With the Tri-Cities being a tourist destination, we know more than others how important our bodies of water are. Our lakes and rivers draw countless residents and tourists with their natural beauty, sustain life for humans and animals alike, and facilitate trade.
We tend to take resources like Spring Lake, the Grand River and Lake Michigan for granted, but I believe doing so is a mistake. Looking to history can show us how many people are directly linked to the well-being of our waterways.
One of the earliest industries in the Tri-Cities was commercial fishing. With Grand Haven being located where the Grand River empties into Lake Michigan made it a natural fishing hub.
In the 1850s, Abraham Visser and two of his brothers arrived in Grand Haven and began fishing. Within their first year, they produced 2,500 barrels of fish and Grand Haven was well on its way to becoming an established fishing port. By the 1880s, Grand Haven was one of the largest fishing ports in Michigan and commercial fishing continued to thrive into the beginning of the 20th century.
However, in the 1930s, there was an environmental change that would eventually make the commercial fishing industry a mere shadow of its former self — the arrival of the sea lamprey. When the parasitic sea lamprey arrived in Lake Michigan in 1936, it didn’t waste any time killing fish like lake trout and lake whitefish. At their peak, sea lamprey attacked roughly 85 percent of the fish in Lake Michigan and nearly wiped out the entire lake trout population.
The devastation of native fish species directly affected the commercial fishing industry, which was suddenly struggling to bring in enough fish. Many fisherman could not afford to stay in business.
With Lake Michigan’s main predator, the lake trout, at record low population, yet another invasive species arrived and further changed the ecosystem of the lake. With limited predators to control their numbers, the alewife population skyrocketed. Eventually, Lake Michigan could not support the massive amounts of alewives and, as a result, thousands of tons of dead alewives washed up on the shores of Lake Michigan. These dead fish obviously had a huge impact on the tourism industry, since most people don’t enjoy sunbathing on a stench-ridden beach with a pile of dead fish.
Unfortunately, the alewife situation only made things worse for commercial fisherman. The populations of fish targeted by commercial fishermen were at all-time lows and fishermen continued to leave the business.
By the 1960s, the Department of Natural Resources had a crisis on their hands with a huge alewife population and no way to control it. The DNR ended up making a drastic decision to introduce chinook salmon and coho salmon into Lake Michigan, effectively changing it from a commercial fishery to a sport fishery.
Since this shift to a sport fishery, the DNR has not offered any new commercial fishing licenses and, if a license is not renewed, it is gone forever. As a result, there are only a handful of licensed commercial fishermen remaining on Lake Michigan.
Lake Michigan today is radically different than it was 100 years ago. Restoring the diversity of fish species in the lake is an impossible task. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality already has regulations in place to control ballast water discharge from ocean-going freighters on the Great Lakes, but there are also ways you can help prevent the spread of invasive species. By making sure to clean, drain and dry your boat and equipment when you’re out on Michigan’s lakes and streams, you can help contain the spread of invasive species.
I encourage all of you to help protect our lakes, rivers and streams, because they are vital assets for our community and our state.
To learn more about the history of commercial fishing in the Tri-Cities, check out the new “Fish Stories” exhibit at the Tri-Cities Historical Museum. The museum is located at 200 Washington Ave. in Grand Haven, and is open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays from 12-5 p.m.
— Mike VerHulst is the exhibits facilitator for the Tri-Cities Historical Museum in Grand Haven.