim from down there to up there. You cannot access the miles and miles of river that we have upstream of here because the dam blocks fish passage.”

Mark Tonello is a fish biologist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. He says dams like the one we’re standing next to give fish less space to feed and less space to spawn. Dams also warm the water, which makes it harder for fish to survive.

Over the past decade or so, people have started to take this dam issue more seriously, and there’s a big push to get rid of old dams.

But the work can be surprisingly tedious.

One group that’s taken up the cause is the Conservation Resource Alliance.

Chris Pierce is a biologist with the CRA. I look on as he and another biologist carefully remove a single wooden plank from the dam.

“You really want to remove the impoundments and the boards, or whatever type of structure is holding the water back, as slow as possible.”

Dustin: “That’s really not as exciting. Dynamite would be much more fun.” (both laugh)

But Pierce says a quick, explosive demolition would release a lot of sediment. A lot of times in Michigan, that sediment holds some pretty nasty toxins.

This one board is all the crew will remove for the day.

(chainsaw sound)


The crew also chops up logs downstream so they won’t jam up once the river returns to its full flow. It’s just one of the many mind-numbing details involved in dam removal.

But so far, we’ve just been talking about the science of dam removal. There’s a whole other side to dam removal where things get REALLY complex.

If a dam is in an urban area, removal changes how people use the water – take away a dam below a pond, and the pond goes too, along with all the boating fun.

Rick Westerhoff is a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He’s the point person for another dam removal project in Traverse City, along the Boardman River. Compared to the Boardman removal, this Flowing Well project is a breeze.

“There’s not many people out here. Still important, but there’s just not the issues related to – you don’t have hydro-power, you don’t have community involvement, you don’t have road-stream crossings, you don’t have potential flooding issues.”

The Boardman River project may well be the largest in the state’s history. It could also cost 20 million dollars.

And that’s another thing – dam removal is never cheap.

Amy Beyer is head of the Conservation Resource Alliance. She says even the Flowing Well project will cost a million.

“People are shocked when they find out the price tag and the time frame that it takes to remove some of these dams. And we’re learning that it really can be a really large effort to do it right, to remove dams.”

There are hundreds of aging dams in Michigan. Removing them is good for fish. It can be good for humans, in case the dams start crumbling away.

But the work is far from easy.

For the Environment Report, I’m Dustin Dwyer.

Tomorrow, we’ll hear about a fish that’s been around since before the age of dinosaurs… and we’ll hear about the people who camp out to protect the fish from poachers. That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

The Fish Monger’s Wife (Part 2)

  • The Petersens sell fresh whitefish filets at the Muskegon Farmer's Market. (Photo by Dustin Dwyer)

Today we continue our series, Swimming Upstream. Dustin Dwyer took a road trip around the lower peninsula, to bring us stories about fish. Yesterday we heard about the Petersens. They’re one of the few remaining non-tribal commercial fishing families in the state.

Today Dustin tells the story of the Fish Mongers Wife:

It’s a grey day at the Muskegon Farmer’s market, but Amber Mae Petersen is selling the heck out of some fresh Michigan whitefish.

“We’re based here in Muskegon, my husband’s family has been commercial fishing here for 75 years. So we sell what we catch.”

The vacuum-sealed bags of whitefish filets, and packages of smoked whitefish are disappearing quickly. Petersen’s husband Eric stands next to her, packing the fish in ice and wrapping it in old copies of the Muskegon Chronicle.

“It’s the only way to do it.”

People who love to eat local fish always seem to find a way to get it, but sometimes it’s not easy.

Melissa Frey had a hookup better than most of us – her husband has known the Petersens all his life. So she could drive over to the dock to get some fish.

“Occasionally we’d go down there and get a treat, but this is exciting.”

Dustin: “But now you get it more often?”

“Oh my gosh, every week. Fish tacos, fish on the grill. We love that. We’re absolute whitefish fans.”

The Petersen’s have been pulling whitefish out of the waters near Muskegon for eight decades. But this Farmer’s Market stand marks the first time the family has ever had a retail operation.

Talking to Eric, you can see why there was a reluctance. The family has distributors it trusts. Going through them is simple and it pays the bills.

So he says when Amber Mae pitched the idea of selling at the farmer’s market, it took some convincing.

“I said go ahead, but I don’t want anything to do with it, you know, because I’m not really a people person. But I got into it you know, and came with her a couple of times and everybody already knew who I was, so it kinda made me feel a little bit better about working with her, and so I come every Saturday with her.”

