The fall salmon season on the Milwaukee River isn’t official for me until the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel publishes the annual “urban combat” photo, usually taken somewhere within Estabrook Park, showing about one million anglers (rough estimate) shoulder-to-shoulder and knee-deep in the river, hoping to land one of the first fresh chinook salmon heading upstream to spawn. Most of the folks in the photo are armed with fly rods; most, I imagine, only pick up a fly rod during this time of year. At least some of them are probably flossing (i.e. snagging) fish to land them.
This is how I remember salmon fishing in Wisconsin.
With that in mind, good riddance.
A recent article from the Detroit News caught my eye about the future of the salmon fishery in Lake Huron and, by extension, Lake Michigan. You may have seen it too, since it has been making the rounds among Great Lakes anglers. The gist, if you didn’t click the link: crashing alewife populations in Lake Huron have led to corresponding declines in salmon populations. Similar observations can be made with Lake Michigan, where the Michigan DNR have found salmon populations are 25 percent of their 2012 peak. The Michigan DNR report reads:
DNR biologists believe the only way to keep Lake Michigan from following Lake Huron is to manage the fisheries by balancing predator (salmon) and prey (alewife) so neither collapse.
To fully comprehend the ridiculous-ness of this assessment, let’s take a trip down memory lane and recall the natural history of these two species in our Great Lakes.
Alewives are not native to the Great Lakes. They are original to the Atlantic Ocean, and like their salmon predators are anadromous, allowing them to adapt to life in freshwater. Niagara Falls served as a natural barrier to migration of alewives until the construction of the Welland Canal allowed them to invade lakes Huron, Michigan, and Superior, reaching peak abundance by the 1950s. Alewives have a negative impact on the native fishes in the Great Lakes, and are a major culprit in the severe decline of native lake trout. They are also notorious for dying em masse and stinking up the shoreline. In short, they’re assholes.
Enter the Pacific salmon, the chinook. To call these fish in the Great Lakes “Pacific salmon” is a historic footnote at this point, as these fish have never felt ocean water. Beginning in the late 1960s fisheries management was able to successfully stock chinook in the Great Lakes, and they became the primary predator of alewives. In fact, the salmon diet is fairly limited compared to that other illegitimate son of the Great Lakes, the steelhead. Salmon are open-water fish and chase open-water prey such as the alewife. Steelhead are more adaptable, feeding throughout the water column.
The pressure placed on alewives from hungry salmon (and steelhead, and lake trout) combined with the pressure of competition for resources from other invasive species, such as zebra and quagga mussels, led to a collapse in alewife populations in Lake Huron in 2003 from which it hasn’t recovered. Salmon, dependent almost entirely on this single food source, have followed them.
Well, shit. We should just hang up the “Mission Accomplished” banner and crack a beer to celebrate. Think about it: how many times in recorded history have we been able to successfully eradicate an invasive species? No, no, no… I said an invasive species. Yeah, that number is a lot smaller… probably somewhere around -5 or so. Now, granted, all it took was the introduction of another exotic species, and the unintentional release of several other invasive species, but… progress, am I right?
Plus, some good things have come from the disappearance of alewives. The lake trout population in Lake Huron—this is a native species that actually is supposed to be here—have rebounded. Because remember, alewives were largely responsible for their decline sixty years ago, and maybe not in the way you’d expect. I mean, yeah, probably in part the way you expect: they eat lake trout fry. Also their living tissue includes a chemical that breaks down thiamine, an important vitamin (so important, they even mention it on cereal boxes) that is necessary for lake trout eggs to be viable. When adult female lake trout eat alewives their bodies cannot produce enough thiamine to provide their eggs, and while the fry may hatch they will likely die.
This is not only true of lake trout, but any fish that eats alewives in any appreciable amount, including steelhead, brown trout, and yes, chinook. A scientific study published in 2014 suggests that lack of successful reproduction of these species in the Great Lakes stems from eating too many alewives and producing thiamine-deficient eggs. So, again, alewives are assholes, on multiple levels.
So am I fucking crazy to think that the Michigan DNR is crazy in thinking that not only chinook salmon, but the alewives themselves (which, going back to the scorecard, out-compete native fish, eat native fish, stink up our beaches, and are literally made of evil) should be managed? Why on Earth would you commit lots of time and money to prop up an completely artificial fishery built upon a species that you fought to control a generation earlier?
Oh, right… shit-ton piles of money. Because the salmon fishery is estimated to be part of a $4 billion economic powerhouse on the Great Lakes. Excuse while I go scream into a pillow. Or better yet…
There is no other reason. Even the authors of the scientific study mentioned in the Detroit News article that started this rant suggest fisheries managers focus on restoring native fish populations in light of the alewife crash. The fact that we should lament the loss of salmon disappoints me for a couple of reasons.
It underscores the current climate of thought that our environment is only as valuable as the economic cost we place upon it. God forbid we lose an unnatural fishery composed of an invasive species and a refugee salmonid because $$$. Conversely, the Wisconsin state legilsature justifies attacks on our natural resources because of the economic benefits they are supposed to provide. Hell, even Trout Unlimited, an organization I man-crush on, often refers to the estimated $1 billion in economic value that trout fishing provides to Wisconsin in order to defend our fisheries from political machinations. It isn’t good enough to act against ecological defilement to say, “…because it is there, and it is beautiful, and it should be left alone.”
It also bothers me because of comments like this one, left on an article about alewife-salmon management:
Lake trout is so boring, there are plenty of lakes in northern ontario that play host to huge lakers if you want them go find them. Where can we fish salmon? its not worth it in Lake huron anymore….something should be done to restore the salmon/alewive population.
Lake trout is (sic) so boring… sorry ’bout that, dude. I forgot that fisheries management should be based entirely on how much of a boner it gives the angler.
You can call me hypocritical for decrying alewife management while also enjoying the pursuit of brown trout. (In the interest of full disclosure, I was also once a member of Pheasants Forever, but I can’t say I enjoyed pursuing them). I get it. However, if you told me that we could get rid of brown trout tomorrow to improve the range and numbers of brook trout in southern Wisconsin, I’d be first in line with a box of Shore Lunch. If it means losing chinook to improve the chances of lake trout, I’d gladly strike that bargain as well. Then again, I’ve already accepted the fact that I’m not a good businessman.
Luckily, the only force in the United States more powerful than capitalism is Mother Nature. Even members of the Michigan DNR admit that no amount of money may be able to return the salmon fishery to what it once was. Aaron Switzer of the DNR is quoted as saying that “the future is not awesome” for salmon in the Great Lakes, adding:
We’re right in the middle of a shift, and as a manager, we are going to have to shift with that. Chinooks might not be part of our future here.
It may not be awesome for salmon. It’s awesome for a number of native fish, though. Until we start to focus on that, we’re sorely missing the point.