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Great Lakes Article:

Going Native?

By Kathleen Schmitt
Article courtesy of Earthwatch Radio
October 05, 2001

Many fish call the Great Lakes home, but some will always be foreigners.

Alewives and rainbow smelt are exotic fish that are now common in the Great Lakes, and Stephen Crawford says their history shows how quickly people can accept a foreigner as a native. Crawford is a fisheries researcher at the University of Guelph in Ontario, and he wrote a book on foreign fish in the Great Lakes that was published by the National Research Council of Canada.

Alewives moved from the Atlantic Ocean into the Great Lakes through the Welland Canal. Rainbow smelt spread unexpectedly from inland ponds where people used them for feed. Crawford says both species were unwelcome at first. Their numbers exploded in the 1940s and '50s, and that was followed by huge die-offs and piles of dead fish on popular beaches.

Crawford says fishery managers tried to control the problem by introducing salmon from the Pacific Ocean. They used species such as chinook and coho, and as the salmon ate up the pesky fish, they themselves became popular among anglers as sport fish. Crawford says that as the salmon became more popular, the status of the alewife and rainbow smelt improved dramatically.

"And then you've got a very interesting turn of affairs because the managers started to perceive the alewife and the rainbow smelt not as a nuisance species that had to be controlled, but rather as a resource that had to be protected or conserved in order to protect the recreational fishery for the Chinook and Coho salmon in particular. So you've got kind of a 180 being pulled from a nuisance species to something of value."

Crawford says there are now so many exotic salmon that they've eaten up a lot of the alewives and rainbow smelt. Some people are worried about the salmon going hungry, so they've suggested stocking more alewives and smelt. But Crawford says they should keep in mind that both the salmon and their prey will always be foreigners to the Great Lakes, and they should not be protected like native species.

Additional Information:

"Salmonine Introductions to the Laurentian Great Lakes: An Historical Review and Evaluation of Ecological Effects," by Stephen S. Crawford. National Research Council of Canada, (Canadian Special Publication of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 132), 2001.

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