Asian Carp & the Great Lakes

This week, the Environment Report is taking an in-depth look at the connections between cancer and the environment. When somebody gets cancer, one of the first questions is usually "why?" Does this kind of cancer run in my family? Was it something in the water, or in the air around me? Did I get exposed to something? What would you do, or where would you go to answer these questions?

Asian Carp Invasion

The Environment Report has been covering the introduction of the Asian Carp species since January of 2000, when catfish farms in the south were importing them to control pests. The fish have since spread throughout the Mississippi River system. Millions of dollars of taxpayer money has been spent to try to keep these foreign species from swimming into the Great Lakes. Some scientists say their presence in the Great Lakes would be an "ecological disaster." Today, evidence of an Asian Carp species was found above an electric barrier designed to prevent their movement into the Great Lakes.

Cancer and Environment: Searching for Answers

This week, the Environment Report is taking an in-depth look at the connections between cancer and the environment. When somebody gets cancer, one of the first questions is usually "why?" Does this kind of cancer run in my family? Was it something in the water, or in the air around me? Did I get exposed to something? What would you do, or where would you go to answer these questions?

Coal: Dirty Past, Hazy Future

A five-part series from the Environment Report on the future of coal in this country. Lester Graham, Shawn Allee, and Matt Sepic break down a debate taking place over the public airwaves and in the public policy arena. Can coal be a viable option in the new green economy? Support for this series comes from the Joyce Foundation.

Dioxin Delays

In this series, The Environment Report's Shawn Allee investigates Dow Chemical and dioxin contamination in mid-Michigan. Central Michigan has lived with toxic dioxin pollution in two major rivers and Saginaw Bay for decades. Shawn looks at who's been affected, why it's taken so long to clean up, how the science behind dioxin has played into this, and what the cleanup means for the rest of the country.

Green Burial

A series of reports about efforts to make the burial process more environmentally friendly.


The Environment Report has been following Matt and Kelly Grocoff in their effort to make their Ann Arbor home the oldest net-zero house in America. That means in a year the home will produce as much energy or more than it uses. Matt wanted to show that making an older home an energy efficient showcase made more sense than building new.

Is Fire Safety Putting Us at Risk?

You have flame retardant chemicals in your body. Scientists are finding these chemicals, called PBDEs, in newborn babies, and the breast milk those babies drink. We Americans have the highest levels of anyone in the world. We're exposed to these chemicals every day. They're in our couches, our TVs, our cars, our office chairs, the padding beneath our carpets, and the dust in our homes. They're building up in pets, wild animals and fish. They're even in some of the foods we eat. Doctors and public health experts are worried because hundreds of peer-reviewed studies are suggesting links to neurological and developmental defects, and fertility and reproductive problems.

Life on the Kalamazoo River

It’s been more than a year since a pipeline owned by Canadian company Enbridge Energy ruptured, spilling more than 843,000 gallons of tar sands oil into Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River. In this three part series, we explore what life is like now for people who live near the river, what the spill might mean for the health of wildlife and the ecosystem, and the status of lawsuits and claims filed against Enbridge.

Pollution in the Heartland

Pollution in the Heartland looks at the impact of farming practices on our water supply and what some people are doing about it.

Swimming Upstream

A special Environment Report series on fish and the fishing industry in Michigan. Are our fish safe to eat, what can they tell us about the health of our lakes and rivers, and what's the future of commercial fishing in the Great Lakes? Reporter Dustin Dwyer traveled around the state and brings us these seven stories. Support for coverage of Great Lakes fishery issues comes from the Great Lakes Fishery Trust .

Tar Sands Oil

We've been reporting on tar sands oil and the oil spill cleanup throughout the year. Here are our stories:

The Collapse of the Salmon Economy

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.

Your Choice; Your Planet

Your Choice; Your Planet is a yearlong series of reports on how the consumer choices we all make affect the environment. Many environmental stories look at government regulations and industry failures, but the greater impact on the environment is determined by the choices that we make every day. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium plans to go far beyond the question of 'Paper or plastic?' The series will look at our attitudes about buying, consumer confusion, misleading marketing, and short-term thinking versus long-term effects when it comes to purchasing food, clothes, services and big ticket items. Being an environmentally friendly consumer is not always easy. Your Choice; Your Planet stories help you make better informed decisions.

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.

