Fish of the Great Lakes
August 13, 2007
To anyone who is reading this, the thoughts of fish in the Great Lakes may have never crossed your mind. Now granted, our country is in between two of the biggest, most abundant bodies of water in the world, which explains why we recognize salt water fish. What about all the fresh water inland lakes, not even to mention the five largest bodies of fresh water in the world, The Great Lakes. Why is it that when I mention tiger striped perch, bluegill, crappies, sunfish, northern pike and walleyes that no one understands what I am talking about? I grew up on these fish. Ever winter through the ice we would plunder the local lakes and stock up the freezer, having a fish fry every other night. In between nights of braised squirrel or rabbit, but those are other stories in and of themselves. To me there was no other fish to eat. What the hell was tuna? I had a hard time believing it was a fish at all, how could a fish come from a can? And look like that? That was just ignorance though.
Fresh water fishing industries were once life sustaining jobs that created cultural and gastronomic foundations in small fishing towns dotting the Great Lakes. Delicacies such as smoked whitefish and lake trout can still be found in tourist towns, but it is merely that, a tourist novelty. Much like the famed “Pasties” of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, which is very similar to a samosa or empanada, filled with potatoes and ground beef then smothered in gravy. When I was cooking in Michigan I would ask my fish purveyors what kind of fresh water fish they could get for me. There answers were always short. What happened to these fish. Why has it been reduced to a handful of people who do it only for a hobby or to preserve a tradition? Why aren’t people still out there making a decent living doing what they love to do, on bodies of water that should produce more than can be handled? There is a Department of Natural Resources for a reason, right?
Turns out the DNR and the states bordering the Great Lakes, notably Lake Michigan, are in quite the debacle. Thirty years ago they noticed a problem of too many feeder fish in the Lake. For that particular imbalance I am not sure. The DNR turned to salmon for the solution. Salmon, a fish that is not even native to the Lake. Six million salmon were spawned by the DNR each year. Feeder fish problem was eliminated. Literally. Now there are too few feeder fish for all the predator fish to go around. This being part of the decline in native species. Another issue, sport fishing; this industry has thrived. It has turned into a multi-billion dollar industry in Michigan alone. The solution should be simple for the feeder fish; stop spawning salmon and let nature take its course. The DNR started to, they cut back almost by half, but in recent years anglers have noticed a decline in quality in salmon fishing. Fish are smaller and less abundant, this creating a weaker sport fishing industry, this creating less tax revenue for the government, that leading to pressure on the DNR to up the spawning of salmon again. Nice catch-22.
Learning these facts pushes me deeper into confusion about the how’s and why’s, and now, what to do’s. Looking at the big picture make one realize how much humans continue to change. What may once mean everything to life, may soon mean nothing. Anthropology and the human history depicts many lessons like this one. Someday a scholar might be dusting off a desert floor and come across a small skeleton of a feeder fish, stand up and realize, this once was a Great big Lake.