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Great Lakes Article:

Lake Michigan showing signs of ecological breakdown
By Dan Egan
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Published January 3rd, 2005

BAILEYS HARBOR, Wis. - Linda Crose couldn't believe her luck when her family landed 15 log-sized chinook salmon during a half-day Lake Michigan fishing expedition in August.

The writhing chinook, some more than 20 pounds, were at times practically jumping into the charter boat as the Iowa family braved stomach-churning waves.

Crose had hoped the big lake might yield a fish. Or two.

She didn't expect the expedition to end at Wal-Mart, where the family bought two 15-gallon coolers just to keep the piles of freshly carved fillets from rotting on the drive home to Des Moines.

"Oh, my goodness," the 40-year-old mother of two says of the lake's surprising bounty, "we had no idea."

It all seemed too good to be real.

It is.

On the surface, Lake Michigan remains one of the world's biggest and wildest bodies of freshwater and one of its most popular fishing destinations.

But under water, it is largely a man-made production.

Lake Michigan has been engineered into a system focused on producing a maximum amount of sport fish, most of which are not native to its waters. Its salmon are saltwater predators that begin life in Midwest hatcheries and are typically unable to reproduce on their own. They are born to be caught.

About 13 million exotic salmon and trout are planted yearly, creating what retired Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources fishery chief Lee Kernen calls a "sportsman's paradise."

But today, it is a paradise imperiled.

This year the salmon were biting on just about anything, and commercial fisherman Dennis Hickey says he knows why: They are starving.

The 62-year-old Baileys Harbor resident makes his living netting whitefish. Wisconsin commercial fishermen are prohibited from taking any salmon or trout; those are strictly for the recreation industry. But his side business is carving out guts and slicing fillets for customers of the charter salmon fishing operation next door.

Salmon stomachs are normally packed with alewives - another saltwater species not native to the lake. Not this year. This year, Hickey says, the lake's biggest fish are swimming on empty.

"I worry about it as I'm doing the filleting," he says. "I see this day after day. They're coming in with nothing in their stomachs."

Preliminary numbers from an alewife survey this fall back up what Hickey has been seeing on his cutting board. The lake's population has dropped from 25 percent to 50 percent in just the past year.

Theories for the decline include overstocking of salmon and trout, and natural alewife population fluctuations. Most ominous, there is mounting evidence that the lake could be on the brink of "ecosystem shock," a food chain collapse caused by a non-stop invasion of foreign species. Salmon might be something of a sentinel for the lake; if the king of the food chain is in trouble, the rest of the kingdom probably is, too.

"If something is happening to salmon, it has probably gone way past the point that you ever wanted it to get to," says Steve Pothoven, a biologist with the University of Michigan. "But that's where people begin to notice it."

A political wave to restore the Great Lakes has swept across the Upper Midwest and into Washington, D.C.

Regional politicians point to billions of dollars flowing into the restoration of the Everglades and Chesapeake Bay, and they want Congress to do the same for the Great Lakes. The world's largest freshwater system has been ravaged for decades by pollution, shoreline development, overfishing and a steady stream of invasive species.

A bill pending in the U.S. Senate called the Great Lakes Environmental Restoration Act proposes $6 billion for the lakes in the next 10 years. A similar House bill seeks $4 billion over five years. Among its directives: "States should coordinate with the federal government to re-establish Great Lakes native species populations."

But the truth is, even if scientists could figure out how to eliminate the 180 or more exotic and invasive species that have colonized the Great Lakes, even if they could figure out how to bring back Lake Michigan's six species of chubs that have disappeared, or bring back its beleaguered lake herring, sturgeon and lake trout, many of the sportsmen and tourist-dependent businesses now hooked on recreational fishing probably would not want them to.

Exotic salmon and trout have emerged as the most prized species in a Great Lakes recreational fishery program that generates about $4.5 billion yearly, according to 2002 numbers cited by the U.S. General Accounting Office.

Sport fishing is big business because it is more than poles, lures and sunscreen. It is hotel rooms and hamburgers. It is fleets of radar-equipped charter vessels that ply the inland seas for clients who pay more than $100 an hour. It is private boats and trailers, gas and camping gear.

It is, in short, fuel for the summertime tourism upon which Great Lakes state economies depend.

Some worry that the focus on recreational fishing could be jeopardizing the lake's ecological health at a time when it's becoming increasingly fragile. Hickey says the DNR must cut back on stocking before the big fish turn their predatory focus on what's left of the lake's native fish.

"Any farmer will tell you, you can't raise more cattle than you've got feed," he says.

The situation has created a potential showdown between those who favor cutting the fish-stocking program and anglers who have little tolerance for anything that might put a dent in their fun.

