Lake herring could be making a comeback in Lake Huron, part of a cycle that has seen a resurgence of native species.
When the first Europeans reached the Great Lakes, they found vast numbers of herring, also known as cisco. By the 19th century, commercial fishing nets hauled tens of millions of pounds of herring from hot spots such as Saginaw Bay.
Herring also played a vital role in the food chain. Walleye, yellow perch, lake trout and northern pike all preyed on herring, which
rarely grow larger than a pound or two. In spawning season, whitefish and other species would gorge on
About 60 years ago, herring all but disappeared from four of the five Great Lakes (the exception being Lake Superior). Overfishing and a pair of invasive species — rainbow smelt and alewives — took their toll.
Smelt, introduced to the Great Lakes in the 1930s, feed on newborn herring. Alewives, which moved upstream with the opening of the Welland Canal, won the competition for food. Both herring and alewives are plankton-eating fish.
As an aside, alewives are related to ocean herring, the small oily fish of the North Atlantic. Lake herring, which is similar to lake whitefish in appearance and taste, is not related to its namesake.
In 2004, Lake Huron’s alewife population collapsed in part because of how zebra mussels altered the food chain. Salmon, an introduced species that feeds on alewives, also began to disappear.
These collapses opened a window for native species such as lake trout, walleye and lake herring.
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources has been experimenting with raising herring at the Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery near Kalamazoo. The results have been encouraging.
Last year, about 40,000 herring were planted in Lake Huron. Biologists suspect they would need to release a million hatchlings a year for several years to re-establish the species fully.
The Michigan Steelhead and Salmon Fishermen’s Association supports the effort, but given the state’s budget woes, funding for herring could be problematic.
There’s also the specter of Asian carp, which threaten to enter Lake Michigan at Chicago. If that happens, it would change all of the rules for the Great Lakes fishery. It
likely would doom long-term efforts to restore native species.
Kurt Newman, who oversees the Lake Huron fishery for the DNR, said the ecosystem is undergoing rapid and profound changes.
“Our goal is to provide a healthy, functioning Lake Huron ecosystem that ultimately provides stable fisheries,” he said. “In the case of lake herring, that starts by restoring a self-sustaining population.”