Alewives: Should Great Lakes managers kill ‘em or keep ‘em?

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Alewives were once nuisance non-native species in the Great Lakes.  Now they prop up the lakes' hugely profitable salmon fishery.  Photo: David Jude

Alewives were once a nuisance non-native species in the Great Lakes. Now they prop up the lakes' hugely profitable salmon fishery. But some experts say they've still got to go. Photo: David Jude

By Jeff Gillies,
Great Lakes Echo
Sept. 2, 2009

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories about the challenges of managing non-native fish in the Great Lakes.

Fishery managers have made little progress in restoring lake trout, the Great Lakes’ dominant predator until the species collapsed in the 1940s and 1950s.

Most of them agree that alewives, a non-native fish, are a big part of the problem. They invaded the lakes from the Atlantic Ocean after the Welland Canal opened in 1932. Alewives eat young lake trout and disrupt chemical processes important to their reproduction.

But biologists don’t plan on getting rid of them now that they’re here. Instead, Lake Michigan managers recently launched fish stocking strategies that protect alewives.

What’s going on?

Invasive species are usually the target of disdain and eradication programs. But alewives get a pass because they’re the main food source for two other non-native species – the chinook and coho salmon. And those salmon are cornerstones of a multi-billion dollar Great Lakes fishery.

Though states imported salmon to control alewives, management plans now serve to keep enough alewives around to keep salmon healthy and abundant.

And as long as state agencies aim to keep available lots of alewives for salmon to eat, lake trout rehabilitation is impossible, said Mark Ebener, an assessment biologist with the Chippewa Ottawa Resources Authority, a regulatory agency representing five Michigan Indian tribes.

Other experts disagree.

Great Lakes fisheries managers have no plans to abandon the profitable salmon fishery, said Marc Gaden, spokesperson for the Great Lakes Fishery Commission.

“There’s no inherent contradiction between managing for the native fishery, and also stocking fish for recreational purposes,” he said. “There is definitely a balance that needs to occur.”

Until the mid 1900s, lake trout were the top predators in every Great Lake but Erie. They supported tribal and commercial fisheries. But a slew of factors drove them nearly extinct in all of the lakes but Superior.

Between overfishing and the invasion of the parasitic sea lamprey that feasted on the fish, the Great Lakes’ annual lake trout harvest plummeted from 15 million pounds to 300,000 pounds by the 1960s.

Great Lakes fishery managers have tried to restore lake trout through sea lamprey control and planting young fish. That’s only worked in Lake Superior where a small lake trout population remained after the species’ basin-wide collapse.

Some researchers think lake trout restoration hasn’t worked because fisheries managers have stocked the wrong age fish in the wrong places at the wrong times.

Others, like Ebener, say the biggest problem is the 6-inch alewife. They exploded by the 1950s and 1960s because there weren’t enough lake trout left to control them. They crowded out native species like white fish and perch, and were prone to huge die-offs that would cover beaches with rotting fish.

In the 1960s, Michigan managers hatched a plan to control alewives by stocking the Great Lakes with chinook and coho salmon, both native to the Pacific Ocean. The salmon would sit in for lake trout at the top of the food chain and draw recreational anglers looking for a fish that fights.

The plan worked, driving down alewives and creating a world-class salmon fishery better than it was in the Pacific where those fish were from, Ebener said.

That built new interest in fishing for other species. Recreational fishing on the Great Lakes was minuscule before the 1960s, Dexter said. There was no Clean Water Act to keep people and industries from freely polluting the lakes, and anglers were happy to stay inland.

“People just didn’t go out there because the lakes were a dumping ground for everybody,” said Jim Dexter, Dexter, Lake Michigan basin coordinator for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. “It was putrid out there.”

But Great Lakes sport fishing grew, bringing a financial boom to sleepy towns that built local economies catering to recreational anglers.

“From guys selling boats to people selling bait to people renting motels, that whole economy developed around salmon,” Ebener said.

Some sports fishermen are worried that state agencies a bias for native species and will pull the plug on salmon, said Dan Thomas, president of the Great Lakes Sports Fishing Council.

“We didn’t create this fishery, they did,” Thomas said. “Now they would take it away from the sportsmen, and the multi-billion dollar economy that it has created,” he said.

Part two: Alewives: The trouble they cause and the salmon that love them.

20 thoughts on “Alewives: Should Great Lakes managers kill ‘em or keep ‘em?

