A popular fish might be making a comeback in the upper Great Lakes. Yellow perch were once a favorite catch for sport and commercial fishermen, but their populations crashed in the 1990’s. Biologists say new surveys in Lakes Huron and Michigan have found huge numbers of young perch. The GLRC’s Peter Payette reports:
A popular fish might be making a comeback in the upper Great Lakes.
Yellow Perch were once a favorite catch for sport and commercial
fishermen, but their populations crashed in the 1990’s. Biologists say
new surveys in Lakes Huron and Michigan have found huge numbers of
young perch. The GLRC’s Peter Payette reports:
A survey of Lake Michigan found more perch were born last year than in
the best years on record. Two or three times as many.
Recent studies of perch in Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay have shown
similar results. It’s not clear why fish numbers would suddenly
skyrocket. Weather is believed to be one factor.
Dave Fielder is a biologist with the Michigan DNR. He says perch in
Lake Huron have also benefited from the decline of alewives, which are
an invasive species.
“We’ve known for a long time that alewives are formidable predators and
competitors on newly hatched yellow perch fry.”
Fielder says most of the newborn perch are not surviving so the adult
population in Saginaw Bay has not grown. He says it may be too many
perch have been born and there’s not enough food for them all.
With its ability to breathe out of water and wriggle its way over land during dry spells, the media has dubbed the northern snakehead "Frankenfish." Its appearance in Lake Michigan is scary to scientists. (Photo courtesy of USGS)
A few weeks ago, a Chicago fisherman caused a stir when he found a northern snakehead fish. The discovery set off a frantic search to find out if yet another invasive species is threatening the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Jenny Lawton has this report:
A few weeks ago, a Chicago fisherman caused a stir when he found a northern snakehead fish. The find set off a frantic search to find out if yet another invasive species is threatening the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Jenny Lawton has this report:
Just before Halloween, the so-called Frankenfish reared its ugly head… filled with sharp teeth… in Chicago’s Burnham Harbor on Lake Michigan. And it’s still a mystery as to just how it got there.
Although the snakehead is arare item in some Asian cuisines, there’s a more common suspicion amongst local experts and hobbyists. That snakehead was probably a pet that outgrew its tank, and instead of the traditional farewell down the toilet, it was set free in Lake Michigan. Free to eat through the Lake’s food web.
Local pet store manager Edwin Cerna says that’s why he stopped selling the fish years before they were banned by U.S. Fish and Wildlife. He remembers one day, when he was adjusting a tank, he accidentally got in between a snakehead’s lunch and its mouth.
“He bit me in the hand… made me bleed. It hurts. It’s got a nice strong jaw and that’s why it’s so dangerous because it can kill big fish, literally cut them in half. It’s almost like a big old killer whale, like a miniature version of it.”
But why on earth would anybody buy a vicious fish that can grow up to three feet long in the first place? Jim Robinett is with the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. He says he’s a fish geek.
“I gotta say, as a little fish, when you first buy them, they’re really attractive; they’re neat little animals, but they eat like crazy. They’re voracious.”
Robinett knows not to be fooled by the little guys because what happens next is the perfect plot for a B-horror movie. He says the snakehead fish grows quickly, eventually eating everything in its tank. If it doesn’t die from overgrowing that tank, its owner might be tempted to dump it into a nearby body of water where it will keep eating its way up the food chain. Robinett says that’s the fear in Lake Michigan.
“They could potentially start picking off small salmon and lake trout, which is native to these waters here, they’re not real discriminating, they’ve been known to take things as large as frogs, some small birds, even small mammals that happen to get in the way there close to shore. They’ll eat anything they get their mouth on.”
Most hobby fish don’t last long in Chicago’s cold water. But the northern snakehead is different. The snakehead is native to northern Asia, and the Lake Michigan Federation’s Cameron Davis says that makes the fish feel right at home around here.
“It’s a lot like us Midwesterners, it just kind of hunkers down and… that’s part of the problem with the snakehead is that it can live under very extreme conditions. Which means it’ll out compete those other fish, and that’s a tremendous problem.”
Snakeheads have another edge on other species. The fish guard their eggs, giving their young a better chance of reaching maturity. But perhaps the most peculiar thing about snakeheads is that they can breathe. In addition to its gills, they have an organ that works like a lung and allows it to breathe air. It’s able to live up to three days as it uses its fins to wriggle across land in search of another body of water.
