2017-09-14 / Views

Could new balance be coming to Big Lake?

There’s an old saying attached to a 19th century French journalist that goes, “The more things change the more things stay the same.”

The phrase is only somewhat useful in explaining Lake Michigan ecology over the past 70 or so years.

The Big Lake has been chaotic. Perhaps “The more things change the more things change” would offer a better overview.

During that time a number of Lake Michigan fisheries of various importance have been down on their death beds only to rebound. Such just might be the case for whitefish, an original and delicious player in the lake’s quickly evolving food chain.

That food chain has been upset from top to bottom through the past several decades, starting with the arrival of sea lamprey and their devastating predation of lake trout in the 1950s.

Then came alewives, salmon, zebra mussels, gobbles, quagga mussels and finally the tiny “spiny water flea.”

Did we miss any? Probably. The march of invasive species up the St. Lawrence Seaway into the Great Lakes has been as steady as a freighter navigating the Manitou Passage.

Toss in changing weather conditions — global warming? — and you have a messy cauldron of change with too many ingredients for scientists to predict one year to the next.

The long range forecast? Wait and see.

Amidst an ever-flowing foundation of data comes some good news we can see and feel and, just as importantly, eat.

There are more whitefish off the Lake Michigan shoreline of Leelanau County.

And a few less quagga mussels.

We haven’t seen specific figures. Those assumptions come from commercial fisherman Joel Petersen, who plies his trade as his predecessors did — by chugging out of the Leland harbor at 5:30 a.m. to pull trap nets over historical whitefish grounds.

Antecedotedly, Petersen says he’s catching more whitefish this year than last, which may not be saying much. Whether because weather conditions pushed whitefish into deeper water or because they just weren’t there, the 2016 season was a bust for Petersen. He only caught a few hundred pounds of fish — not enough to cover his fuel costs.

But now he’s catching quite a few — not enough to strain the fishtug Joy, but a substantial increase — and most of those fish are below the 17-inch minimum size. He’s tossing them back to grow.

Petersen also said quagga mussel numbers appear to be diminishing. The mussels filter out tiny plankton that sustain baby fish, including whitefish fry, into adulthood.

Chinook salmon, the 50-year king of the lake after being transplanted by the DNR from Pacific stocks, have rebounded this season. By no coincidence, schools of alewives are now showing on fishing graphs, perhaps the result of reduced salmon plantings.

Lake trout have switched from a diet of the greasy alewife, which hurt their libido, to another invasive, the goby. Lakers and their fishery are better off.

And even the threat of the spiny water flea seems diminished, as they rarely clung to fishing lines this summer. Apparently there are fewer of them.

Could it be that a tenuous balance among an enlarged cast of characters is coming to Lake Michigan?

We can only hope. We get the feeling that the easy fixes — lamprey control, salmon transfers, lake trout plantings — are already in play.

The latest changes for the better are mostly the result of Lake Michigan’s work.

We’ve asked a lot of her through the years. Let’s let settle down a bit.

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