Dustin: “She roped you in…”

“Yeah, she did.”


Amber Mae also won Eric over on the name for the new business. That quirky and catchy name is now splashed on a board above their market stall: the Fish Monger’s Wife, LLC.

She can afford to gloat a bit because, well, the Fish Monger’s Wife has been a huge hit.

” It just took off. The response from the community was absolutely amazing. People were excited that we were here. We actually sold out our first Saturday within an hour and a half I think it was. It was just crazy.”

But success brings its own challenges.

Amber Mae says one of her big questions right now is how big can this business really get? At the size they’re at now, they’re debt free and all the fish gets cleaned and filleted by hand.

“You know a filet machine used is $30,000. And if we had a filet machine, that would allow us to take and look at doing larger quantities, which would allow us to expand into restaurants and things like that … so, you know, when you’re running a business and you’re saying okay do we really want to do a business loan or not, it becomes complicated.”

Complications like that help explain why there aren’t more people clamoring to get in the fish business. And why people like me have trouble finding fresh local fish at the store.

But the Petersens are making a go of it. The Fish Monger’s Wife is still a pretty small part of the entire Petersen family fishing operation, but it is opening a new door and a new way for the rest of us to enjoy Michigan fish.

For the Environment Report, I’m Dustin Dwyer.

Next time, Dustin visits the headwaters of the Manistee River. We’ll hear how removing dams can be good for fish… but it can also be a nightmare.

That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

The Shrinking Commercial Fishing Industry

Today we begin a series called: “Swimming Upstream.” It’s about one of Michigan’s most valuable natural resources: fish. These slimy, scaly water dwellers contribute to the ecology of the Great Lakes, our economy, and, of course, our dinner plate.

Reporter Dustin Dwyer has traveled all over the lower peninsula to gather these fish stories for us, and he starts with a simple question: why can it sometimes be so difficult to buy fresh fish caught in Michigan?

The short answer to that question is: Michigan’s commercial fishing industry is pretty small. Other than tribal fisherman, only about 50 people hold commercial fishing licenses in the state.

Bill Petersen estimates that the number used to be a thousand.

Petersen is a third generation commercial fisherman in Muskegon. I met him on a concrete dock, tucked behind a little house near where Muskegon Lake meets Lake Michigan. It’s not an easy place to find.

“Not too many people even know about us down here.”

Dustin: “You don’t have a sign out.”

“We don’t advertise. Sometimes you’re better off that way.” (laughs)

The business seems to be getting by fine without it. Bill’s grandfather started Petersen’s Fisheries in 1927. Bill started young.

“Well I’m 62 years old, and I’ve been working 53 years.”

In that time, he’s seen several fishermen go out of business just in Muskegon. He puts most of the blame on regulation. Starting in the ‘60s, the state put in rules to protect fish populations in the lake. And now the state doesn’t issue any new commercial fishing licenses. Petersen says the rules have definitely helped the fish. But the industry is a shadow of what it once was.

“Well, there’s only two commercial fishermen on this side of the state from here in Muskegon to the Indiana border. Got the whole lake and two fishermen, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. (Dustin: It’s good business for you, though) Good for us, yeah, but the fish are just back to back. They’re thick.”

As we talk, the boat chugs in with the day’s catch.

(sound of boat coming in)

The catch on this particular day isn’t that great – maybe 1,200 pounds of fish in all. They’re packed in green plastic tubs full of ice.

The crew hauls the tubs up to the dock. If these guys are lucky, they’ll get out of here after a 14 hour work day.

And the profit from that work, well, it can vary.

“You put in long hours and sometimes it’s low pay. So you either gotta like it, or be crazy, one of the two.”

Dustin: “Well, which are you?”

“Take your pick.” (laughs)

At least, if he’s crazy, he’s crazy like a fox. The Petersens have managed to keep a fishing business going in Michigan for about 80 years now, while hundreds of other fishermen went under.


But for folks who just want to buy fresh, local Michigan whitefish, there’s a downside: to stay in business, the Petersens stick with just a few trusted distributors. And once the fish gets loaded up on a truck, those distributors send almost all of it to Chicago or New York. From there, the fish gets hard to track.

Dustin: “If someone’s listening to this radio piece, how would they know if they’re eating a Petersen’s Fisheries fish?”

“They wouldn’t. They would never know. There’s no way that you know where the fish comes from.”

But, that’s actually not entirely true. There is one way to know for sure that you’re getting a fish from the Petersen family. And that is our story for tomorrow.