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  2. Most all our problems can be traced back to alewives, then traced to the salmon/alewife plan or “mismanagement of the resource” which makes the DNR responsible or the root cause. You are a small part of part of the problem, not the problem. Well documented stuff actually. You and the DNR want saltwater species dominant, anyone can see this ain’t working out. Not appropriate in any way shape or form for saltwater species to be dominant, especially one that requires a special diet chinook/alewives. This requires native/natural species stay depleted for saltwater species dominant. Well documented salmon increase PCB and Mercury in spawning streams “one way delivery vehicles” as one expert put it. I find it very hard to believe hundreds if not thousands of experts are wrong, and only DNR biologists are right especially since the DNR plan is to save alewives, and everything the studies say will happen (cause and effect) is happening right now, algae blooms no native fish recruitment invasives thriving etc, etc… But hear no evil see no evil right scoopy! How’s this “Consequently native species reduce maintenance costs and produce healthy natural communities, thus providing a practical and ecologically valuable option for restoration projects” and “Further loss of native species should be avoided and those lost should be restored, where feasible. The diversity of indigenous fishes is recognized and valued” One from ANS task force plan 2013-2017 one from DNR 1995. Lets do this! Or are these experts wrong as well?

  3. PCB levels have dropped nearly 90 percent since the 80s. States have been able to allow most processed (spawned for hatcheries) salmon to be given to food pantries in Wisconsin or sold by contractors to the public in Michigan after spawning. Mercury is a non-issue in salmon here, but is big in some of those large, long-lived, toothy predators you want to see more of.

    One fish or all fish? I choose all fish – what we already have. An experienced angler can catch numbers of three or more “keystone” species in one day, in the same body of water where salmon are king.

  4. Sorry, $150 million taxpayer dollars for Asian Carp,and they want more.$137 billion a year fighting invasive species (except alewives). Algae blooms increasing, human health issues PCB Mercury, invasives spreading across the state and beyond effecting/costing everyone. But the main fact is to keep the chinook that don’t belong here, we have to sacrifice the entire natural healthy ecosystem/fishery that benefits the common good as in everyone. One fish or all fish? This is question that shouldn’t have to be asked. Since chinook cost us everything to keep, they’re too high maintenance, we can’t afford it anymore. The results are an invasive species dominant ecosystem, occuring right now, and degrading further, all because you want to catch a chinook? The salmon/alewife plan destroys the natural ecosystem period, can’t survive otherwise.

  5. Waste/Tom, it doesn’t cost non-fishing taxpayers anything to manage and stock chinook when you consider that license fees (and in the case of WI, salmon and trout stamps) are key to the stocking and management. The return on the investment is measurable and incredible. They are also reproducing well on their own on the Michigan side and Canada side, mainly.

    “Do you see any articles on Great Lakes ECHO about chinook fishing in the Great Lakes being the best in the nation — no, you don’t.”

    Perhaps it’s because ECHO editors don’t like chinooks, or don’t have the knowledge they need to write such a piece. But as mentioned in another thread, Bassmasters will come out with a new “best place for bass” next year, and it won’t be Lake St. Clair. It’s all about making controversial selections for their annual top 100 lakes, and then getting people talking. As noted, anglers were excited about catching “almost a five-pounder” in Lake St. Clair, yet they caught an 8.45-pounder in Green Bay during the Sturgeon Bay Open this spring. It took a 5.5 pound average PER BASS on 12 fish just to win the event! That’s in a Lake Michigan bay loaded with alewife, gobies, gizzard shad, whitefish, pike, burbot, perch, trout, salmon and more.

    Green Bay guides have been banging limits of walleyes for three months in a bay loaded with alewives. It’s world-class walleye fishing, the kind that attracts Cabela’s, AIM and other professional walleye trails. Pro tourneys are held in Green Bay, Oconto, Escanaba and Sturgeon Bay. Even privates with little knowledge of the bay and its walleyes can figure it out and catch ‘eyes in spring, summer and fall.

    You’ll be disappointed to know that even before the current salmon stocking cuts took place, alewives are BOOMING this year; there are so many vs. last year that everyone is wondering where they all came from. Salmon size is up, and it’s harder to consistently catch “kings” with all the bait. Big difference from last year. But you’re wrong stating that salmon anglers who get skunked won’t come back. All salmon fanatics know there are days when things just don’t work out. That’s fishing! Does the fact that you don’t do well golfing one day keep you from heading back out another time? How about hunting? Just because you don’t see a deer every time out doesn’t mean they aren’t out there. You can’t catch anything or shoot a buck sitting at home.

