Salmon have spent 50 years in Great Lakes

SALMON CELEBRATION: DNR Fisheries Chief Jim Dexter releases a bucket full of coho salmon into the Platte River at the same spot Dr. Howard Tanner released the first salmon into the Great Lakes in 1966. The release was part of a celebration of 50 years of salmon in the Great Lakes. Tanner and his son Hugh are looking on from the bridge.  DNR photo by David KenyonBeulah, Mich. — Back in the early 1960s, the fishery in the Great Lakes, especially Lake Michigan, was in trouble. Sea lamprey infestation and overzealous commercial harvests had pole-axed the lake trout and whitefish populations. An infestation of invasive alewives appeared to be taking over the lakes. Annual removal of tons of dead alewives from Great Lakes beaches was as common as apple pie. 

In the fall of 1964, Michigan’s Department of Conservation – the precursor to today’s DNR –  hired Dr. Howard Tanner as its new Fisheries Division chief. He immediately was tasked by the department’s director, Ralph A. MacMullan, to do “something spectacular” in the Great Lakes.

Biologists had planted salmon in the lakes before, but they never took to the lakes. Tanner had a hunch that the time was ripe for another salmon introduction.

“In October of ‘64 I got a call from a friend on the West Coast and he asked me if I knew there was a surplus of Pacific salmon,” Tanner, 92, told a crowd that gathered earlier this month at the Platte River State Fish Hatchery in Beulah to celebrate 50 years of salmon in the Great Lakes. “I think I stayed up all night waiting to make a call to see if we could get them. Then the next morning I had to wait even longer because the West Coast is three hours behind us.”

Tanner made the call to a friend and colleague in Oregon and got the ball rolling. The state of Oregon provided Michigan with fresh salmon eggs in 1964 and again in 1965.

Tanner sent state hatchery personnel to Oregon to get some experience raising salmon. He also refocused the hatchery program to make room for the salmon. After securing a special appropriation from the state Legislature to pay for the program, Michigan found itself in the salmon-rearing business.

“It took some guts,” Tanner admitted. “It could have potentially screwed up the entire Great Lakes. Some people were happy and some people weren’t.”

On April 2, 1966, Tanner introduced salmon into the Great Lakes when he emptied a net full of Pacific coho salmon smolts into the Platte River. A total of 658,760 cohos were released the first year in the Platte River and Bear Creek, tributaries of Lake Michigan. 

“Can you imagine the survival rate that first year?” Tanner asked. “When salmon got into the lake they just opened their mouth and it was full of alewives.”

The program grew from there and soon included chinook salmon and plants in Lake Huron, too. The chinooks soon took over as the more desired salmon species. Both continue to be stocked in the lakes today.

According to a story in the Presque Isle County Advisor from October 1968, Tom Durecki, a junior at Rogers City High School at the time, caught the state’s first chinook salmon that fall while steelhead fishing in the Ocqueoc River. The fish was 121⁄2 inches long, just a half-inch over the legal size limit.

As the salmon and the fishery grew, so did acceptance by the fishing community.

“I was in Chicago one day and I saw this guy in a suit walking down the street carrying a brief case in one hand and a salmon in the other,” Tanner said. “He looked at me and said, ‘I live in Chicago, I work in Chicago, and I just caught a salmon in Chicago.’”

Tanner knew then that he’d made the right decision.

The program has grown over the years and now includes strong natural reproduction. Salmon stocking peaked and is now in a downward spiral. 

Invasive zebra and quagga mussels entered the Great Lakes in the 1980s. They feed on plankton, which is the main food of  juvenile alewife, which is the primary food of chinook salmon. 

Biologists didn’t react quickly enough to the changing ecosystem, and in 2005 the salmon fishery in Lake Huron crashed.

In an effort to avoid a similar crash in Lake Michigan, states surrounding the lake have drastically reduced the number of salmon they stock each year to better coincide with the reduced availability of prey fish.

By 1970, the state was raising and stocking about 2 million salmon in Lake Michigan. By 1976, around 4 million were stocked. That number rose to  6 million by 1980 and peaked in 1988 with 8 million salmon planted. 

Today, with fewer prey fish in the lake, Michigan stocks 1.7 million salmon, and the total population is estimated to be less than 4 million fish. 

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