Salmon were first planted in Lake Michigan in the late 1960s with the dual goal of creating an exciting fishing experience for vacationers, and eating the ocean-going alewives that had infested the lake via the Welland Canal - the section of locks on the St. Lawrence Seaway that bypasses Niagara Falls and has established a man-made link between the upper four Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean.

The alewife invasion nearly destroyed every other fish species in Lake Michigan - including the beloved perch, whitefish and chubs - by either gobbling up their young or hogging the food upon which the adults depended.

In one of the world's boldest fishery experiments, biologists turned to Pacific salmon in a desperate attempt to control the alewives.

The results were almost instant. Alewife numbers plummeted, salmon fishing exploded in popularity, and the lake's native species began to recover.

Nearly four decades later, salmon have woven themselves into our cultural and ecological fabric. It's a delicate balancing act by the states of Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan and Indiana to keep enough alewives around to feed the salmon, but not so many that they once again dominate the lake. The states also annually plant non-native brown trout and steelhead trout, and each year the federal government stocks about 2 million native lake trout - a species that evolved in the lake over thousands of years but disappeared in the 1950s.

Today, biologists must cultivate the cobbled-together ecosystem like a farmer tends crops. It isn't natural, but it keeps anglers happy and alewife numbers under control.

"We think we have a pretty good system going, all things considered," says Bill Horns, Great Lakes Fisheries coordinator for the Wisconsin DNR.

But Horns frets that the 40-year experiment is headed into choppy water.

"There are indications salmon are finding less to eat, and there may be a problem on the horizon," he says. "There is no doubt about that."

The problem isn't confined to Lake Michigan.

This year, a group of fishery experts responsible for making stocking recommendations on Lake Huron considered advocating a one-year halt to salmon stocking because of a crash in alewife numbers. Adding to that is fact that an unknown number of Lake Huron's salmon are starting to reproduce on their own in some of northern Michigan's most pristine streams.

The committee backed off on those recommendations after protests from the sport fishing community.

"I could see where Lake Huron could go without stocking almost immediately, if the politics would permit. But I don't think they will," says Chuck Krueger, science director for the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, which helps coordinate fish management policies for the Great Lakes states and provinces.

Wisconsin DNR biologists also worry that - just as is happening in Lake Huron - some Lake Michigan salmon are starting to reproduce on their own. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but because the extent of natural salmon reproduction is a mystery, biologists could be losing their ability to manage overall salmon numbers.

"This is the central issue for us in managing Lake Michigan," Horns says. "Lake Michigan is a perturbed, constantly changing, high-maintenance system whose future is not clear."

There was a time when Lake Michigan could manage itself.

Prior to settlement, lake trout reigned at the top of an aquatic kingdom that was isolated from the rest of the world by the 180-foot-high Niagara Falls.

The big fish lived off loads of little fish - about a half-dozen species of chubs, along with lake herring and bottom-dwelling sculpins. The lake also was home to healthy populations of yellow perch, whitefish and burbot, a cousin to the ocean-going cod.

The system collapsed in the 1950s with the disappearance of lake trout because of unregulated commercial harvests, habitat degradation tied to logging and development - and the arrival of the sea lamprey via the Welland Canal.

Technically, lamprey are fish. They are seen as monsters - snakelike prehistoric vampires that live by sucking blood and juices from bigger fish.

Lamprey wiped out what was left of the lake trout, and that was bad news for virtually every other fish species in a lake that had stitched together a delicate biological balance over the last 10,000 years.

With lake trout gone and no predator to replace it atop the food chain, alewives - too small to fall prey to lamprey - flourished. By the mid-1960s, up to 90 percent of the lake's fish "biomass" was alewife - for every 10 pounds of fish swimming in the lake, 9 pounds were alewife.

The alewives were wildly successful at breeding in the lake. They weren't so good at living in it.

The bacon-strip-sized fish periodically died off by the billions, likely because of temperature swings that the ocean species was not built to withstand.

Ken Koyen, the last full-time commercial fisherman left on Washington Island, remembers as a teenager churning through the dead alewife slicks in his father's fish tug.

"In places they were so thick it was like hitting a snow bank," he says.

It was worse on shore.

Retired Illinois firefighter Jack Johnson's first job was to shovel rotting alewives into buckets so guests at the Moraine Hotel could at least walk along the water without growing nauseous.

"It was an all-morning job. They were piled 18 inches wide down a 100-yard beach," he recalls. "When they weren't cleaned up, the flies would drive you off the beach in five minutes."

Beaches up and down the 307-mile-long lake were choked with mounds of rotting flesh crawling with maggots.