  6. Chinook only have 3 years to grow big, thus require massive amounts of alewives, or they get sick and die. Coldwater species are lousy predators of warmwater invasive species, cannot even survive there, the proof is going on right now for all to see. Warmwater invasives are spreading into coldwater and they still ain’t eating them, only eat alewives so we got a invasive species problem. Asian Carp do not have to adapt, they are a freshwater species, thier only control would be how many predators in the new area they spawn in. That’s if you want to use real science that is. I hear alewives are dying on the beach in Mannistee, and they’re banging limits of Walleyes in Saginaw Bay, any port pick a port, right in the middle of the mussels but sans alewives!

  7. Michigan DNR and other constituencies supporting alewives through management of chinook: you should be ashamed of yourselves. A dark chapter in your history and blight on your service to the community.

    You sold out to special interest groups and you chose short term economic gains over long term sustainable fisheries management. But what’s new in this country?

    You chose to support invasive species restoration over native species in the Great Lakes. Pretty simple really. Does any fisheries employee or manager have courage to stand up for what’s right here (culture of fear)?

    How so – Michigan DNR — you chose, almost unilaterally, to stock 66% fewer chinook this year in recent years past simply to save alewife from extirpation in Lake Michhgan and Lake Huron.

    Alewife negatively impacts recruitment of at least these Great Lakes fishes according to widely cited literature: walleye, perch, bloater and deepwater sculpin(all native species). Further, lake trout, the “keystone species” in Great Lakes fisheries will never natural recruit to self-sustaining populations in the Great Lakes so long as alewife are present and abundant. You choose alewife over lake trout, native species and the literature is clear on this.

    You want chinook, you can keep wasting my and your limited tax and Great Lakes restoration dollars, that have been continually spent for the last 60 + years trying to restore naturally recruiting lake trout populations. Won’t happen with alewife, and bye-bye funds.

    To manage a chinook fishery, to keep chinook around, requires alewife. If chinook make it without them then great I am all for it. But not if it requires sustaining alewife. Alewife are one of the most ecologically harmful species the Great Lakes has EVER known.

    Chinook were brought in to get rid of alewife. Lets allow them to do their job. Fisheries managers can say they are faced with tough choices, and that they battle new invasive species very day, but they have a lever to get if alewife and don’t use it. Please don’t play both sides of the fence here and cry woe is me as a manager and then continue inaction on this matter for which have a lever you can pull today.

    The lever is as easy as stocking more chinook. Do the fisheries managers have the same lever, or a lever as analogously easy to employ as this one for any other species really? How about a lever like this for sea lamprey? For round goby? For zeebs and quagga mussels? Who says chinook won’t make it anyway?

    Furthermore, the mangers are the ones who screwed this up in the first place in recent years. They were the ones who didn’t realize that chinook were reproducing on their own. In combination with stocked fishes they attained numbers able to basically extirpate the alewife from Lake Huron. There were also years when no fin clips were done so they don’t even really know what;s recruiting naturally or not in chinook populations. What makes you think they will better manage them in the future? They could mis-manage them in way that allows alewife to really make strong comeback and then have the same impacts as when they were at their worst. I’d rather put my money into building native naturally recruiting species.

    Finally after 50-60 years of trying to get rid of the alewife the chinook did it, almost on their own. And now we want to stop them.

    Taxpayers should be up in arms about this. It costs millions upon millions, if not billions to manage and stock chinook each year. It requires unending taxpayer money to keep this fishery going. Do you want more taxes and more government, or less?

    Do you want our government to invest in long-term economically sustainable and viable fisheries based off naturally recruiting native species, or do you want to continue to pay more taxes to keep providing fishing for a very select few people? Chinook = more government, more taxes, less sustainable and healthy fisheries and Great Lakes ecosystems. Plus they require alewife to keep around. How does this make any sense?

    It also costs millions for lake trout stocking programs to continue — why keep wasting the money — lake trout can not recruit with alewife around.

    You want examples of where native species are doing well and providing a huge income base for the Great Lakes: look no further than Lake St. Clair. Naturally recruited fishes means very few tax dollars comparatively go into managing this fishery. Lake St. Clair is presently the best bass fishing in the ENTIRE nation according to an article right here on GLECHO

    Do you see any articles on Great Lakes ECHO about chinook fishing in the Great Lakes being the best in the nation — no, you don’t.

