Collapse of Salmon in Lake Huron (Part 3)

  • C. J. Baker operates a salmon fishing charter boat for Puddle Jumpers Charters. He moved his boat from Lake Huron to Lake Michigan after the salmon fishing collapsed in Lake Huron. (Photo by Lester Graham)

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.

Ad: “This July for the first annual Mackinaw City Salmon Festival…”

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.

Big Returns for Subsidized Fish (Part 2)

  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife fish hatchery in Brimley, MI on Lake Superior. The trailers are 'mass marking trailers,' used to tag every hatchery fish introduced into the Great Lakes. (Photo by Lester Graham)

Fishing in the Great Lakes wouldn’t be what it is today without stocking Pacific salmon in the lakes. But it costs a lot of money. Michigan fisheries managers say it’s worth every dime. In “The Collapse of the Salmon Economy,” a joint collaboration between The Environment Report and Michigan Watch, Lester Graham reports on the economic benefits of subsidizing salmon fishing in the Great Lakes:

In the 1960s, the state of Michigan first put salmon into the Great Lakes. It was a gamble to create world-class recreational fishing.

Michigan spends about $8 million a year stocking salmon and other types of fish. But the Department of Natural Resources doesn’t really know how many fish we’re catching for those millions of dollars.

Gary Whelan is in charge of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources fish hatcheries.

“I wouldn’t say we have no idea. I think we have a ballpark. We don’t have a great estimate. We would like to have a lot better estimates than we have now. I would absolutely agree with that.”

A Michigan Watch analysis found the cost for each fish caught in Michigan waters ranges from a couple of dollars to $150 per fish caught, depending on species and depending on year. We used catch estimates used by some other Great Lakes states.

The Michigan DNR’s Gary Whelan questions those estimates and our calculations.

And… he says besides, we’re looking at it all wrong. It’s not about the cost per hatchery-raised fish caught; it’s about what those salmon mean to Michigan’s economy.

“You have lots of people, for example, who are catch-and-release fishermen who will never take fish home. But, they’re spending a lot of money to go fishing for this fish or the opportunity to fish for them.”

And stocking Pacific salmon does attract anglers from all over.

Depending on whose estimate you want to use, recreational fishing contributes between $1.5 billion to $4 billion each year to Michigan’s economy.

And it’s the anglers’ license fees and excise taxes they pay when buying boats and bait that pay for stocking the fish. Whelan says it’s a really good return on investment that’s funded by the excise tax dollars and fees of the people who want to catch those fish.

But, the same reason Michigan and other Great Lakes states really don’t have a good numbers on the value of fish caught causes other problems. They’re not really clear about how many fish they need to raise in hatcheries to make sure there’s enough fish for the anglers… without putting too many fish into the lakes.

Michigan and other states are now getting some help from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They’re marking and tagging every fish that’s released this year.


We caught up with that operation at a federal fish hatchery on Lake Superior.

(sound of mass marking trailer)

Converted horse trailers are filled with equipment that puts a tiny wire tag on about 60-thousand fish a day.

Allen Lane is the Fish and Wildlife Service agent prepping things here.

“By tagging every chinook salmon, we’re able to determine how much natural reproduction is going on.”

Not knowing has caused some problems. In Lake Huron, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources has been releasing about 1.4 million chinook salmon each year, but had no idea how many chinook salmon were reproducing naturally in the lake.

Dave Spratt is a journalist with Great Northern

“These chinooks were going into all these un-dammed Canadian tributaries of Lake Huron and multiplying like fiends. I mean, it was clearly way more than the lake could support.”

The Michigan DNR now estimates that natural reproduction in Canada could have been adding 10 million to 15 million chinook salmon each year on top of those being stocked by Michigan.

Lake Huron couldn’t handle all those salmon at the top of the food chain. And at the same time the bottom of the food chain was collapsing because of invasive species such as the quagga mussel filtering out plankton in the lake. The salmon fishery in most of Lake Huron has now collapsed. That’s had huge repercussions for the businesses and communities that came to rely on salmon fishing.