Life on the River: Suing & Settling With Enbridge (Part 3)

  • Wayne and Sue Groth used to live near Talmadge Creek, where the oil spill occurred last summer. They eventually sold their home to the energy company, Enbridge. (Photo by Steve Carmody)

A year ago… a ruptured pipeline spewed more than 840,000 gallons of tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River.

The crude oil had a big environmental impact. It also affected the lives of thousands of people living in the spill zone. The pipeline’s owners have spent the past year reimbursing many of them for their losses. Steve Carmody has the final part of our series:

Wayne Groth says the odor of the oil was overpowering the first night. Talmadge Creek runs right past the home he and his wife Sue lived in for 22 years. The oil flowed down Talmadge Creek into the Kalamazoo River.

Wayne Groth says it wasn’t long after the spill that clipboard carrying employees of Enbridge started walking through his neighborhood, promising to clean up oil. He says they made another promise too…

“They said if you’re still not happy with the job… you could sell your property to them. They would buy it from us.”

Wayne Groth says he and his wife initially were only half interested in Enbridge’s offer to buy their home. He says they were satisfied with the cleanup, but…

“They kept asking ‘Do you want us to do an appraisal on your property?’ I kept telling them no. But my accountant is the one who told me ‘you really should have them do that and take a look at the opportunities that are out there to buy another piece of real estate. It’s a buyer’s market now.’”


It’s definitely been a buyers’ market for Enbridge. Eventually, Enbridge bought the Groths’ home… and has bought or is buying another 137 homes in the spill zone.

Enbridge has not only been buying homes. It’s also been settling claims with hundreds of people affected by the spill in other ways.

Jason Manshum is an Enbridge spokesman. He says the pace of damages claims against Enbridge that was once a torrent has slowed to a trickle.

“We’re not seeing the high volume of claims that we were 10 months ago, or even six months ago, that number has decreased the further away from the incident last summer. So in that regard, it’s winding down.”

Enbridge has settled more than 2300 damage claims.

But not everyone is happy with Enbridge’s efforts.

Attorney Bill Mayhall represents 16 families that are suing Enbridge. Mayhall says overall, Enbridge has in many instances treated people fairly and compensated them well. But he does have a problem with the damage claim system that the pipeline company set up after the spill. Under the system, people made their damage claims directly to Enbridge.

“In other words, Enbridge was judge and jury as to whether you had a legitimate claim or not. As opposed to having a neutral third party that didn’t have conflict of interest making those decisions.”

Mayhall says Enbridge was quick to compensate for property damage… but has resisted paying damages for health related claims. An Enbridge spokesman insists the company has settled some claims related to health complaints.

Mayhall says his clients will be deposed this week by Enbridge attorneys. He says unless a settlement can be reached in the next few months, their cases may end up going to court… a process that may take years.

But for others affected by the spill, their lives have moved on.

(sound of birds chirping)

“It’s just wild grasses and wildflowers growing out there.”

Wayne Groth is standing on the deck overlooking the backyard of his new home south of Battle Creek. He and his wife Sue moved late in the spring.

It’s a lovely home, with only one possible problem.

“We’ve got another little creek running by our house and we discovered after we bought this place there’s another pipeline real close by. I thought that was a little ironic.”

But Wayne and Sue Groth say they’re not worried another pipeline breach could force them out of their home again.

For the Environment Report, I’m Steve Carmody.

Life on the River: Oil & Wildlife (Part 2)

  • A volunteer prepares to clean oil from the feathers of a heavily-oiled Canada goose at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Marshall, Michigan in 2010. (Photo courtesy of the EPA)

It was the largest inland oil spill in Midwest history… but we still don’t know exactly what it will mean for life around the river.

This is the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

One year ago, a pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy broke. More than 840-thousand gallons of tar sands oil polluted Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River.

People who were there say the river ran black. Turtles, and muskrats and Great blue herons were covered in oil. It’s not clear what all this will mean for the river and the wildlife that depends on it.

“It’s really a big unknown. We don’t have much experience with oil spills in freshwater rivers in general.”

Stephen Hamilton is a professor at Michigan State University.

“This new kind of crude, the tar sands crude oil, with its different chemistry, all makes this a learning experience for everybody involved.”

Tar sands oil is very thick, and it has to be diluted in order to move through pipelines. We’ve previously reported that federal officials say the nature of this oil has made the cleanup more difficult. In fact, the cleanup has lasted longer than many people expected. The Environmental Protection Agency says there are still significant amounts of submerged oil along 35 miles of the Kalamazoo River.