    Furthermore, let me educate you on the principles of fisheries ecology. People say we need salmon to boost local economies. Even in their native habitats, habitats that not anthropogenically modified to extremes such as in the Great Lakes through engineering, with dams, controlled flows, pollution, and invasives, even in these natural unmodified habitats chinook salmon returns to rivers are extremely variable from year to year and so are the offshore fisheries.

    There is very little that people can do to predict how the fishing for chinook will be this year, or next year EVEN in their native habitats. Why would anyone think that in a place where chinook never were supposed to be in the first place (the Great Lakes) that they would be more consistent from year to year in catches and returns? Makes NO sense. Seriously, explain that to me — you can’t, and even the best fisheries biologists can’t.

    Fisherman and tourists spending hard earned dollars to go salmon fishing and not catch anything in a bad year will never, ever come back. Does that benefit local economies and those who may have invested everything they got? Do you think fisherman that snags some of the best bass the nation has to offer in Lake St. Clair will come back from year to year? Yes they will, and if we have naturally recruiting fisheries that we CAN count on to be consistent from year to year such as in Lake St. Clair, people will come back every year. People CAN build their businesses and lives around that.

    And please, don’t anyone tell me that chinook fisheries contribute 7 billion a year to local economies. That number may be right, but it applies to “all species fished for in the Great Lakes,” NOT solely chinook fisheries. It makes sense in a way though if you believe that agencies have self-interest in protecting their jobs and these programs.

    Here’s another argument: If people and agencies want to protect the alewife why don’t we protect round goby (harmful invasive species)? A strecth? Maybe, but one of the reasons smallmouth bass, and walleye, and perch, and whitefish, and burbot, lake trout, and other native great lakes fishes are doing well and rebounding in some areas is because round goby have proliferated and provided a food source and these fish eat them now. Round goby are important in the diets of waterbirds also. So if we protect the alewife, lets protect the round goby too right? At least we have a lever to get rid of alewife in contrast to round goby. But, if we did have a lever for round goby would opinion be the same – should we protect it? Oh and wait it does not end there — if we protect the round goby, well we have to protect their food source too which are mainly invasive quagga mussels. You know, whitefish now eating substantial numbers of quaggas too, so we should protect the quagga mussels right? Where does it end freshwater sharks?

    Another point if you don’t mins:
    Why do we in part have so many invasive species, such as round goby in the Great Lakes? Because over the years, there has been a lack of “toothy predators,” especially in regards to native species. Walleye, perch, burbot, and lake trout, sculpins, bass, sunfishes – all these species have diverse diets. What do chinook eat? One thing 90% of the time by biomass, yep, they eat alewife. When alewife suffer, so do chinook. Most native species can adapt to eating what is around and plentiful at that time. These native species, especially when they naturally reproduce and recruit provide one of the most important buffers to non-native species invasions because they eat the invaders.

    So, by keeping chinook around and saving the alewife they are opening the door even wider to invasion by asian carp in Lake Mcihigan. Will chinook or alewife eat invading and young of year juvenile asian carp no they will not because there would very littel spatial overlap of these species. 0% or more of Chinook diet is alewife – no round goby, no white bass, no ruffe that I know of.

    Native piscivores have diverse diets that are flexible. They eat non-natives un-evolved to escape such predation. So, by choosing alewife and chinook over these native species in Lake Michigan decision makers are further opening the door for asian carp invasion into the Great Lakes.

    You want to stop them from coming in — support restoration of native toothy predators not chinook and alewife. And if it’s not asian carp, it will be something else that gets in unless we provide a buffer by supporting native species restoration.

    Shame on you Michigan DNR, Wisconsin DNR, USGS, USFWS, GLFC, and all others in some position of power that stand by and let this happen. You are supposed to represent the people (taxpayers) who write your paychecks (majority non-salmon fisherman), not special interest groups.

    Please quit wasting our money and sabotaging the future of Great Lakes fisheries through these management practices.

    Where does the mismanagement and waste of our tax-dollars end? If you want a chinook fishery — it NEVER ENDS and it sets a dangerous precedent for the future of the Great Lakes!

    I am ashamed to say that I live in a state and country where where I pay money to be represented by these power-hungry, unilateral decision making, science-ignoring agencies that face no repercussions for their actions and which in only about 40 years have gone from getting rid of invasive species to now protecting them and protecting special interest groups.

    Where is the justice?