For the Environment Report, I’m Dustin Dwyer.

And while we have Dustin tracking the Petersen family, we want to know your favorite places to get Michigan fish. You can find our discussion on our Facebook page. Just search for The Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Opposition to Offshore Wind

  • Business owners and residents in Pentwater, Michigan put up signs expressing opposition to Scandia Wind's offshore turbine proposal. (Photo by Suzy Vuljevic)

Reported and written by Suzy Vuljevic:

There’s been a lot of outside interest in Michigan’s coastal wind supply. There have been multiple proposals for land-based wind farms in Michigan. But only a couple of companies have set their sights offshore.

One company in particular has met some tough opposition.

Scandia Wind came to Michigan last year looking to install 50 to 100 wind turbines in Lake Michigan. They had plans to site a wind farm six miles outside of Mason and Oceana counties.

Colleen Plummer lives in southern Mason County. She owns the Antler restaurant in downtown Pentwater. The restaurant is a short walk from the beach. If the turbines were built there, you could see them from the shoreline. Plummer is worried about how the project could affect her small town community.

(Background restaurant sound)

“We make our money off the view. If you come here in the summertime, people gather. Every evening we have a beautiful sunset, it’s different and it’s free.”

A lot of locals worry about the impact the project would have on tourism. Last winter, signs with slogans like “no mistake in the lake” went up in storefronts and on car bumpers in Pentwater.

Jeff Hodges and about ten other people got together to start the POWER Coalition. POWER stands for Protect Our Water, Economy and Resources. They formed the group to oppose Scandia’s offshore wind project and any others that might follow. When Hodges first heard about Scandia’s proposal, he says he thought it was a joke.

“I thought ‘what is this, it’s not April fool’s.’ It didn’t seem economically feasible and didn’t seem environmentally feasible.”

Hodges says he’d rather see other clean energy alternatives explored.

Steve Warner is CEO of Scandia Wind. He says his company’s project would benefit Michigan’s economy. Officials in Mason and Oceana counties disagree. They rejected Scandia Wind’s proposal.

Warner has since moved his sights about 90 miles further south to Ottawa and Muskegon.

“There are several thousand jobs possible with the construction of the project. What is potentially longer lasting and really more interesting is supply chain opportunity.”


Warner says Michigan companies could take the lead in producing the parts to build turbines.

Despite all the opposition, there are some people who do want an offshore wind farm near their homes. In Muskegon, residents approached Scandia Wind. They want Scandia Wind to do studies to see if their coastline is well-suited for wind turbines.

Legally, Scandia Wind doesn’t need resident approval, but the company says they want this kind of support.

But there are still a lot of obstacles before a developer can start building offshore.

James Clift is Policy Director of the Michigan Environmental Council.

“Kind of two things need to be in place. First the company would have to get a lease. Once they have that lease in hand, then usually what they do is go out and they put in what’s called a net tower basically wanting to test the wind velocity to make sure that there is enough wind to site an economically viable wind farm.”

Clift says in order to move forward, a company also needs a federal permit. And, he says offshore wind is such a new concept in Michigan that the state doesn’t even have the laws in place to regulate this industry.

That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Lawmakers Wrestling With Wild Hogs

  • Wild hogs in a breeding facility. (Photo by Peter Payette)

There’s an enormous project underway to clean up and protect the Great Lakes. It’s called the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. People are doing things like cleaning up toxic hot spots…restoring wetlands… and trying to keep Asian Carp out of Lake Michigan.

Melinda Koslow is with the National Wildlife Federation. She’s an author of a new report on how climate change might affect these projects. She says scientists are finding the climate in the Great Lakes region is already changing.

“We definitely are noticing warmer water temperatures. For example, Lake Superior is the fastest warming freshwater body on Earth. We’re also noticing thinning lake ice, and we have flooding events more frequently.”

Koslow says these changes will affect the people who are working to clean up the Lakes – and rebuild habitat.

“We wanted to make sure we protect those investments for the long term by thinking about integrating climate change.”

There’s a lot to protect… with $300 million of taxpayer money invested in these projects this year.

(music bump)

This is the Environment Report.

Wild hogs have been the talk of the state legislature this week. Hunting ranches call the hogs Russian boars. They’re brown and hairy and the males have little tusks. The hogs are bred and raised to be hunted. Wild hog hunts typically go for around 500 or 600 bucks.

