FRANKFORT — Scores of dead alewife fish washed up on Frankfort beaches, but some see a silver -- if scaly -- lining to the die-off.
Mark Tonello, a fisheries biologist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, said a multi-billion dollar sport fishing industry depends on healthy alewife populations to feed salmon prized by fishermen. He said unseasonably cold water killed the alewives that washed on Frankfort’s shores Wednesday and Thursday -- and in other ports such as Manistee within the past month -- but the size of the die-off in fact is a good sign for Lake Michigan fisheries.
“We’re very glad we got a good alewife class this year,” he said.
Frankfort Public Works crews spent Thursday cleaning the shoreline at Lake Michigan Beach. City Superintendent Josh Mills said it was the first major alewife die-off to wash ashore in about seven years. He said the job was nothing more than a scheduling inconvenience for city workers.
“If you went to the beach today, you’d never know (alewives) were there,” he said.
Tonello said reports of alewife die-offs this week have come from as far south as Manistee and Ludington, but seem concentrated in the Frankfort beach areas.
Alewives first came into the Great Lakes through the St. Lawrence Seaway in the 1940s and thrived in waters devastated by over-fishing. Tonello said they died on beaches by the “trillions” in the 1950s and ‘60s until salmon were introduced into the waters.
“Now, they’re very valuable,” he said. “Without them, we wouldn’t have a salmon fishery.”
Kent Lockwood, owner of Day Away Charter Fishing in Frankfort, said salmon season is later than usual this year, but business has picked up after a slow start.
“It’s my prediction they will show up,” he said. “They’re just a little later.”