Those Old Great Lakes, They Ain't What They Used to Be: Peter Meisenheimer
The Laurentian Great Lakes of North America have provided sustenance
to human communities since the first aboriginal North Americans reached
their shores. The first Europeans pushing into the continental interior
from settlements along the St. Lawrence, relied on the Great Lakes
as both waterway and larder. As settler communities became established
along its shores, fishing quickly became established as a commercial
activity and entire communities grew up around the industry.
The commercial fisheries of the Great Lakes are much reduced from
their heyday. In many constituencies they are embattled. In fact,
Great Lakes commercial fishing is almost entirely a Canadian activity,
having been severely restricted and in some cases eliminated from
The historical reasons for this situation are complex, and are related
to some extent to the severe stresses placed on Great Lakes ecosystems
in the mid-20th Century. The depleted states of some once-abundant
stocks and public perception of the Great Lakes as polluted and dying,
combined to make commercial fishing a precarious business. Former
staples of the industry were in short supply and those that remained
were perceived (in some, but not all cases, with good reason) to be
unfit for human consumption.
The primary threat to the industry today is much more clear cut.
Commercial fishing is in a battle to retain access to the lakes with
powerful interests that see it as a threat to their own activities.
The opposition is not stereotypical urban environmentalists Hell bent
on saving the last fish, but sport fishing interests with a vastly
different view of how the lakes should be managed.
In the simplest form, this dispute comes down to anglers not wanting
nets in the waters where they fish. On the larger scale, it is a dispute
with a powerful industry that makes a great deal of money catering
to anglers. The economic issues are remarkably messy and the environmental
disputes rather exotic.
Even a cursory examination of the issues confronts a stark historical
reality that colours every aspect of the debate. The Laurentian Great
Lakes ecosystem is vastly changed from what it was before European
settlement, and the processes of change are ongoing. A couple of centuries
ago, the top predators in Lake Ontario, for example, included Atlantic
salmon, lake trout (also called lake charr), American eel and an endemic
freshwater subspecies of harbour seal. Throughout the Great Lakes
fish biomasses were dominated by large individuals of large species
including sturgeon, lake trout, lake whitefish, northern pike, muskellunge,
walleye, channel catfish (and Atlantic salmon in Lake Ontario).
The seals and the Atlantic salmon disappeared in the 19th Century,
and the eels and native trout are now the focus of official efforts
to counter long-term declines. Several unique species or subspecies
of fish have been lost, including a subspecies of walleye endemic
to lake Erie, the Michigan grayling and a number of cisco species.
The dominant top predators in the system are now non-native salmon
species introduced from the west coast of North America and sustained
by massive stocking programmes run by government and private hatcheries.
The native fish species that disappeared were, while their populations
lasted, available to commercial fishers. However, with the possible
exception of sturgeon and some whitefish populations, exploitation
played only an ancillary role in the destruction of the lost stocks.
Habitat destruction and degradation were major factors. Damming of
rivers almost certainly doomed the Atlantic salmon, as access to spawning
grounds was cut off. Siltation, removal of gravel and cobble (important
spawning substrate) for the construction industry, coastal wetland
drainage and a host of other insults decreased the capacity of the
lakes to sustain their native fish communities.
In spite of the fact that commercial fishing has had relatively little
to do with the plight of the lakes, the strategy selected for restoring
fish populations has largely excluded the industry. Access to introduced
salmonids is jealously guarded by the angling community, in particular
a well-organised and vocal charter boat industry that earns large
fees servicing well-heeled sport anglers.
State and provincial agencies introduce millions of non-native salmon
and trout into the Great Lakes annually with only vague understanding
(at best) of the ecological effects. Commercial fishing industry boats
are prohibited from targeting these fish, and anglers around the Great
Lakes have successfully argued that commercial activity should be
restricted at times and in places that might involve incidental take
of salmonids reserved for anglers. The resentment on the commercial
side is substantial.
Superimposed on this already contentious mix is a political reconfiguration
of resource management that is of obvious importance but uncertain
long-term direction. A series of constitutional challenges by First
Nations both within the Great Lakes watershed and elsewhere
has altered the management equation to give aboriginal communities
much greater access to, and semi-autonomous control over management
of, fish resources of historical importance to their communities.
As might be expected, this has created some tension with non-First
Nations commercial fishing interests. The most volatile and unpredictable
issues, however, have been between the emerging First Nations fishing
industry and the angling community.
