Water Is Like Nothing Else - Great Lakes Fisheries

The indigenous fishes of the Great Lakes have greatly changed since the arrival of the first European settlers. Rapidly expanding fisheries, extensive degradation of aquatic habitats, and the invasion of alien species, such as the sea lamprey, have profoundly reduced the historical diversity of native fishes and the fisheries they supported. Many of these losses were poorly documented in the literature of the day, but the available descriptions indicate that losses from lakes Erie and Ontario, the first lakes to be settled, were already recognized by the early 1800s. More devastating losses were yet to come, and they would extend to lakes Superior, Michigan, and Huron. By the start of the 20th century,

  • Atlantic salmon were gone from Lake Ontario;
  • two deepwater ciscoes were nearly extinct in lakes Michigan and Huron;
  • lake sturgeon were threatened in all of the lakes and extinguished in some areas;
  • fish that used large rivers for spawning were greatly diminished in all of the lakes.

Transformation of the fish communities and their associated fisheries continued unabated into the middle of the 20th century. By this time, non-native fishes, the alewife and rainbow smelt, dominated the deepwater community and had largely replaced the native ciscoes. Lake trout, the native top predator within the deepwater community, was being pushed toward local extinction by over-fishing and the predacious, non-native sea lamprey. The shallow-water community, although less directly affected by the sea lamprey, also was transformed during this period. By 1960, the blue pike, the mainstay of the Lake Erie fishery, was near extinction, and the walleye, the next most-valuable fish in the lake, was headed toward population collapse. Much of the fishing industry disappeared because the non-native species that replaced the native fishes were low in value.


Resources

Lakes Sturgeon Facts & Quiz

Fishes in Michigan and the Great Lakes