Lake trout on life support in Lake Michigan

Jun 14, 2011

For twenty years now the federal government has been trying to restore wild lake trout in Lake Michigan. Lake trout are native to the Great Lakes and were once the big game fish in all the lakes. The species is doing well in Lakes Superior and Huron these days. But recovery efforts in Lake Michigan have been almost a total failure.

Lake trout don’t have a big fan club. Anglers would prefer to land a salmon. And retail markets for lake trout are weak.

Peter Meisenheimer is the executive director of the Ontario Commercial Fisheries Association. He says lake trout is one of the least valuable commercial fish out there.

“The sad fact of the matter is that a fish that used to be a mainstay of the fishery in the Great Lakes has fallen off the map from the perspective of the fish eating public. They don’t think of it as something they could buy."

That is not to say the fish is forgotten. Tribal fishermen still look for lake trout. And people who grew up near the lakes tend to have a taste for the fish.

The peach-colored flesh is oily and smokes well.

At Port City Smokehouse in Frankfort, 120 lbs. of trout are being pulled out of the brine. Soon these fat steaks of fish will be smoking over a fire of sugar maple.

The owner of the smokehouse, Mike Elwell, says most of the trout he sells is smoked.

But he says lots of people who visit Frankfort have never had any kind of smoked fish.

“They don’t even know how to eat smoked fish. I mean, we tell them you peel the skin, the flesh comes off the bones. I mean, they’ll ask questions like, is there bones in that fish?”

Port City Smokehouse sits on Lake Michigan’s Betsie Bay, once a thriving commercial fishing port. But no fishing boats leave here in search of the native lake trout anymore. These fish came from Mackinac City.

Lake trout were wiped out by overfishing and invasive species across the lakes in the middle of the last century. The fish has fully recovered in Lake Superior.

But in Lake Michigan, trout are basically on life support. Millions are planted in the lake every year but they can’t seem to do what any fish species must to survive: mature and reproduce.

Last year, a report published by the U.S. Geological Survey estimated the number of wild lake trout in Lake Michigan, that is, fish not born in a hatchery, was in the neighborhood of zero.

But Mark Holey is optimistic. Holey is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and manages the stocking programs. He says there are some good signs out there.

For instance, one of the longstanding problems lake trout have had is lack of a nutrient called thiamine. Thiamine deficiency makes reproduction nearly impossible.

Mark Holey’s staff has been testing lake trout eggs in Lake Michigan.

“In the last two years, in Lake Michigan, all the sites we looked at are above the threshold we think is required to not have a problem with thiamin deficiency.”

But it might be too late. Overall, the amount of food for big fish in Lake Michigan is shrinking steadily. And if the lake managers are forced to choose they will choose salmon over lake trout.

Lake Michigan has a very popular salmon fishery that drives a lot of tourism business. Right now, the official goal is to balance the ecosystem, that is, have salmon and lake trout.

But Mark Ebener believes that will change. He’s a fisheries biologist with the Chippewa Ottawa Resource Authority, a tribal agency in Sault Ste Marie. He says some managers are starting to acknowledge privately that they can’t have it all.

“I think they’re on the verge of saying that we can’t balance them, that we’ve got to make a decision one way or the other. I think that’s where they’re going to be at soon.”

For now, the official plan is to try harder.

Recently, the managers of Lake Michigan agreed on a plan to stock more lake trout. But it’s an agreement in principle, they haven’t agreed to actually go ahead and do it.

-Peter Payette for The Environment Report