The Department of Natural Resources says wild hogs have gotten out of hand. The DNR says the hogs have gotten loose and are running around… doing things like tearing up the soil, destroying crops and competing with other animals for food.

The agency points out that wild hog breeding and hunting within these fenced facilities is currently unregulated. Last year, the DNR director signed an order. It will make it illegal to possess a wild hog in Michigan. The order goes into effect July 8th… unless a law is passed to regulate wild hogs on hunting ranches.

Ted Nugent is possibly the most outspoken critic of a ban on wild hogs. He owns a hunting ranch near Jackson.

“And there’s this voodoo subculture out there that is misrepresenting that there are pigs loose and there are pigs out there destroying the environment and destroying family farms, when none of that is true.”


Nugent says he’s never had a hog escape the high fences at his ranch.

“And by the way, the evidence proves that most of these feral pigs that have escaped have escaped from pig farming operations. Not hunting operations. So there’s all kinds of hysterical, ignorant misrepresentation out there.”

HINES: “That’s a pretty bogus argument.”

Sam Hines is the executive vice president of the Michigan Pork Producers Association.

He says pigs are not escaping from pig farms. He says pigs used to be raised outdoors, but now about 90% of pigs are raised indoors.

“I’ve grown up in the industry and quite honestly they’re quite difficult to keep behind fences sometimes as well, but unlike the breeds that are used for sport shooting purposes, the domestic animals, they know where their buddies are, they know where their food source is and they don’t go anywhere.”

Hines says he supports a ban on wild hogs. He says wild hogs carry diseases.

“If we can’t move hogs out of the state because we have contracted some of the diseases, in particular the pseudorabies virus, which these animals in the wild are known to carry, it could just be economically devastating to the pork industry.”

Now, it’s up to the state legislature to figure out what to do. Lawmakers are discussing a package of bills that would allow hunting ranches to keep wild hogs under certain conditions. Republican state Senator Rick Jones also just introduced a bill that would make the DNR’s order a law… and make it illegal to shoot wild hogs on fenced ranches.

That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Lake Trout on Life Support

  • Lake trout were once the big game fish in all of the Great Lakes. (Photo courtesy of Michigan Sea Grant)

For twenty years now the federal government has been trying to restore wild lake trout in Lake Michigan. Lake trout are native to the Great Lakes and were once the big game fish in all the lakes. The species is doing well in Lakes Superior and Huron these days. But recovery efforts in Lake Michigan have been almost a total failure. As Peter Payette reports, the future of the native fish in Lake Michigan is questionable despite recent news of plans to try harder:

Lake trout don’t have a big fan club. Anglers would prefer to land a salmon. And retail markets for lake trout are weak.

Peter Meisenheimer is the executive director of the Ontario Commercial Fisheries Association. He says lake trout is one of the least valuable commercial fish out there.

“The sad fact of the matter is that a fish that used to be a mainstay of the fishery in the Great Lakes has fallen off the map from the perspective of the fish eating public. They don’t think of it as something they could buy.”

That is not to say the fish is forgotten. Tribal fishermen still look for lake trout. And people who grew up near the lakes tend to have a taste for the fish.

The peach-colored flesh is oily and smokes well.


At Port City Smokehouse in Frankfort, 120 lbs. of trout are being pulled out of the brine. Soon these fat steaks of fish will be smoking over a fire of sugar maple.


The owner of the smokehouse, Mike Elwell, says most of the trout he sells is smoked.

But he says lots of people who visit Frankfort have never had any kind of smoked fish.

“They don’t even know how to eat smoked fish. I mean, we tell them you peel the skin, the flesh comes off the bones, I mean they’ll ask questions like, is there bones in that fish?”

Port City Smokehouse sits on Lake Michigan’s Betsie Bay, once a thriving commercial fishing port. But no fishing boats leave here in search of the native lake trout anymore. These fish came from Mackinac City.

Lake trout were wiped out by overfishing and invasive species across the lakes in the middle of the last century. The fish has fully recovered in Lake Superior.

But in Lake Michigan, trout are basically on life support. Millions are planted in the lake every year but they can’t seem to do what any fish species must to survive: mature and reproduce.

Last year, a report published by the U.S. Geological Survey estimated the number of wild lake trout in Lake Michigan, that is, fish not born in a hatchery, was in the neighborhood of zero.

But Mark Holey is optimistic. Holey is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and manages the stocking programs. He says there are some good signs out there.

For instance, one of the longstanding problems lake trout have had is lack of a nutrient called thiamine. Thiamine deficiency makes reproduction nearly impossible.