  8. I just want them to go away so my dog doesn’t keep getting sick after eating all of the dead ones off the beach .i

  9. the degradation of the biosphere is universal. Here in Brewster, MA. we celebrate our herring run, but our fresh water is in peril. Our estuaries are compromised, our marshes are threatened, our ponds polluted.
    Our houses and land will hold value for another few years, but soon it will all be worthless.
    Salt water and fresh water fisheries are our soon-to-be-lost fortune.
    Our beaches are feh, feshluganah, and feblunget.
    enjoy each day and see the handwriting on the wall.
    How long will we be able to eat our native in- shore fish and shellfish?
    The center will not hold.

  10. Like I said before “big fish eat little fish”

    4″ Walleye and Perch feed on 1″ Alewife!

    I read a study from our OMNR. back in the late 80’s they found in Lake Simcoe Perch were feeding on Walleye fry in prime walleye spawning areas.

    Not that I am a big fan of Alewife but they are in the mix and not much can be done about it.

  11. Alewives are an invasive species period, they also eat eat Perch and Walleye fry, Zooplankton young fish need. Dan Thomas says there’s bias for native fish, there’s supposed to be! If you really want to restore the biological health of the lakes both the Alewives and Salmon gotta go!

  12. Thanks Jeff, you reminded me of the fact. In Ontario years ago it was stressed by our OMNR. not to transport smelt or use them as bait in other body’s of water, along with any other specie’s these days.

  13. Rainbow smelt were intentionally planted in Crystal Lake in Michigan and made their way to the Great Lakes from there, either by a connecting stream or accidental transport by fishermen.

  14. This is the first time I ever heard that Smelt were stocked into the Great lakes, can anyone else say they know this or is there a way of finding out the details behind it. I always read that Smelt were introduced by way of ship ballest water.

    From what I see the Lake Trout eat smelt as much as they can. With warmer average water temp’s, pollution, Zebra mussels, Gobey, these all effect the reproduction of Lake Trout and Ciscoe. Even if some Lake Trout made it to adult spawning age the commercial fishermen would keep the stocks low and don’t forget the cormorants.

    Remember “big fish eat little fish”

  15. Smelt, stocked by Michigan in the late 1890’s, as forage for the lake trout commercial fishery, are the cause of the demise of the Great Lakes cold water fisherys. By the mid 1950’s they destroyed the blue pike, lake trout, ciscoe, whitefish and other coldwater fish stocks. They did this by consuming all the fry and fingerlings in the colder lake waters. There was no survival of these species at that time.In the mid 1960’s the Canadians started trawling for their commercial fishery of the smelt and then the sport fishery started up.

  16. Lake trout fishing is phenomenal on lake champlain. It’s the other species that have really declined. The alewives have even begun to decline the perch population and the smelt are no longer around. I think it’s time to introduce some cohos, kings or stripers because our lake is only good for bass now.

  17. Fair enough, Jeff, and I apologize if my response implied as much. It was not my intention. I empathize with your situation. There are no easy answers, and they are all interconnected.

    I think until we first address the major habitat degradations and encroachments, we will forever be chasing our “tails.” New species naturally move into new habitats, expanding their ranges. The fact that humans have assisted in this migration as opposed to a duck, for example, leaves us with the social consequences with which to contend, such as your local economy now dependent on an exotic fishery. Do we rid all the East of the rainbow trout and all the U.S. of the brown trout? I think we know how the majority might respond to that question. Your situation seems to be much the same.

    James Ehlers
    Executive Director
    Lake Champlain International, Inc.
    Clean Water. Healthy Fish. Happy People.

  18. James,

    The folks I’ve talked to haven’t blamed alewives so much for the lake trout collapse. That was the sea lamprey and overfishing, though there’s a debate over which one hurt most.

    Instead, they say alewives are an obstacle to bringing lake trout back.

  19. The lake trout fishery collapsed here on Lake Champlain, as well, decades before the arrival of the alewife.

    Personally, and I have no empirical data to support this assertion, I believe land use patterns in the 19th Century destroyed portions of lake trout spawning habitat and enhanced sea lamprey nursery habitat. This combination may have proven too much for the lake trout. Regardless, something did here on Champlain and it was not a diet of alewives.

    Alewives may prove to be the answer to the spiny water flea, one of that devastating creature’s few predators, from what I can gather from European literature. Something to consider.

    James Ehlers
    Executive Director
    Lake Champlain International, Inc.
    Clean Water. Healthy Fish. Happy People.

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