The Resilient Whitefish

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Points North
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The Resilient Whitefish

Postby Points North » Mon Apr 25, 2016 12:41 am

In Lake Michigan, resilient whitefish, fishermen fight for a comeback

lastfisherman_2.jpg
Ken Koyen represents the fourth generation of his family to fish the waters of Lake Michigan for a living. On Washington Island, where fishing was an economic mainstay for a century, Koyen is the island’s last full-time fisherman. Credit: Tom Lynn


By Dan Egan of the Journal Sentinel

Chicago - Michigan attorney Michael McCann had some business in downtown Chicago this spring and he did what a lot of business travelers do when in town with company money. He hit a pricey seafood restaurant. He could have gone for Atlantic yellowfin tuna for $31.99 or wild Alaskan salmon for $39.99. But the 60-year-old opted for the $12.99 Lake Michigan fried smelt platter. He relished the notion of ordering the only thing on the menu that actually came from the Great Lake on the edge of town, even if it isn't a species native to the lake.

McCann doesn't sail on the lake, doesn't fish on the lake and can't remember the last time he swam in the lake.

That makes these crispy index finger-sized fish - and what else is left of the lake's commercial fishery - so important.

"I tell folks that a good part of the reason (people) care about the Gulf oil spill is that they care about the oysters, the shrimp, etcetera - it's a connection," says John Janssen, a fisheries biologist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Great Lakes WATER Institute. "For the Great Lakes, that's a connection we're throwing away."

We've thrown it away with decades of carelessness toward the world's largest freshwater system.

While Lake Michigan's commercial fishery has survived overfishing, industrial pollution and lakeshore development, the last commercially fished species are jeopardized by an onslaught of destructive invaders, many of which have arrived as stowaways aboard ocean freighters since the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway.

The lake's commercial fishery used to sustain thousands of Wisconsin workers, but the number of commercial operators on Lake Michigan has plummeted to a handful of families in recent decades, most of whom come from long lines of commercial fishermen.

And the whole industry is largely hitched to a single struggling species.

Aside from the brief spring smelt run, a viable population of yellow perch on lower Green Bay and a chub population that has all but disappeared in the last three years, whitefish are the last commercial stock left.

Only five years ago fishermen fretted that whitefish, too, were about to go down the drain.

The reason is the whitefish's primary food source, a tiny shrimplike creature, has been decimated with the arrival of zebra and quagga mussels in the late 1980s.

But then the whitefish, a fish built to root about in the muck and between the rocks on the lake bottom, started doing something the struggling fishermen didn't expect.

They got off the bottom of the lake and started fighting back.

It was the early 1980s and Ken Koyen, 58 , was out with his dad fishing the waters off their home on Washington Island at the tip of the Door Peninsula when the two hauled from their nets something profoundly bizarre - a whitefish with an alewife hanging out of its mouth.

Whitefish didn't evolve to feast on other fish. They don't even have teeth.

So for an old man who'd spent his life lifting untold thousands of fish from the depths of the lake, seeing a whitefish going after another fish was odd indeed - like watching a man gnaw on a log.

"He said, 'Look at that! Look at that!'" Koyen recalls his dad yelling over the rumble of engine. "He actually stopped the lift."

Read the rest here.
http://www.jsonline.com/news/wisconsin/127918098.html
"Two captains will sink a ship"