Mark Holey’s staff has been testing lake trout eggs in Lake Michigan.

“In the last two years, in Lake Michigan, all the sites we looked at are above the threshold we think is required to not have a problem with thiamin deficiency.”

But it might be too late. Overall, the amount of food for big fish in Lake Michigan is shrinking steadily. And if the lake managers are forced to choose they will choose salmon over lake trout.

Lake Michigan has a very popular salmon fishery that drives a lot of tourism business. Right now, the official goal is to balance the ecosystem, that is, have salmon and lake trout.

But Mark Ebener believes that will change. He’s a fisheries biologist with the Chippewa Ottawa Resource Authority, a tribal agency in Sault Ste Marie. He says some managers are starting to acknowledge privately that they can’t have it all.

“I think they’re on the verge of saying that we can’t balance them, that we’ve got to make a decision one way or the other. I think that’s where they’re going to be at soon.”

For now, the official plan is to try harder.

Recently, the managers of Lake Michigan agreed on a plan to stock more lake trout. But it’s an agreement in principle, they haven’t agreed to actually go ahead and do it.

For the Environment Report, I’m Peter Payette.

Speeding Up a Pollution Cleanup (Part 2)

  • The Dow Chemical plant. (Photo by Shawn Allee)

Dow Chemical polluted the Tittabawassee River with dioxin. Dioxin has been linked to several health issues, including cancer. A comprehensive clean up of the river has barely begun. Dow chemical, the Environmental Protection Agency and the state have wrestled over the cleanup for 30 years. In the second part of our series, Sarah Alvarez looks into what it takes for environmentalists to get a river cleaned up:

Michelle Hurd Riddick has spent the last 10 years of her life pushing to get the Tittabawassee River cleaned up.

When she’s not working as a nurse, she has helped file lawsuits against Dow. She religiously attends public meetings about the clean up and follows what the EPA is doing by filing freedom of information requests. And she writes a lot of letters to state and federal officials.

Hurd Riddick is part of an environmental group called the Lone Tree Council. She talked about how she felt as we drove along the river.

“I get frustrated. I get frustrated. There are a number of citizens you know who have hung in on this issue as long as I’ve been on this issue. But not a lot of them. They have to get on with their lives. And I understand that and I respect that.”

The Tittabawassee flows through Hurd Riddick’s hometown of Saginaw before emptying its waters and contaminated sediment into Lake Huron.

Dow did not want to be recorded for this story.

The first part of this series

Five part Environment Report series on Dow Chemical and dioxin

Health effects of dioxins from the WHO


The EPA says once they decide on a final clean up plan with Dow, it will be at least 10 years before such a cleanup is finished.

Milton Clark worked on the dioxin issue for the EPA in his 30 years at the agency.

“Any time you’re dealing with a major corporation there is a tendency to move slowly on very large pollution cases. There is a complicated amount of politics and science.”

The state and EPA have passed responsibility for the cleanup back and forth. Each one has accused the other of letting Dow call too many of the shots. The advocates are often pushed to the sidelines in the negotiations.

The situation on the Tittabawassee has a lot in common with the Hudson River in New York. General Electric polluted the Hudson with a chemical that’s a known carcinogen. That fight dragged on for more than 20 years before GE agreed to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to dredge the river and take the pollution out.

The difference is that the environmental groups working on the Hudson have a lot of power. They brought the pollution to the public’s attention and kept the pressure on GE.

Paul Gallay is the Executive Director of Riverkeeper in New York.

“Riverkeeper and its partners just made a very conscious decision that we would counter every play; every attempt to lawyer up, every attempt to spin the facts, every attempt to say don’t worry this will all take care of itself. It took a lot of money for experts, and a very clear sense that if we were not being given a strong role in the process, we had to demand it.”

Riverkeeper raised a lot of money for its fight. And they can play political hardball. One of the leaders, and the head lawyer at Riverkeeper is Robert Kennedy Jr.

There is less star power along the banks of the Tittabawassee, and less money. Michelle Hurd-Riddick is 57 and she says she doesn’t think she’ll live to see the river cleaned up.

“In my ideal world, I would win the lotto, I would have lots of money. And I would hire some of the smartest and the best attorneys to help us…I don’t know…But that’s not going to happen (laughs). Number one because I don’t buy lotto tickets (laughs).”

She says she stays in the fight because to her, the river and Lake Huron are worth it.

For the Environment Report, I’m Sarah Alvarez.