Stephen Hamilton says no one knows what the long term effects of the oil spill will be.

“We suspect there were very large impacts on the base of the food chain which will have ripple effects up the food chain.”


He says research on marine mammals and fish after oil spills shows there can be organ damage and negative effects on reproduction. But he says there hasn’t been much research on freshwater oil spills.

Researchers at Michigan State University and Western Michigan University have studies underway.

And there are six government agencies and two tribes collecting data on the river. They’re working on something called the Natural Resource Damage Assessment. That’s a report that’ll try to quantify the impact of the oil spill on wildlife and on the river ecosystem.

Enbridge is also involved with this damage assessment.

Stephanie Millsap is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She says her agency and the others involved – they’re called trustees – are working with the oil company.

“Which means that the trustees and Enbridge jointly develop the study plans and jointly go out and collect the data together. That provides the basis so both Enbridge and trustees are confident in how the data was collected.”

Millsap says Enbridge will be held accountable for the costs of the damage assessment. And the company will have to pay for habitat restoration and compensate the public for loss of recreation on the river.

She says so far, their studies have found fish are less abundant in Talmadge Creek and several places in the Kalamazoo River. And they’ve found a drastic reduction in some species of insects that fish and birds rely on for food.

“It’s going to be a number of years before we fully understand what those impacts have been to the environment and to wildlife.”

Enbridge officials say the company is committed to cleaning up the oil and restoring the area to the way it was before the spill. But both the company and the EPA admit it’ll be impossible to clean up every last drop of oil.

Jason Manshum is an Enbridge spokesperson. He says right now, they’re focusing on meeting the EPA’s deadlines for cleanup.

“If there’s ever a time when we need to come back, even in an isolated area, we’ll do that. So the testing and monitoring of the watershed will go on for many years.”

But he could not say who would be responsible for doing that testing… or whether Enbridge would be liable for problems that might turn up years down the road.

Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at how well Enbridge officials have kept their promise to compensate residents for damages.

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

Life on the River (Part 1)

  • Last July, a pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy burst, spilling more than 843,000 gallons of oil from the Alberta tar sands into Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River. This photo was taken on July 19, 2011 - oil still remains in the creek and the river. (Photo by Lindsey Smith)

Workers are still trying to clean up thick tar sands oil that’s settled at the bottom of the Kalamazoo River. It’s been one year since more than 840-thousand gallons leaked from a broken pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy. Lindsey Smith reports life for those living near the accident site has not returned to normal yet:

“See those clumpies?”

Deb Miller points out black goopy masses as big as my fist floating on the Kalamazoo River. We’re behind Miller’s Carpet store in the village of Ceresco – 6 miles downstream from where the pipe broke.

Most of the oil that’s left is submerged below the water. There are around 200 acres that state regulators still classify as heavily contaminated. This is one of the worst.

Here, I can still see oil clumps everywhere – in the water, on the banks, on strips of bright orange boom. Workers in neon vests dot the river banks. I pick up a faint smell – sort of like nail polish remover.

Miller says she certainly doesn’t sit out and enjoy the view anymore. She’s used to waking up to the sound of air boats and helicopters. She’s still drinking bottled water because she’s worried her well could become contaminated.
Miller’s learned more than she’s ever cared to know about pipelines and wishes could move away from her nightmare.

“The home that we live in was my husband’s family home. But if it was up to me – I would’ve been gone the week of the spill.”

Many have left. Miller says that’s changed her neighborhood forever.
“ I don’t blame anyone for getting out. There’s just too much unknown. There’s just too much unknown.”


(sound of knocking on doors)

I tried talking to people really close to the spill site. Door after door – no one answers. Some of the homes are obviously empty. Three people answered the door but refused to talk to me.

A big black SUV pulls up as I’m walking back to my car. Self-described outdoorsman Craig Ritter jumps out and introduces himself. He’s from Jackson. He’s been kayaking this section of the Kalamazoo River for years. He says the river looked like “black death” the day after the spill happened.

“The river was black. You couldn’t even hear the water. The water going over the rocks didn’t sound like water going over the rocks. It almost sounded like a kid sucking on a super thick milkshake I mean it was just (makes milkshake noises).”

We go behind an abandoned house with a porta-john for workers parked in the driveway. Ritter says the river looks a lot better on the surface. He pokes a stick into the shallow water. A blue oil sheen bubbles up along with some black-tar-like substance.