"You didn't even walk by the beach down in Milwaukee. It stunk awful. Just windrows of alewives," recalls retired DNR fisheries chief Kernen. "They needed bulldozers to clean them up. It was that horrible."

Biologists eventually discovered a poison to control sea lampreys. By the mid-1960s, biologists had figured out how to trim lamprey numbers by about 90 percent by targeting the streams they use for spawning. A non-stop poisoning program continues to this day, at a cost of about $15 million yearly.

The drop in lampreys opened the door to the restoration of hatchery-produced lake trout to the top of the food chain, a move biologists expected would dramatically reduce alewife numbers. That, in turn, would open the door to the recovery of native stocks of perch, whitefish and chubs.

But State of Michigan biologists had their eye on something sexier: ocean-going coho and chinook salmon.

They didn't want to simply fix what had been broken, they wanted to improve it. They opted to turn their back on restoring lake trout and to bring into Lake Michigan a brand new type of fish, one that could hook sport fishermen from around the country.

"We concluded that lake trout wasn't a very interesting fish to catch," Howard Tanner, then chief of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Division, wrote in a 2002 essay. "Because those who would fish the big open waters have to be willing to purchase bigger and more expensive boats and gear and to invest a substantial share of their leisure time, it was our opinion that a truly exciting fishery was essential."

It was a decision that ultimately turned the world's sixth-largest lake into what Western Michigan University history professor Kristin Szylvian termed the "World's Greatest Fishing Hole."

"As Howard Tanner and others freely acknowledge, they were looking for the biggest bang for the buck - the classic mentality of the Cold War," Szylvian says. "They were real cowboys. Real mavericks about this."

And they were dead on in their assessment that salmon were the perfect predator for the alewife.

A million coho eggs arrived in Michigan from the West Coast in the beginning of 1965. The juvenile fish were raised at Michigan hatcheries, and Tanner writes that the first release occurred on April 2 the following year in a "golden bucket ceremony" on the Platte River near Honor, Mich.

Nobody knew exactly what the fish would do. Wild salmon hatch in freshwater rivers and streams but spend most of their adult lives in the ocean.

"A lot of people said that those salmon are going to hit Lake Michigan and they're going to just leave, looking for the ocean," says Kernen, formerly of the Wisconsin DNR. "They didn't."

Larger chinook salmon were brought in the following year.

Chinook and coho salmon have since become the lake's most popular residents, an icon for the recovery of a once-fouled body of water that had been the region's industrial and domestic dumping ground, a place that cities such as Chicago and Milwaukee long ago used as an open sewer.

The salmon, along with the stocked trout that came later, perhaps more than anything else in the last half-century made people care about the health of Lake Michigan.

University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Jim Kitchell, 62, remembers growing up near the recklessly industrialized shore of Lake Michigan in Gary, Ind. Kitchell points to salmon as a reason for the comeback of not only the lake but some of its tributaries; when there are fish in the rivers that people care about, he says, people start to care about the rivers.

"Now there are salmon swimming up to the sewage treatment plant in Valparaiso," Kitchell says.

Retired DNR man Kernen notes that Lake Michigan boat ramps were virtually non-existent prior to the salmon's arrival. Today, they're almost as common as tennis courts. They can be found in virtually every lakeside community, and in marina cities such as Port Washington, pre-dawn traffic jams are common on the downtown roads that lead to them.

The result is a paradox: Politicians and conservationists tout the value of salmon as a reason to protect and restore the lake. But they ignore the fact that to truly restore the lake, salmon would be among the first species that would have to go.

To find a Great Lake where a real restoration effort has been undertaken, one must look north, to Lake Superior.

The biggest Great Lake, which never completely lost its lake trout in the lamprey invasion, is an example of a damaged system that has largely recovered its natural state over the past few decades.

It's now home to a reproducing lake trout population that feasts heavily on native lake herring, a once-struggling species that has recovered in the past several decades and one that many biologists believe provides a healthier diet for lake trout.

Lake Superior today has limited salmon stocking but, unlike Lake Michigan, it does not need it as a form of life support.

Lake Superior is a more natural, self-sustaining ecosystem than Lake Michigan. But it's not nearly as popular with anglers.

"Here we have two lakes. One has been restored almost to what it was presettlement," says Kernen. "And then you've got the other lake, Lake Michigan, which is a sportsman's paradise, but which is basically artificial. It's a great contrast."

That paradise comes with a cost.

In the late 1980s, tens of thousands of chinook washed onto the beaches of Lake Michigan. The reason for the die-off: a drop in alewife numbers and, many believe, a corresponding overstocking of salmon.

It was a sign the reviled ocean-going alewife populations that had overwhelmed the lake ecosystem just two decades earlier had been nearly destroyed - a situation the Wisconsin DNR never pondered when it started stocking the lake with alewife-eating salmon in the 1960s.