The conflict was most acute during the early stages of development
of the First Nations fishery. Acts of vandalism on commercial gear
occurred regularly, and physical altercations between anglers and
members of First Nations communities involved in the industry created
potentially explosive situations in some areas. During the mid-1990s
there was considerable tension between First Nations fishers and anglers
in the Ontario counties of Grey and Bruce that threatened to spin
out of control. Perhaps the most famous (or infamous) incident concerned
a mob of angry anglers (that included a local Tory Member of Provincial
Parliament) confronting a woman selling fish at the market in Owen
Sound. Racial slurs were augmented by bags of fish offal which were
thrown at her market stall.
It is perhaps wishful thinking to suppose that firm conclusions can
be drawn about the management of the fishery in the presence of so
much mutual suspicion among competing interests. Nonetheless, the
Great Lakes are an illuminating case study in the politics of resource
management, environmental degradation and ecological rehabilitation.
In the last decade, previously unstated assumptions on the part of
management agencies have been forced to the surface by these disputes.
Examining these assumptions in the context of the history of the Great
Lakes fisheries debate can shed light not just on fisheries management
in the Great Lakes, but on management processes in general.
One of the most controversial and thought-provoking developments
to emerge from the rise of aboriginal commercial fisheries is the
confrontation between First Nations and the sport angling community
over exotic salmonid stocking. In particular, a monograph on the subject
by Stephen Crawford, a biologist working for the Chippewas of Nawash
First Nation, has formulated a clear critique of the management philosophy
that shifted management objectives away from commercial food fisheries
and toward sport fisheries dependent on stocking of both native and
exotic species. It has generated controversy, not only within the
sport angling community but also among management biologists whose
decisions continue to drive extensive stocking programmes.
Crawford provides a useful summary of events that led to the current
state of affairs. In particular, he has detailed the shift toward
management for sport angling opportunities by state and provincial
authorities on both sides of the US-Canada border. Part of that history
is a conflict between federal agencies in both countries that were
generally supportive of commercial fishing and management for rehabilitation
of native species, and state and provincial agencies that favoured
sport anglers and introductions of exotic species.
One can only speculate on the explanation for the different perspectives
of federal and state/provincial agencies, but the dichotomy is recognised
by those most responsible for the move toward management for angling
opportunities. In 2000, writing in a special edition of Fisheries
(organ of the American Fisheries Society) entitled Celebrating 50
Years of the Sport Fish Restoration Program, Howard Tanner traced
the beginning of the process to a decision by the state of Michigan
to take over management of the fishery from the US Bureau of Commercial
Dr. Tanner was a primary mover in the stocking programmes and he
describes the process in glowing terms: " officials decided that
management of Michigan's share of the Great lakes for sport fishing
was the best allocation of the resource. This decision has been emulated
to a substantial degree in the management policies of the seven Great
lakes states and the province of Ontario. Because of these early decisions,
sportfishing has become the key value for almost 100,000 square miles
of productive freshwater."
There is much food for thought in Tanner's words. The reference to
sportfishing being "the key value" is undoubtedly an accurate
reflection of the thinking that drives much of fisheries management
in the Great Lakes, but it is not a unanimous objective. Neither is
it clear that this was supposed to be the primary objective of salmonid
stocking programmes when they began.
Early salmon introductions were largely justified by their proponents
as a way of dealing with enormous numbers of alewife and rainbow smelt,
themselves non-native species in the Great Lakes. The smelt were said
to be competing with and preying on the eggs of native species. Alewives
were prone to massive mortalities that could leave waterfronts inundated
by stinking, decomposing masses of the small fish.
In the upper Great Lakes (i.e. those upstream of Lake Ontario), lake
trout had been the native predator that might have suppressed numbers
of these invading species. Lake trout, however, had been severely
reduced in numbers. The culprit, at least in part, was another non-native
species that had been given access to the waters above Niagara Falls
with construction of the Welland Canal.
Sea lamprey had probably always been present in Lake Ontario, but
their introduction into the upper lakes added another serious stress
to species that were already feeling the impacts of human activities.
