Investigative
6:00 am
Thu August 25, 2011

Collapse of salmon in Lake Huron (Part 3)

Part 3 of 3 part series -

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.  But, what if other Great Lakes lose their salmon?

Fishing for salmon on some parts of Lake Huron is still a big deal.

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But for most of the rest of Lake Huron port cities, salmon fishing has collapsed.  Too many salmon was likely part of the problem.  But you can 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 alewives, the 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 zebra and quagga mussels and other invasive species carried in the ballasts of foreign cargo ships from hurting Great Lakes fishing.

“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.

Wellman is pretty well informed about the situation on Lake Huron.  He says 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 Reseach 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. 

 - Research assistance for this series came from  Bridget Bodnar