Atlantic Salmon – No Longer A Great Lakes Fisheries Footnote

December 9, 2012

Fisheries

In what began as an educational/research effort at Lake Superior State University nearly 30 years ago, Atlantic salmon (salmo salar) have emerged in recent years to become a significant component of the northern Lake Huron salmon fishery.  This program now results in the annual planting of 25,000-30,000 fish in the St. Mary’s River which are produced entirely from eggs recovered from its own returning broodstock.

Since some in our region may be unfamiliar with the distinguished pedigree associated with these spectacular fish, a little background information may be appropriate in order to put this story into its proper perspective.

LSSU Aquatic Research Laboratory manager Roger Greil retrieves a gill net used to collect pre-spawned Atlantic salmon from the St. Marys River. Photo Courtesy of MDNR

LSSU Aquatic Research Laboratory manager Roger Greil retrieves a gill net used to collect pre-spawned Atlantic salmon from the St. Marys River. Photo Courtesy of MDNR

Although once native to Lake Ontario, Atlantic salmon were extirpated from there by the end of the 19th century. Long considered to be the “King of Fish” in part due to their incredible aerial acrobatics when hooked and long runs which frequently take fly anglers well into their line backing.  The “King” moniker may also have been appropriate due to the fact that their sport angling was originally limited to British royalty or its landed gentry.Atlantic salmon are also a wonderful symbol of fishery conservation and recovery.  Since much of its native waters of the north Atlantic also coincided with the pre-industrial northern and western European population centers, for centuries they were clubbed, poached and intensively harvested at a time when all natural resources were thought to be inexhaustible.  As early European settlers headed to North America bringing with them this solely utilitarian view of all fish, it did not take long for these newly discovered populations to also crash.

While it is unlikely to ever become an entirely self-sustaining population, Atlantics also distinguish themselves from their Pacific salmon counterparts (Chinook, Pink, and Coho) in that their ability to spawn and reproduce is not genetically limited to a once in a lifetime event.   While this ability to reproduce annually would seem to suggest a superior long term “return on investment” when compared to Pacific salmon species, the combination of their greater rearing costs and environmental sensitivity is largely offsetting.

We first began hearing about off-shore angler harvest of Atlantics in the northern Lake Huron area several years ago. Because of their physical similarities to Brown trout, we suspect that they had even been caught prior to that time, but had largely gone undetected.  This news came at an especially good time for northern Lake Huron which is now only a few years removed from being viewed by many as a dying salmon fishery.

Largely driven by the introduction and expansion of aquatic invasive species, the near collapse of the fishery food-web has been much discussed.  The extent to which salmon and trout populations would be able to adapt to this changing system was, and remains, largely unknown.  What has become clear, however, is that perhaps the best approach in dealing with the accelerated rate of change in the Great Lakes ecosystem is through species diversity.  Stated another way, it’s better not to put all of your salmon eggs in one basket.

As is described in the DNR press release from December 6, 2012 (click here: MDNRatlanticSalmon1212), the Fisheries Division is initiating its own rearing program with the stated goal of an additional 80,000 yearlings annually which are intended to supplement the existing Lake Huron populations.

While dreams of a wild, stream-run Atlantic salmon fishery may never become fully realized, they have clearly demonstrated that they represent a good way to hedge our Great Lakes fishery bet.

About Northern Michigan Conservation Network

The mission of the Northern Michigan Conservation Network is to "connect conservation-minded hunters, anglers, and outdoor enthusiasts to those issues affecting Michigan's forests, waters, and wildlife."

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