Adult sea lamprey feed by attaching to fish with their sucking mouths,
abrading a hole in skin and flesh and consuming the blood from the
wound. Their introduction into an environment in which none of the
species had evolved in the presence of such a parasitic feeder had
Measures undertaken to compensate for its presence ranged from use
of highly selective toxins in known lamprey breeding areas to the
development of lake trout x speckled trout hybrids for release. The
rationale for the hybridisation programme was that the hybrids would
grow to maturity faster than pure lake trout and would therefore be
less susceptible to lamprey predation as immatures. It did not work,
of course, but the initiative serves as a benchmark for just how broadly
the policy net was being cast for solutions to the obvious problems
with the lake ecosystems.
Given the extent to which the plight of the lakes was attributable
to the impact of those exotic species (such as smelt, alewife and
sea lamprey) already established, it is difficult to reconcile the
ease with which concerns about stocking were swept aside in the 1960s.
There was opposition, some of it extremely well reasoned and articulate.
The University of Toronto's Henry Regier was one of the most eloquent
and adamant opponents. In 1968 he wrote:
" most introductions of exotics have, I suggest, been part of
a policy of retreat on the part of resource managers and politicians
before man's thoughtless onslaught on the environment or before the
sportsman's vibrant enthusiasm, or both And now we appear to have
entered another great era of introducing exotics. What has gone before
seems to be unintelligible and at any rate irrelevant noise. Beginning
now we will research the system so that if our introductions fail
we will know why. I don't believe it! Aren't we really only trying
anything that comes to mind?"
Such words, however, had little effect. Stocking programmes were
well established by the early 1970s. By the 1990s a typical year would
see on the order of 15 million chinook salmon and 2 or 3 million coho
released throughout the Great Lakes. Those responsible could still
offer no definitive answers regarding the capacity of these stocks
to sustain themselves without hatchery releases, the competitive impact
on recovering native species such as lake trout or much else about
their ecological function in their new home. In light of the huge
investment in these programmes, extraordinarily little is known about
their actual impacts on any but a purely superficial level.
There is no longer much talk about Pacific salmon holding alewife
and smelt numbers in check. If the interaction is mentioned at all
it is to question whether the numbers of alewife and smelt are adequate
to sustain the numbers of salmon being stocked. As Dr. Tanner indicated,
it is now transparently about sportfishing.
The impact of exotic species on the Great Lakes is not restricted
to hatchery-reared salmon, of course. The arrival of the zebra mussel
and its effects on ecosystem function have been front page news. A
spate of newly arrived fish and invertebrate species have become established
with the assistance of a largely illusory regulatory regime governing
foreign shipping entering the Great Lakes by way of the St. Lawrence
Seaway. Nobody is certain what the ultimate consequences will be,
but fisheries managers have reacted cautiously, cutting commercial
quotas in some cases drastically. The result has been huge
uncertainty for communities that have relied on the lakes for many
generations. Salmon anglers, meanwhile, have carried on apace.
Continuing to dump millions of fast-growing, exotic predators into
a system while arguing the need for caution is obviously incongruous.
A management regime that is capable of such self-contradiction truly
does seem to be "trying anything that comes to mind," as
Henry Regier suggested thirty-five years ago.
A few years ago it seemed that the long-term trend in Great Lakes
fisheries management was clear. The commercial fishery appeared to
be confronted with a slow decline. The future of fisheries management
looked to be about servicing a sport angling industry largely built
around put-and-take Pacific salmon fishing. The First Nations court
victories have changed that, both by confirming their constitutional
right to use the fish resources of the lakes as they see fit, and
by First Nations' philosophical objections to the stocking programmes.
The existing management regime is not about to fold. It is supported
by powerful organisations such as the Ontario Federation of Anglers
and Hunters and its fraternal entities in US states. There is an enormous
amount of money invested in hatchery infrastructure and bureaucratic
empires that sustain the system. Charter boat operators, tackle shops,
marinas and associated businesses thrive on the status quo.
There does, however, appear to an opportunity for public discussion
of these matters that has not existed for some time. The principles
at stake are relevant to the general question of how to protect biodiversity
in a world beset with conflicting economic demands by a growing population
and expanding economies. If change turns out to be impossible in a
set of circumstances that so obviously needs changing, it portends
bad things for environmental policy generally.
Crawford, Stephen S., Salmonine introductions to the
Laurentian Great Lakes: an historical review and evaluation of ecological
effects. ("Canadian Special Publications of Fisheries
and Aquatic Sciences 132", National Research Council of Canada,
Peter Meisenheimer is a consulting biologist with international
experience in the field of fisheries and aquatic ecology. He has worked
on aspects of fisheries and aquatic biology throughout the Laurentian