2012 Summer

From the Helm . . .
The Great Lakes are in a constant state of change, both naturally and man-initiated.

Great Lakes’ waters levels are what they are, and according to the Army Corps of Engineers (ACE), boaters are likely going to be dealing with still lower water levels this summer. “Lake Superior is two inches higher than a year ago,” ACE said. “Lakes Michigan and Huron are five inches lower (for the same time period). Lakes St. Clair, Erie, and Ontario are 11, 15, and 19 inches lower respectively than their levels a year ago.

If that trend continues throughout the summer, it will definitely impact marinas, harbors, and channels already stressed with low water levels. Boaters will have to pay close attention to their charts and depths gauges, and in some cases, discontinue boating in some harbors and marinas altogether.

The natural changes are part of nature’s cycle that has been going on for hundreds of years, and all boaters can do is adapt accordingly. Man-initiated changes are another matter; especially, when they negatively impact our Great lakes.

I have visited several of the communities and marinas along the Lake Huron shoreline different times since the permanent collapse of the lake’s salmon fishery, a fishery that once rivaled, and sometimes exceeded, that of Lake Michigan in terms of angler effort and catch rate. There were nearly 100 charter boats operating out of Oscoda and Harrisville alone. Tackle stores both large and small, marinas both private and multi million dollar state owned, new restaurants and motels, pumped tens of millions of dollars into these communities once the salmon returns started in 1971. Enter the invasive zebra and Quadra mussels and that all changed forever. The mussels destroyed the food chain alewife, smelt, and other forage species needed for survival. Their major prey base gone, the salmon disappeared as well. Tackle stores, marinas, restaurants, and motels that depended on the anglers’ dollars closed. Maybe half-a-dozen charter boats still operate out of Oscoda and Harrisville. Some captains moved down to Saginaw Bay to fish walleye, and some moved over to Lake Michigan. However, the majority sold their boats and went out of business.

The tragedy in all this is it didn’t have to happen. The invasive species, now well over 180 different kinds, arrived primarily in the ballast water ocean-going ships discharged into the Great Lakes. Efforts to treat ships’ ballast waters fell largely on deaf ears for decades. By the time more stringent regulations were put in place, it was too late to save Lake Huron’s salmon and now it may be too late to save Lake Michigan’s sport fishery.

The same mussels and other invasive species that destroyed Lake Huron’s food chain, which has plummeted to an all-time historic low, are now dramatically impacting Lake Michigan’s forage base. The lakes’ alewife population is only a fraction of what it once was, and a five-year study of Lake Michigan’s predator and prey base balance strongly points to a similar salmon collapse in the last of the state’s significant salmon fisheries.

A number of public hearings are being held by the state’s fisheries division this summer, informing the public of the need to strongly cut back planned salmon plants, maybe end them entirely as was done in Lake Huron, where it is hoped enough wild fish may one day produce some kind of fishery. (So far, that has not happened). The other state’s sharing Lake Michigan’s shoreline are doing the same. Every effort is being made to try and bring the predator and prey base into balance. Hopefully, it’s not too little too late.

Now add Asian carp to the invasive equation, and an absolute time bomb capable of destroying the total Great Lakes’ fisheries begins ticking even faster. Unless a land barrier is built, and soon, there is no real way to stop their advance into Lake Michigan. That will likely be the final preverbal nail in the coffin for the Great Lakes.

The ever changing water levels of the Great Lakes is what it is—an on-going cycle hundreds of years old. Man is causing the looming destruction of our Great Lakes’ fisheries. That is the great tragedy.

Captain Terry Walsh
President – MCBA