2017-02-23 / Life in Leelanau

Open bay causes long-term concern and lost recreation

Not even shelf ice
By Alan Campbell
Of The Enterprise staff

They’ll be no ice fishing on West Grand Traverse Bay this winter.

Or skating.

And certainly no truck driving.

For the second straight year, it appears that Grand Traverse Bay will stay open — much to the chagrin of winter recreationists and water ecologists.

Cedar charter fisherman Bill Winowiecki recalls the winter ending in 2014 with record-cold temperatures.

“We were parked at Lee Point and there was a brand new Ford F-250 with a black matching trailer, and they drove right out there across the ice to Power Island. There were more cars and pickups out there that day than you would believe,” he said.

And the fishing was great, with limit catches of lake trout the norm rather than the exception.

Flash forward to this week, when even shelf ice is absent from the bay.

Winowiecki, although not a scientist, is a member of the Lake Michigan Citizen Fisheries Committee. So he listens intently to the words of state fish biologists, and has learned that a winter without ice on the Great Lakes provides a mixed message for fish populations.

He said biologists believe ice can help the spawning efforts of lake trout and whitefish, but may be hard on alewife propagation.

“There is good and bad with each,” he said.

Heather Smith likewise has enjoyed recreational opportunities offered by a frozen West Grand Traverse Bay. She is now the “baykeeper” — an actual job title — with the Watershed Center of Grand Traverse Bay.

“I can certainly remember growing up and going out there and ice skating. I can remember there always being ice on the bay in the 80’s and early 90’s. Now it’s fairly uncommon. Even if it wasn’t always frozen over, there was a rim of ice around the land-water interface,” Smith said.

As her title portends, Smith’s job centers on organizing local support for keeping Grand Traverse Bay healthy. But some things — including a warm- ing trend that has warded off ice on the bay since the late 1990s — are more or less out of her control.

But that doesn’t mean she isn’t concerned. One worry is that higher water temperatures will cause a shift in the bay’s ecology, pushing out species that have adapted to colder winters.

For instance, the Watershed Center has heard reports of swimmer’s itch being contracted in West Grand Traverse Bay — which, if the reports prove true, might be a first, Smith said.

Swimmer’s itch is caused by a small parasite that lives in waterfowl and snails, and causes infections in humans when looking for a host.

“I don’t know if there have been any shifts I can pinpoint, such as is swimmers itch finally able to survive. That’s a question mark. I don’t know if we have any new species, because they may not be able to survive a hardy winter.

“But that’s certainly something of a concern.”

The last thick layer of ice to cover the bay formed in the winter of 2013- 14. The bay froze again the following winter — the first back-to-back freezing occurances since the 1990s.

Perhaps the change in winter severity becomes most obvious when looking at the number of times the bay has frozen through the decades, as records exist back to 1851. In the decade from 1851-1860, the bay iced over eight times.

The bay continued to freeze at least seven times per decade until 1980. During the time period of 1981-1990, ice sheets covered the bay six times.

The number shrunk to three from 1991-2000, and two from 2001-2010.

And since 2011, West Grand Traverse Bay has frozen just twice as chances for a freeze-over in 2017 have evaporated.

As will water from the Great Lakes at a much faster level without ice. It’s another reason for concern, said Smith, as water levels in Lake Michigan take a hit without a covering of ice to slow evaporation during winters.

And there’s a probability for changes in the makeup of plants living in the bay should the trend continue, Smith said.

“We can get algae growing earlier. I don’t think we would get an algae bloom. But if it was a longer term, we could see a species shift.

“That’s something we think about, because every species has a preferred temperature range.”

And then there’s the lost recreational opportunities that come with an open bay in February. Winowiecki is getting ready to target cisco during their spawning runs, but off the side of his boat.

“I enjoy getting out on the bay when it does freeze,” he added.

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