Salmon Fishery on the Rocks

  • The Chinook salmon was initially introduced to the Great Lakes in the 1870s. Michigan, New York and Wisconsin reintroduced the Chinook salmon to the Great Lakes in 1966. (Photo courtesy of USFWS)

There’s a decision looming for Lake Huron that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago. The state must decide whether it should keep putting chinook salmon in the lake. The fish has been the driving force behind sport fishing in the Great Lakes. But the salmon’s future in the Upper Lakes is now questionable. Peter Payette reports:

It’s hard to overstate how drastically salmon transformed the Great Lakes after they were introduced more than 40 years ago.

Ed Retherford is a charter boat captain on Lake Huron.
He says in the old days on a weekend in Rockport he’d see cars with boat trailers backed up for a mile or two waiting to launch.
But that’s all gone now.

“You’d be lucky, except maybe for the brown trout festival, you’d be lucky to see twenty boats there on a weekend. It just decimated that area. You can imagine the economics involved.”

Chinook or king salmon practically disappeared from Lake Huron about seven years ago. Most of the charter boats are gone now because the kinds of fish that remain are just not as exciting to catch as salmon.

State officials figure little towns like Rockport lose upwards of a million dollars in tourism business every year without the fishery.

More about Chinook salmon from the DNR

A related Environment Report story

Ten Threats to the Great Lakes


The salmon’s demise followed the disappearance of its favorite food, little fish called alewives. Scientists say there were too many salmon eating the alewives and problems lower down on the food chain caused by invasive mussels.

State fisheries biologist Jim Johnson says salmon would rather starve than eat something besides an alewife.

“So at first, the salmon went through a period of just being starved out. They didn’t have enough to eat. They wouldn’t switch to eating round gobies and they died of malnutrition.”

The changes in Lake Huron since have been significant.

Neither salmon nor alewives are native to the lake. And with them out of the way, native fish like walleye have come back.

The state continues to stock one and a half million Chinook salmon in Lake Huron every year.

But Jim Johnson says the walleye eat most of them. He says Lake Huron can’t support a big salmon fishery any more.

“It’s just not realistic. The lake doesn’t offer that and there’s nothing the DNR can do to change that.”

The question now is whether to stock any chinook salmon in Huron at all. Giving up on the most popular sport fish in the Great Lakes is hard to swallow but most people see the writing on the wall. So even if stocking continues, it will likely be a fraction of what it once was.

On the other side of the state, there are now worrying signs that the same fate might be in store for Lake Michigan.

There are lots of salmon in Lake Michigan today.

But charter boat captain Denny Grinold says something went wrong last fall. He says the big salmon, the four-year old fish that come up into the rivers to spawn in August, never showed up.

“You keep looking for ‘em. You keep looking for ‘em. You go out and you fish the patterns that you’ve fished in the past. Those large Chinook should be there and they just weren’t there.”

The warm water and lots of windy days last year might account for the missing fish. But research provides no comfort for the future.

The DNR has created a system of red flags to evaluate the conditions for salmon in Lake Michigan. These are based on things like how much food is available, the weight of the fish and how many are being caught.

Twenty of the 30 flags have been triggered.

The manager of Lake Michigan for the Department of Natural Resources, Jim Dexter, says the lake is not a happy place.

“The lake is very perturbed. It’s certainly not a stable, quality ecosystem. I mean it’s working right now. It’s producing a fishery. People are happy but it’s tenuous.”

There’s not much the state can do to change anything.

If the experience of Lake Huron is any guide, it’s the presence of those little feeder fish, alewives, that is critical.

At the moment, there are believed to be fewer alewives in Lake Michigan than at any time on record.

For the Environment Report, I’m Peter Payette.