“That horrible or what? Want to go for a swim?”

No one has been able to fish or swim in this part of the river for a year. Officials hope to open part of the river to recreation by the end of next month.
Ritter looks down, wipes the sweat from his forehead and shakes his head.

“Unfortunately I don’t think that life on the river is going to be the same.”

(sound of fountain)

In downtown Marshall I meet Renold Stone – he goes by Big Rey. He and his son Little Rey cool off in the shade near a city fountain. Big Rey tells me the oil spill didn’t change his life too much. His son chimes in though, reminds his dad they haven’t gone fishing at all this year.

“Actually they float, they get their floaties on, they float inside the river with their fishing poles and fish. Now they messed that up, can’t do that no more. “

Enbridge promises they’re here until the spill site is clean.

But Big Rey is cynical. He thinks Enbridge is going to do whatever it has to do to get by and that’s it. So he’s not too sure he’ll let his son go swimming or fishing in the river anytime soon.

For The Environment Report, I’m Lindsey Smith.

Toxic Substances in Great Lakes Fish (Part 7)

  • Advice on how to clean fish and cut away fat to minimize your consumption of certain contaminants. (Image courtesy of Wisconsin Sea Grant)

Today, we wrap up our series, “Swimming Upstream.” Dustin Dwyer traveled all around the Lower Peninsula to gather stories for this series. And today we have a story we wish we didn’t have to do. It’s the story of toxic substances in our fish:

A few weeks ago, Joe Bohr got a surprise. He’s a researcher for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. He was looking at some numbers for PCB contamination in carp caught in canals in St. Clair Shores.

PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are a group of chemicals that were used in all kinds of industrial products before they were banned in the 1970s. They’ve been found to cause cancer and other health problems.

Bohr says normally if you’re looking at PCB concentrations in fish, four parts per million is pretty high.

“But I looked at those numbers, and the highest one was over 200 parts per million, and that’s 50 times higher than you normally see.”

It was the highest PCB concentration found in any fish ever in the state of Michigan.

The source is still a bit of a mystery. But there are ongoing tests, and health officials have gone door-to-door to warn people about eating fish from the canals.

Luckily, contamination this severe is rare. But here in Michigan we don’t have the luxury to assume all our fish are safe to eat. We have a history of industrial pollution, and many harmful chemicals find their way to our water, and build up in our fish.

Kory Groetsch, is a toxicologist with the Michigan Department of Community Health.
He says before you eat fish, it’s a good idea to check the state’s fish consumption advisory.

“If you follow the fish advisory, we can confidently say that you don’t really face any increased risk. If you’ve been eating more than that, well, it doesn’t mean you’re going to actually have any negative health outcome. But what you can do is you can talk to your doctor.”

But following the fish advisory is easier said than done. The current advisory is about 30 pages of charts and symbols that take you through dozens of types of fish in dozens of waterways.

We can make a couple of generalizations. Usually, smaller fish like perch are safer to eat. Bottom feeders like carp and catfish are more risky. But it can vary quite a bit depending on where the fish comes from, so again, check the advisory.

Michigan’s fish consumption advisory

Michigan’s Eat Safe Fish brochure


Also, the risk from these chemicals isn’t the same for everyone. Women who are, or who could become pregnant are at extra risk. So are small children and people who already have health problems.

And Groetsch says how you prepare the fish can also make a big difference.

“Cutting away belly fat, back fat, taking off the skin, scraping off the grey sort of tissue on that fillet, and then cooking it on a grill or on a rack in some way that lets fat drip away will reduce significantly the amount of these chemicals in that fish.”

But even that doesn’t work for all of the chemicals. Mercury can’t be cut away.

Mercury is also unique in another way. Most of the toxic substances in Michigan’s fish are actually going down, and they have been for years. But mercury is slowly building up in Great Lakes fish.

Mercury can be especially harmful to brain development for babies and children.

Joe Bohr from the DEQ says most of the mercury in our fish comes from coal-burning power plants.

And while there’s been a lot of talk about alternatives, the reality is coal power doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon.

So if you still hope to be eating Michigan fish 50 years from now, unless there’s a dramatic change, Bohr says the mercury numbers won’t be good.

“I would say it be a scary number, a number where you wouldn’t want to eat the fish, right?”

Dustin: “At all.”


For the Environment Report, I’m Dustin Dwyer.

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.