With Michigan Watch, I’m Lester Graham for The Environment Report.

Tomorrow, Lester looks at the collapse of the salmon fishery in Lake Huron… and concerns the same thing could happen in Lake Michigan.

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

The Collapse of the Salmon Economy (Part One)

  • The Desperado heads out at sunrise to go after Pacific salmon in Lake Michigan. (Photo by Lester Graham)

The Great Lakes are changing so fast that the agencies which manage fishing cannot keep up with the changes. Some types of fish populations are collapsing and others are thriving… at least for now.
In a project between The Environment Report and Michigan Watch, Lester Graham has a series of reports on what’s happening and why. This first report looks at some of the history of fishing on the Great Lakes:

It used to be the lake trout was the fish to catch. It was big. It was tasty. But, by the late 1950s, that fish and others had been severely over-fished. And an eel-like, blood-sucking parasite called the sea lamprey further reduced lake trout numbers.

And those weren’t the worst problems for lake trout. A fish called the alewife invaded the Great Lakes through manmade canals. Lake trout starting feeding on alewives. But alewives caused a thiamine deficiency in lake trout. A lack of vitamin B1.

Mark Gaden is with the Great Lakes Fishery Commission.

“The thiamine deficiency that the alewives cause is one of the top reasons why natural reproduction has been very slow to occur over the decades in the Great Lakes of these species.”

Catching a lake trout became rare.

With not enough lake trout to keep the alewife in check, the invasive fish population would grow to immense proportions and then a food shortage or a harsh winter would cause the alewife population to crash. In the 1950s and 60s, dead alewives washed up on the beaches of the Great Lakes in piles stretching miles along the coasts.

“If you were living in the Great Lakes basin at that time and your shorelines were choked with stinking masses of dead fish, would you want to go to the beach?”

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources had no idea what to do. In 1964, the agency hired a Michigan native, Howard Tanner. He says right after he was hired, the Director of the agency, Ralph McMullin, a wildlife biologist and his deputy, a forester, met with Tanner.

“And they just said, ‘You know, we don’t know anything about fish, but the fishery division hasn’t done anything in years. Just take it and DO something.’ And Ralph, as he was going out the door, said, ‘Make it spectacular!’”


Tanner says he saw the alewife as simply food for a predator fish. Something needed to replace the lake trout as the Great Lakes’ top predator. His experience as a fish biologist out West told him Pacific salmon would do the trick and it would be “spectacular.”

“I’ve got the world’s biggest chunk of fresh water and it’s full of food and I’ve got a species of fish to put on it. You didn’t have to be a rocket scientist — you had to be a fish biologist maybe — but there wasn’t any doubt.”

Tanner introduced Pacific coho salmon. His successor, Wayne Tody, introduced chinook salmon a little later. Over the course of just a few years, Michigan anglers rediscovered the Great Lakes. People from out of state started coming to the Great Lakes. Salmon fishing caused a boom in tourism.

And… suddenly dead alewives were not washing up on the beaches. Howard Tanner says it was just a cycle of boom and bust for the alewife, but people assumed it was the salmon.

“We said, ‘No, no, no. That’s not true. We must have said that for at least a minute-and-a-half and then we said, ‘Okay, we did it.’ (laugh) But it was serendipity all the way through.”

((Sound of boat))

It’s sunrise on Lake Michigan near Grand Haven. I’m on a salmon fishing boat with former Michigan fisheries chief John Robertson. He remembers when fishing just wasn’t that great on the Great Lakes.

“Over on this part of the state and, you know, the better part of Lake Huron there just wasn’t all that much, there wasn’t that much of a sport fishery.”

But now, a couple of generations of anglers have been catching Pacific Salmon on the Great Lakes. Communities along the coasts have become dependent on salmon to attract tourists and their money.

With Michigan Watch, I’m Lester Graham for The Environment Report.

Tomorrow, Lester looks at the growing cost of stocking salmon in the Great Lakes. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Special thanks to Bridget Bodnar for her research assistance with this series.