Commercial Fishers Angling for Trout Fishing Rights

  • Steve Dahl is one of about 25 commercial fishers on the North Shore of Lake Superior. Dahl makes a modest living selling herring, but he'd like to be able to fish for lake trout too. When he's fishing for herring, Dahl pulls his gill net up and passes it across his boat, plucking herring from the mesh. (Photo by Stephanie Hemphill)

Some fish populations in the Great Lakes have recovered dramatically from the devastating pollution of the last century. But the very health of the fishery presents a new set of challenges for people. Who gets to catch the fish? Most states favor sport anglers, but some commercial fishing operations are asking for a bigger share. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Stephanie Hemphill reports:


Some fish populations in the Great Lakes have recovered dramatically from the
devastating pollution of the last century. But the very health of the fishery presents a
new set of challenges for people. Who gets to catch the fish? Most states favor sport
anglers, but some commercial fishing operations are asking for a bigger share. The Great
Lakes Radio Consortium’s Stephanie Hemphill reports:

(sound: engine zooms, slows)

Steve Dahl guides his aluminum boat to his gill net, anchored below the waves of Lake
Superior. He fishes out of Knife River, a small town just up the shore from Duluth
Minnesota. A few feet at a time, the net offers up its catch – slender silver herring
caught by the gills.

“The mesh actually has a little bit of flex to it. That’s why I can squeeze them out. One
that’s too big or fat, you have to back it out, so you don’t harm the flesh.”

The openings in the net are just right to catch herring. Too small for lake trout. Dahl
isn’t allowed to catch lake trout anyway. He says they mostly just bounce off the net.

When the net is empty, about 40 herring – each of them about a pound – are lying in a tub
at the bottom of the boat.

Dahl is working hard for these fish. It’s pretty cold, and the wind is gusting.

(ambient sound)

Dahl says sometimes the current is so strong, he can’t pull the net up out of the water.
Sometimes there are no fish in the net. In the
summer, they move around and they’re hard to find. And of course, he can’t fish when
the lake is frozen.

But he loves this life.

“I get to be outside all the time, my own boss. It’s great fun.”

Steve Dahl sells his catch to the restaurants and fish houses that dot the North Shore of
Lake Superior. He makes his living this way. He says he doesn’t make a lot of money,
but it’s a good life.

Dahl says the money would be better if he were allowed to fish for lake trout. He figures
he’d be able to make several thousand dollars more a year if he could catch even just a
few hundred lake trout.

“That’s all we’re asking for is to be able to supply the local restaurants through the peak
tourist season.”

Lake trout were almost wiped out by over-fishing and by the parasitic sea lamprey in the
1960’s and 70’s. The lamprey are under control now, and decades of stocking lake trout
have brought the population back up. People who fish for sport have been catching more
and more lake trout. Last year, they caught about 15,000 of the fish on the Minnesota
side of Lake Superior. But so far the state of Minnesota won’t allow commercial fishers
to go after them. Neither will Michigan, although Wisconsin and Ontario do.

Don Schreiner manages the Lake Superior fishery for Minnesota. He says restoring the
lake trout population is taking a long time. That’s why they don’t want to open it up to
commercial fishing just yet.

“Right now we’re pretty cautious, we’ve just started kinda pulling back on stocking and it
seems a little premature to start thinking about opening the door for commercial

Next year, Minnesota plans to create a new ten-year plan for the fish in its Lake Superior
waters. Don Schreiner says during the planning process, everyone will be able to have
their say. But sport anglers far outnumber the two dozen or so commercial fishermen on
the North Shore. So they’ll need to find allies in their claim on the lake trout.

Paul Bergman is likely to speak up in favor of commercial fishing for lake trout. He
owns the Vanilla Bean Bakery & Café in Two Harbors, Minnesota. He buys herring from
Steve Dahl. He says half his customers order fish, and they love it when it’s locally

“People really do come up here for the native fish on the North Shore, so we’re getting so
many more repeat customers now from the cities. More and more are asking for the fish.”

Bergman puts a sign in the window when he has fresh herring, and he says it pulls people
in. He’d like to be able to do the same with lake trout.

For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Stephanie Hemphill.

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