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.