What would Paul Greenberg do? He recently wrote a book about the state of wild fish in the world. So if he set out for the Great Lakes to test his findings and eat a native and wildly reproducing fish, which species of fish would he catch for dinner? The story of the Great Lakes fishery over the past several generations turns out to provide an interesting answer.
As a kid in the 1980’s I assumed the Great Lakes sportfish–king salmon, coho salmon, steelhead, lake trout, brook trout and brown trout–were all original inhabitants of Michigan waters. I had no reason to think otherwise, naturally, as all of these species were widely celebrated by coastal communities, prized as gamefish by sportfisherman, and could be found on the menu of most restaurants near the water. (For example; Grand Haven Salmon Festival, or the Michigan Steelhead and Salmon Association).
Somewhere along the line, however, it turns out that people appeared to have forgotten the original contents of the lake ecosystem and that this original food chain collapsed in most of the Great Lakes in 1950s. Now, in 2011, due to the passage of time and cultural amnesia, we no longer see the implications of this aquatic evolution ecologically. About 50 years ago a ‘new normal’ of great lakes food chain indeed evolved, artificially and by the hands of man, and it only took two generations for this historic transformation to be forgotten and taken as normal by the people intimately familiar with the lakes.
I was surprised and disheartened later in life when I learned this; that most of the salmon and trout species I had fished for as a child in the lakes had been introduced by fish and wildlife agencies. The reason for this historically short time frame is that these fish species had been imported from the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and the waterways of Europe by state fisheries managers in the 1950s and 1960s to eat small invasive fish species that had themselves been introduced into the lakes inadvertantly by human trade in the ballasts of large tankers and man-made river connections to the sea.
Thus–and perhaps the important part–every great lakes salmon and steelhead species as well as every rainbow trout and brown trout would not exist in the Great Lakes but for their ability to clean up after (i.e. eat) another ecological externality. Put differently, from a broader historical perspective, hundreds and hundreds of generations of Chippewa Indians could never have caught a King Salmon in the Pere Marquette River as they ran upstream in schools of thousands from Lake Michigan, a fur-trading French voyageur would have had exactly zero chance of seeing a steelhead rise in Lake Huron as he paddled up the forested shores of the thumb. Even my elderly grandfather, when he was young, would have had to cast a spoon into Lake Superior for over 40 years before he could have tussled with a Coho Salmon along the shoreline of his favorite Bete Gris. Lake trout and brook trout, it turns out, are the only species of trout that are native to the Great Lakes.
From a contemporary perspective the externalities associated with importing fish and artificially adjusting a massive lake ecosystem are significant, and their initial wisdom debatable. Yet even this is a minor concern when compared to the larger empiric reality that the four southern lakes most effected by shoreline development and fishery management have lost their ability to naturally reproduce their history via a combination of man-made industrial chain reactions. This is true! The four southernmost Great Lakes have been found by fishery biologists to no longer possess populations of native trout that are able to sustain the population naturally.
Thus, if they were not planted artificially those lakes would not have populations of fish that they did for thousands of years before 1967. When the current lake trout populations are planted by government run fisheries biologists, they just grow to adulthood and are caught by fisherman or, alternatively, die, never adequately reproducing. In the end, for reasons scientists are not completely sure of, thousands of years of breeding cycles and reproductive balance have been wiped out in less than 50 years and in 2010 Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, Lake Erie, and Lake Ontario no longer support native Lake Trout populations that sustain themselves without human intervention. Lake Superior is the sole survivor.
Historically native lake trout were a mainstay of commercial fishing in the early 1900s in the Great Lakes but had declined in all of the lakes by the 1930s due to factors including invasion by sea lampreys, an invasive fish species that attaches to the sides of a host fish and sucks its body fluids out, overfishing, and contaminants. By the 1950s, lake trout were extinct in Lake Michigan and the other lower Great Lakes. Because lake trout were never driven to extinction in Lake Superior, some of the original Great Lakes strains remain there and biologists use these Lake Superior strains to repopulate both that lake and the other Great Lakes (one such strain swims on the shoals of Rabbit Island).