But looking down into the murky waters at Burnham Harbor, Davis says we shouldn’t run screaming yet. It’s not exactly a horror film scenario.
“I don’t think that the snakehead is going to come and grab our children out of schools and eat them or anything like that. But it is a problem for those of us who like to fish for yellow perch and whitefish and some of the things that make the Great Lakes so fantatstic, could really be threatened by this fish getting into Lake Michigan.”
Other invasive species cause an estimated 137-billion dollars of losses and damages in U.S. waterways each year. Cameron Davis says simply banning the local sale of fish like snakeheads hasn’t been enough to keep the Great Lakes safe.
“We’ve got to stop imports of these kinds of fish into the United States. We can’t protect the Great Lakes unless we’re checking these things at the door when they come into the country. It’s that simple.”
Davis is pushing for the passage of the National Aquatic Invasive Species Act. The bill would allocate a total of 174-million dollars to develop new technology for identifying and eliminating the invaders if and when they arrive.
So far, local authorities ahven’t found another snakehead near the banks of Lake Michigan, but Cameron Davis says the initial find just proves how hard it is to regulate what comes into the country’s largest body of fresh water.
Standing on the dock at Burnham Harbor, Davis looks out over the dark waters and shakes his head.
“It’s just an indicator that we’re in a race against time right now. Let’s hope that if there are more than one out there, that they haven’t hooked up.”
If they have, he says, it could truly be the stuff horror movies are made of… at least, for the other fish in the Great Lakes.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Jenny Lawton in Chicago.
Terry Miller, of the Lone Tree Council, is
one of the few Bay City residents trying to protect
wetlands sprouting up along the beaches of Saginaw
Bay. Many of his neighbors prefer beaches with
less vegetation. Photo by Steve Meador.
With water levels below-average in the Great Lakes, emergent wetlands are flourishing in many large, protected bays. This thick vegetation, a few hundred yards wide at most, fringes the shoreline of exposed lakebeds. Scientists and government officials say emergent wetlands are valuable resources worth protecting. Others say the vegetation is a nuisance and want it destroyed. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Steve Meador has more:
With water levels below-average in the Great Lakes, emergent wetlands are flourishing in
many large, protected bays. This thick vegetation, a few hundred yards wide at most,
fringes the shoreline of exposed lakebeds. Scientists and government officials say
emergent wetlands are valuable resources worth protecting. Others say the vegetation is
a nuisance and want it destroyed. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Steve Meador
There’s a dull gray sky over Saginaw Bay, a large, shallow arm of Lake Huron. A brisk
wind blows off the bay toward Bay City State Park.
“This is the area that bathers come to in the summer, and as you can see, there is only a
small portion of the beach left, that much of the rest has reverted to fairly high levels of
vegetation…cattails…bulrushes… lots of vegetation.”
Terry Miller heads an environmental organization in Bay City called the Lone Tree
Council. These days, Lone Tree is an appropriate description of Miller. He’s one of the
few locals trying to protect emergent wetlands. These wetlands remain mostly out of
mind during cycles of high water. However, with Lake Huron near its lowest level in
decades, thin bands of emergent wetlands now flourish along the shores of Saginaw Bay.
Scientists call these wetlands some of the most productive in the country because they
provide critical habitat for fish and birds. Yellow perch and northern pike use them as
breeding areas, and waterfowl feed and nest there. The wetlands also reduce coastal
erosion by anchoring shoreline sediment during storms.
Terry Miller sees the value of emergent wetlands and is fighting to protect them. He also
accepts that some people are less concerned with how wetlands benefit an ecosystem than
they are with clean, sandy beaches or an unobstructed view of Saginaw Bay.
“As you can see, some of this vegetation is taller than we are, and if you’re a homeowner
sitting back in your coffee hutch looking out and not seeing water but greenery, some
may find that pleasant, but more than likely they would prefer to see the water.”
One local resident who doesn’t like the wetlands is Ernie Krygier. He says the vegetation
reduces property values and prevents access to the water. Worst of all, he says it ruins
sandy beaches, like the one at Bay City State Park.