"We thought we'd never be able to stock enough fish in Lake Michigan to eat all those" alewives, Kernen says. "We didn't think in those numbers."

The DNR acted - to restore the alewife population. The salmon fishing depended upon it. The state's tourism industry depended on it.

The DNR ordered an end to the commercial harvest of alewives, a decision that affected a handful of resourceful commercial fishermen who had been scooping up the nuisance species and selling it to fertilizer and pet food manufacturers.

"It was a resource allocation issue," explains Paul Peeters, a DNR biologist. "It was our opinion that it was more important to utilize the forage base to support trout and salmon fishing than dogs and cats."

But it was a move that might have had consequences for native species. The perch population has since plummeted off Wisconsin's shore by about 90 percent, and as a result commercial perch fishing has been banned on all of the state's Lake Michigan waters except Green Bay.

While the decision to prop up the alewife population could not have helped perch numbers, most biologists believe the perch crash is due to a combination of factors, including overfishing, competition from new invasive species such as the zebra mussel, and even burgeoning flocks of fish-feasting birds called cormorants.

But one fisherman who lost his license to harvest alewives remains unconvinced. And bitter.

Pete LeClair, a 75-year-old commercial fisherman from Two Rivers, claims the decision to help the alewife underscores just how far the DNR had lost its way in managing the lake for salmon instead of ecological stability.

He saw it as the DNR favoring an invasive species (alewives) to feed an introduced species (salmon), a move that came at the expense of one of the lake's prized native species (perch).

"Don't tell me the alewife don't eat the goddamn perch fry," or juveniles, he says. "When the alewife come in, it's just like a herd of cattle.

"It was a good idea, but they overdid it," he says of the initial decision to stock the lake with salmon. "Now they just plant, plant, plant. They have no idea what they're doing out there."

DNR officials note that they also trimmed the number of salmon stocked when they halted the alewife harvest and that they have since scaled back salmon plantings when evidence shows alewife numbers are shrinking.

But the irony of the alewives going from a reviled cockroach of a species that must be destroyed to a valued salmon forage fish in just 20 years is not lost on many.

"Forty years ago, if you waved a wand over Lake Michigan and declared the alewives gone, you would have been a hero," says Jim Lubner, education coordinator for the University of Wisconsin's Sea Grant Institute.

Some see the most recent plummet in alewives as something of a second chance to steer the lake away from that "sportsman's paradise" concept and toward a more self-sustaining system.

That could mean switching the management focus from an alewife-and-salmon system that requires annual stocking to one based on native lake herring and lake trout.

Overfishing in the last century virtually destroyed the lake herring population, and today's lake trout population is sustained only by annual stockings; lake trout have not been able to reproduce on their own since they disappeared from the lake in the 1950s.

Scientists aren't precisely sure why lake trout continue to struggle, but they believe alewives could be a big factor. Lake trout eat alewives, and alewives contain high levels of a chemical that can create a deadly thiamine deficiency.

Herring do not. Restore the herring through a hatchery program, the theory goes, and you could restore a breeding population of lake trout. Restore the lake trout, and you could once again achieve a self-sustaining ecosystem, one that doesn't require annual salmon plantings.

But some anglers argue that if any forage species should be planted, it shouldn't be native lake herring. It should be invasive alewives. Biologists chuckle at the notion. Privately. Most are reluctant to say something publicly that will rile the sport fishing groups that, to a large extent, pay their salaries through fishing license fees.

Nearly $19 million of the Wisconsin DNR's $24.7 million 2002-03 fisheries budget was funded by fishing licenses and salmon and trout stamps, according to the department's Dennis Schenborn.

The sportsmen aren't shy about flexing that influence.

Dan Thomas, president of the Great Lakes Sport Fishing Council, says he has no problem with any effort to restore lake trout, provided biologists don't lose their focus on producing big numbers of salmon. He also believes the present drop in alewives is simply part of a natural cycle, and concerns about it are overblown.

Thomas recalls a conversation he had with a biologist who spoke passionately about restoring ecological balance to the lake by switching the focus from salmon to lake trout, a species notorious among anglers for being limp on the end of a fishing line.

Salmon, Thomas explains, are a big reason there are so many anglers on the lake today. If the salmon numbers shrink, so will angler numbers and, consequently, so will state fishery budgets.

Your job will be the first to go, Thomas says he told the biologist.

"Now we're hitting them in their back pockets, in their home, their families, their children. Now they don't have a job," he says. "Their salary money is gone, because their dollars come from license sales."

There is, of course, a presumption built into this squabble: that humans are still in control of the lake.

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