TRAVERSE CITY — The best way to support Great Lakes fisheries is to eat Great Lakes fish.
That’s the argument from Matt Herbert, aquatic ecologist with The Nature Conservancy, who spoke to several dozen conservation-minded folks this week during an educational program on Old Mission Peninsula.
He specifically endorses smoked whitefish paté, he said while chuckling and patting his stomach.
Herbert said he advocates for the benefits of a more diverse population of fish species and pointed to specific successful projects in Lake Michigan which others may attempt to replicate.
“What we want to see is more diverse prey fish out there,” he said during the Thursday evening event at The Peninsula Room on West Grand Traverse Bay.
The aquatic ecologist discussed the history of Great Lakes fisheries, including the impacts from logging and over-fishing in past centuries, as well as the current crisis of invasive species altering the ecosystem — particularly sea lamprey and both zebra and quagga mussels.
In Lake Michigan, lake trout is the top predator fish, a population that records show never really recovered from the effects of invasive sea lampreys’ appearance in the 1950s, even with bolstered numbers.
“It was a very heavy toll on lake trout,” he said. “We’ve been stocking lake trout since the 1960s.”
The whitefish population also crashed at the same time as lake trout, but since responded well to lamprey control efforts and the numbers returned to somewhat normal, Herbert said.
“We have this great whitefish population, but we’ve had some concerns in recent years,” he said.
Surveys show that in recent years whitefish numbers are dramatically down in Lake Huron and somewhat down in Lake Michigan, while the species is holding strong and steady in Lake Superior.
One highlight is a thriving whitefish population on Lake Michigan’s western shore in Green Bay, where the fish are now using rivers to spawn — including the Fox River long-known for pollution and water quality issues.
“Why can’t we see something like this on our side,” Herbert said, especially since Michigan’s rivers that spill into Lake Michigan historically supported whitefish spawning runs.
He said another successful effort is the spawning reef habitat restoration in both Grand and Little Traverse bays, where “piles of cobble” have been created at or near the water’s surface. Lake herring, whitefish and lake trout all make use of spawning reefs, where eggs sink and settle into little spaces and nooks, thus gaining protection from harsh weather and predators.
The restored reefs offshore from Elk Rapids are showing good improvements in egg survival, Herbert said.
Herbert also suggested a stocking program in Lake Michigan for kiyi cisco, a specific type of lake herring or chub. He said it may help boost the diversity of prey fishes in the Great Lakes.
He has studied the Lake Michigan cisco population in recent winters in partnership with a commercial tribal fisherman.
Now he suggests a more abundant cisco population would address lake trout dietary issues and perhaps even help reverse the whitefish decline.
Several members of the audience asked questions, including Scott Dean of Traverse City. He wanted to know if Herbert is concerned invasive mussels may take over the newly rehabilitated spawning reefs in which the nonprofit organization just invested.
“They get beat up a lot by waves,” Herbert said, which helps prevent mussels from grasping onto the rocks.
Steve Lockman of Traverse City asked whether invasive Asian carp are already invading the Great Lakes, while Buck Drew of Onekema asked how to halt the spread of those undesired fishes.
Herbert said there is no evidence of significant populations of Asian carp in the Great Lakes, at least when it comes to silver and bighead carp. Grass carp have been found in Lake Erie, though.
The ecologist said the best way to beat back the threat of those invasive species is to prevent them from getting through a lock and dam barrier in Illinois, not far from the connection to Lake Michigan in Chicago.
“That’s the thing, to keep them from coming in that location,” Herbert said.
In addition to the discussion of Great Lakes fisheries, Helen Taylor, The Nature Conservancy’s Michigan state director, spoke during the event about the organization’s focus areas and progress in its ongoing $95 million campaign.
Taylor said the organization’s goals are to tackle climate change, pursue sustainable food and water, protect land and water, and build healthy cities.