Upcoming book exposes local impact on introduction and loss of salmon in Great Lakes


Author Carson Prichard has spent his life working with fish and wildlife. Here he holds a freshly caught coho salmon in Washington State, 2021. Image: Carson Prichard.

By Shealyn Paulis

The fall of salmon in the Great Lakes can be seen as a good thing ecologically as some people prefer native species, said a Michigan biologist and author.

But the personal perspective and the local impact often is forgotten.

“I think it’s just been overlooked… they had tried to look at the economic impacts of the loss, but not on the local scale whatsoever,” said Carson Prichard, author of The Salmon Capital of Michigan: The Rise and Fall of a Great Lakes Fishery. The book, set to be published in April, is about the residents of Rogers City, a once-booming Lake Huron fishing town, who share personal stories of how the introduction and depletion of salmon impacted them.

Prichard has spent a lifetime learning about the outdoors as a Michigan native. He got his bachelor’s degree in biology from Grand Valley State University and a master’s degree in fisheries and wildlife at Michigan State University.  He then earned a doctorate in earth and ecosystems science at Central Michigan University.

Carson Prichard wrote The Salmon Capital of Michigan, The Rise and Fall of a Great Lakes Fishery, to highlight the local perspective of the rise and collapse of salmon within the Great Lakes. Image: Carson Prichard.

As a biologist in Muskegon for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, he was made aware of the discourse surrounding the non-native salmon within the lakes.

He never planned to write a book, but noted the lack of cultural focus on this ecological event. He was drawn to telling that side of the story.

“I ended up getting my Ph.D, but by the time I was finishing that, I kind of didn’t want to do science as a career anymore,” Prichard said.

The pandemic gave him an opportunity to rethink his career options. Prichard said he decided to write this book because the story blended personal connection and science.

This was a solution to using his education but not continuing a path in hard science.

Governments had published a lot of research that told the science of the changes brought by salmon, he said. What is less reported is the impact the fish had on towns where the salmon fishing industry had once flourished.

“That’s a lot of tourism and cultural and physical presence to just go away,”  Prichard said.

The Great Lakes salmon have a long and complex history since state officials  brought them to the lakes nearly 60 years ago. They were a solution to another invasive fish, the alewife, said Amber Peters, an associate professor with the Michigan State University Department of Fisheries and Wildlife and who has worked with Great Lakes salmon.

Alewives were a nuisance and harmed the fishing and tourism industries. Cities, like Chicago, encouraged tourists to have a fun day at the beach, but the alewives would often die in massive numbers and wash up dead and rotting, Peters said.

“They’d bring in trucks and bulldozers to take them away,” Peters said. “But really, the biological solution made a lot more sense.”

That solution was salmon. Although not a native species to the Great Lakes, the hope was that the fish brought from Oregon and Washington could feed on the growing alewife population.

The salmon did their job and more, not only creating ecological balance and solving the alewife problem, but also bringing economic prosperity and a new style of fishing similar to deep-sea ocean-fishing, she said.

“In one fell swoop, we’d created this great sports fishery and we got rid of the stinky fish that were washing up all over the beach.” Peters said.   

The author received a grant in 2021 from the Great Lakes Fishery Commission to focus on Rogers City, Michigan. State officials once stocked this Lake Huron city with more salmon than anywhere else in the state.

“They had a fishing tournament there, a big one that brought people in to fish from Ontario, New York, Detroit, all over the Great Lakes states, basically,” Prichard said. “There were lots of boats, money and tourism coming into northern Michigan.”

But his book is part of a larger conversation, he said. There are many people who believe that the lakes would benefit from fewer salmon and more native species like lake trout and walleye. Those native species are outnumbered and compete with salmon for food.

His book is less about fish science and more about how salmon have benefitted life and culture in fishing communities, he said.

“I have been exposed to some negative sentiments along the way, biologists against non-native species… and it could easily be construed as a good thing that the salmon have collapsed,” Prichard said, “I think there was a lot lost culturally with the salmon collapse, and I just want to give a voice to the people whose lives were positively affected by them.”

The cause of the collapse of the salmon is difficult to pinpoint. There are many reasons, including inconsistent stocking efforts, Peters said.

“A couple of likely contributing factors is the salmon did their job too well and they ate the alewives down to a point where the population was not replenishing itself enough to feed … and maybe some of the changing temperatures of the lakes.” Peters said.

Cover for The Salmon Capital of Michigan, which will be published by Wayne State University Press in April 2024. The book is available for preorder at $26.99 on the Wayne State University Press website. Image: Wayne State University Press.

Even those who know nothing about the salmon in the Great Lakes could benefit from reading and understanding the many sides of the story, she said.

“It just shows you how complex the big picture really is.  Books like this really help.”

The Salmon Capital of Michigan, The Rise and Fall of a Great Lakes Fishery will be published by Wayne State University Press in April. It is available for preorder for $26.99 on the Wayne State University Press website, and will be available for purchase on Amazon, Bookshop.org, Barnes & Noble and local bookstores when published.

Editor’s note: This story was updated March 7, 2024 to correct a misspelling.

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