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Working together to heal Great Lakes mistakes

Big fish eat the little ones. It takes a lot of little ones to sustain the king of salmon — the voracious chinook.

In the ’60s, the thinking was, better those little ones — scads and scads of alewives — end up in the belly of a game fish than stinking up the beaches of Lake Michigan. The salmon, from the Pacific Ocean, would also end up dead in the rivers after the spawn, and there were no guarantees that the planted fish would reproduce on their own.

It was just the beginning of a long, tangled story that in some places, still ended up pretty stinky.

The salmon fishery changed the lakes’ food web again, which was now reliant on the alewives. The alewives eat zooplankton, but further invasive species incursions began squeezing the population from the other side, as zebra and quagga mussels impacted its food supply.

The salmon sport fishery brought terrible territorial battles almost immediately, on scales big and small, from brawling fishermen elbow-to-elbow at the dams, to large-scale mistrust and discord over fishing treaty rights. Port communities battled each for fish stocks as the charter boat fishing industry exploded, and everyone wanted to fill coolers and coffers, and catch, catch, catch.

Predictably, the fat days did not last. Alewife and chinook populations sputtered. And after all the blaming and finger-pointing ran its course, we learned something — that all “Great Lakes experiments” have unintended consequences and that we handle these best when we work together.

Scaling back stocking and restricting catches weren’t popular. Finding ways to cooperate and work together with all parties took time. That the Department of Natural Resources is considering raising chinook stocks speaks volumes about the virtues of cooperative fisheries management, and the recognition that all things connect.

Science and cooperation flowed together in the saltless sea to bring both the big fish and little ones back to a healthy place.

Will we still be circumspect if the fat old days return? We hope so, as the salmon madness might have filled wallets but it broke essential relationships. And those, like fisheries, take time to heal.

— Traverse City Record-Eagle

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