Such efforts by the states, the federal government, tribal governments, and Ontario began in the mid-1950s with Lake Trout stocking programs and starting in the 1960s, the sea lamprey control program carried out by the Great Lakes Fishery Commission suppressed sea lamprey to a degree.
After this stocked lake trout survived well in Lake Michigan and the other Great Lakes, but with the exception of lake trout in Lake Superior, they have not been able to reproduce. In Lake Michigan, spawning by stocked lake trout has been documented over the past few decades, and DNR netting surveys in recent years have shown that sexually mature lake trout from several year-classes are abundant in the Mid-Lake Reef area, but there’s been no documentation during the past decades that eggs have survived to adulthood to help rebuild naturally reproducing populations.
Thus from an ecological perspective Lake Superior could be considered the sole remaining truly Great Lake for it alone has maintained ecological purity to a degree allowing for native reproduction to sustain a native population of fish. In this sense it is the only Great Lake that could not rightfully be considered just a big aquarium, tended as such, lockstep with the industrial externalities associated with the effort.
Here is how the analogy goes: laketrout in lower Michigan are bought from a government controlled fish farm (pet store), driven for a while in a DNR truck (family station wagon), and finally released in the four southern great lakes (fish bowl). Then they feed on alewives (goldfish flakes), only to one day be caught and eaten by anglers in fishing boats with twin outboard engines (the pet fish finally jumps out of the bowl and dies). Repeat cycle. Almost sounds like a disney world attraction doesn’t it.
Because of Lake Superior’s persistent ecological uniqueness I say it should be envisioned with a celebretory mentality and distinguished from the four southernmost Great Lakes. It is a uniquely American national feature, really. Much like our national parks, for example, recognition of it’s ability to keep us connected to our past would do justice to the unique natural reality it embodies as it is no doubt a distinct natural entity unique amongst its Great Lake peers. Similar to a Montana ecosystem supporting native brown bears, a Pacific Northwest stream with a bountiful salmon run not yet interrupted by hydroelectric dams, the Tuolumne River flowing from its source Mountains high in Yosemite, the Huron Mountain Club virgin forest lands, or one of Ted Turner's regenerative ranchlands clawed back and restored from development, Lake Superior's yet functional waters have significant ecologic value.
Each of the other lakes, by comparison, rely on the complex tangle of fishery departments, donor fish harvests, petri dish egg fertalizations, rearing tanks, mechanical aererators, flourescent lights, processed feeds, hatchling transport trucks, stocking teams, population monitoring, ecosystem rehabilitation and legislative funding bills. These events, hidden from the eyes and consciousness of the average fisherman or eater–each one involving spending of energy, taxing of populations, employing large subgroups of people–quietly diminish the greatness of the four southern Great Lakes. Thus the next time you catch a King, Coho, Rainbow, Brown, or Steelhead in the Great Lakes, as pleasant as this may be, it would not be unreasonable to acknowledge in earnest the fact that it has been reared via man-made artificial system and relies upon the externality of industrial byproducts at every step of the production cycle from fertilization right up to the exciting tug on the fishing pole.
With this in mind I say let Lake Superior continue to be self-sustaining and benefit from the lessons of the other lakes and their historical declines at the hands of human development. Let it stand as an example. It is wise to preserve this invaluable reality and celebrate it. Obviously, for example, communities should oppose sulfide mining and close the Chicago Locks, etc., for failure to do so would have negative effects on our remaining Great Lakes ecological integrity. Perhaps we should also consider cleaning up the stamp sands from the Keweenaw copper mining days of our previous generations and prevent the filling of any remaining coastal marshes.
If access to natural cycles yet intact without industrial caveat matters, which it no doubt does, then citizens should consider themselves exceptionally fortunate every time they look out over Lake Superior or catch and eat a native Redfin Lake Trout or Coaster Brook Trout, as, after all, this continues a timeless tradition. Rabbit Island, for as much as it can, will continue to preserve this reality and serve as an example of nature for the sake of nature. It will forever be a rocky coastline set aside for the reproduction of native lake trout.