“This park used to be just jammed, you see all the parking lot space that’s out here, you
couldn’t find a spot back when we had beaches. Now you could shoot a gun through here
and not hit anybody.”
Krygier wants the vegetation along the park’s shoreline removed. He says the place for
wildlife is in the nearby Tobico Marsh, away from park users.
“This is where people belong, that’s where nature belongs.”
Krygier’s issue with the park is part of a larger conflict with government regulators that
also involves private property. The dispute has been dubbed the “weed war” by a
property rights group called Save Our Shoreline, or SOS, that Krygier heads up.
SOS members say they have the right to remove vegetation below the ordinary high
water mark. That’s land the state and federal government says is publicly-owned
bottomland. Government regulators protect this land by requiring permits for
mechanized activities like plowing or grading. This helps preserve the dense root mat
that anchors the shoreline.
Some less destructive techniques for controlling vegetation are allowed without a permit,
including mowing, weed-whacking, and hand-pulling vegetation. Nevertheless, many
property owners have used tractors and other heavy machinery to destroy vegetation on
public land without a permit. Government regulators say this is a violation of the Clean
Water Act. They’ve sent “cease and desist” letters to many property owners, including
one state legislator.
Krygier’s main contention is that property owners have ownership rights to the water’s
“The government, the state of Michigan wants to take ownership of our property, and that
is wrong. We feel we have the law on our side.”
Some law experts say Krygier’s interpretation is wrong. Chris Shafer is a professor at
Thomas M. Cooley School of Law in Lansing. He’s had some experience in this area.
He ran the Great Lakes Shorelands program for the Michigan Department of Natural
Resources for more than 15 years.
“I think the law is real clear on this, that all of the land we’re talking about below the
ordinary high water mark on the Great Lakes is owned by the state of Michigan. It’s held
in trust for all nine million citizens of Michigan.”
Shafer says that while property owners have some legitimate concerns, they don’t own
the land out to the water’s edge as they believe. They have a right to access the water, but
no right to destroy vegetation on public land.
Shafer says that, unlike the sand dune shores of Lake Michigan, it may be unrealistic to
expect sandy beaches throughout Saginaw Bay. Dr. Thomas Burton agrees. He’s a
professor of fisheries and zoology at Michigan State University who studies wetland
Burton says emergent wetlands have always been an important part of Saginaw Bay, and
that they naturally grow and recede as water levels fall and rise. He says wetlands are a
vanishing resource along the Great Lakes, and that the small portion of coastline that’s
not sandy beach should be protected. Burton says property owners are missing the bigger
“To call it a ‘weed war’ to me is very short sighted, and really says that the person doesn’t
either, A. understand the importance of these wetlands, or B. they just don’t care about
nature at all, and are willing to destroy it just so they have a sandy beach in front of their
house, and my own opinion is that that’s a pretty lousy way to look at nature.”
Back in Saginaw Bay, Terry Miller says his crusade to protect emergent wetlands is a
lonely one, especially when neighbors tell him he’s one of the most hated people on the
beach. He says these wetlands are held in the public trust to benefit everyone who uses
the bay, and hopes that some day the effort expended by property owners will be
“And the sad thing, the thing that I find very frustrating is that, from an environmental
perspective, our Saginaw Bay is hurting. There are a host of environmental problems that
this energy could be directed at, but it’s not.”
For now, property owners are putting their energy into changing state law. A bill before
the Michigan legislature backed by SOS would allow unpermitted destruction of wetland
vegetation on publicly-owned lands.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Steve Meador.
People have long considered the burrowing mayfly a pest. And 40 years
ago, they were glad when the clouds of bugs virtually disappeared from
the Great Lakes. But the mayfly is making a comeback. And as the Great
Lakes Radio Consortium’s Karen Kelly reports, scientists say it’s a sign
of a healthier water system:
Wildlife officials around the Great Lakes region are struggling with
the issue of double-crested cormorant populations. There are questions
about the impact of the birds on sport fish and commercial fisheries.
New York State has asked the U-S Fish and Wildlife Service to approve a
new controversial plan for managing cormorants in eastern Lake Ontario.
Scientists in Wisconsin say among yellow perch, males in Lake Michigan outnumber females by 9-to-1. Such a gender disparity may be detrimental to the food chain. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lisa Labuz has more: