History of Fishing on the Great Lakes Part 2
Dec 3, 2019 | 6 minute read Comments
Reading Time: 6 minutes

The age-long history of fishing on the Great Lakes is as awe-inspiring as the lakes themselves. In the early days, local Native American tribes fished the Great Lakes for survival. Later on, commercial fishing emerged as a new industry creating business and income for the locals. But it came with a hefty price. At the start of the 20th century, things were looking grim for the Great Lakes fish population. Decades of overfishing decimated the lakes. But one man’s vision was about to change it all.

areal view of lake superior

This is part two of our two-part history of fishing on the Great Lakes series. If you haven’t checked out part one, click here.

Big Problem – Big Solution

In the early 1900s, regulators were struggling to establish the exact size of a local fish population. For this reason, they weren’t really able to set meaningful restrictions on the growing commercial fishing industry. The resource was being over-exploited.

This was not the only issue, though. Building sawmills and other facilities caused water pollution and restricted access to spawning grounds in the lakes’ tributaries. A number of local fish species started to decline. And then, the real trouble started.

The Problem

During the 1930s, a new invasive species started to show up in the Great Lakes. This was the infamous alewife, a type of herring native to the Atlantic Ocean.

Similar to Salmon, alewives have a saltwater feeding and a freshwater spawning life cycle. Searching for plankton and smaller fish to feed on, the alewives first made their way to Lake Ontario, then passed the Welland Canal to make their first appearance in Lake Erie.

The alewives essentially swapped their Atlantic feeding grounds for the Great Lakes. In Lake Michigan and Lake Huron particularly, they caused devastation on a scale never seen before. But they wouldn’t have been able to cause such wreckage on their own.

In the 1950s, as the alewife population started to swell, a new invasive species appeared. This was the sea lamprey, an eel-like, blood-sucking parasite known for its gruesome rings of teeth. Lampreys feed by swimming up alongside their prey and then clamping down onto the fish with suction-cup mouths.

a sea lamprey

The alewives had only one natural predator – Lake Trout.  As luck would have it, lamprey’s favorite target was this very animal. With Lake Trout out of the way, the alewives were left to ravage the smaller Great Lakes fish unchecked.

Ravaging as they were, the alewives weren’t native to the Great Lakes. They had no mechanism to withstand the Lakes’ wild temperature swings. This led to billions of fish dying off, contaminating urban drinking water, and overwhelming entire beaches with the smell of rotting fish.

As the 1960s rolled on, lake scientists finally had a breakthrough. They devised a lamprey-targeting toxin, and introduced it into their river spawning grounds. The poison proved very effective, however, the damage was already done.

The Solution

Biologists began stocking Lake Trout, but they knew that with its 20-year life span, mitigating the alewife population was going to be a challenge. A faster solution was needed. In comes Howard Tanner, a man who has probably had more influence on the Great Lakes than any other person on the planet.  

A Michigan native, Tanner fished for Brook Trout of Jordan River since the age of five. By the time he was 15, he was already running guided trips on the river. By age 29, he had a PhD in fisheries biology, and was a World War II veteran.

The year was 1964, and concern about the Great Lakes fisheries had reached a high pitch. At that time, Howard Tanner worked as chief of fisheries research in Colorado. He got a phone call from his home university, offering him to become chief of fisheries in Michigan. It probably wasn’t the money, or even the fact that he would be closer to his family, that drew him to accept.

The largest natural lake in Colorado is a one-square-mile pond called Grand Lake. The largest artificial lakes of the time might have been bigger, but they were still puddles compared to any of the Great Lakes. This is what Tanner couldn’t say no to – taking care of such a vast expanse was a once in a lifetime opportunity.

lake michigan lighhouse

The Western approach to fisheries management was completely different from how things were done in the East, though. A huge number of western bodies of water were man-made water basins, where scientists created entire ecosystems from scratch. This approach gave Tanner a unique perspective on the Great Lakes situation. Where most could only see a natural disaster, Tanner saw an opportunity.

And there was another thing. Up until then, boat fishing on the Great Lakes had been the domain of the commercial fishing industry. Recreational fishers kept mostly to piers and shorelines, going for Whitefish and Perch. Lake Trout might have been the dread of most native fish, but it was pretty feeble when it came to battling anglers, and didn’t make for attractive game.

a lake trout held by an angler

The two notions gave Tanner a unique idea. He could construct a whole new ecosystem. One that would resurrect the old one, as well as bring thousands of anglers the Great Lakes. How did he do it?

Tanner realized that the perfect way to deal with the festering alewives was to introduce a natural predator into their midst. The best part was, he could also turn the lakes into a sportfisher’s paradise in the same stride. In his mind, one fish was up to the task more than any other: Pacific Salmon.

The only problem was finding the eggs. Tanner knew how hard this was to do from his days in Colorado. Luckily, biologists had concocted a new type of dry pellet to feed baby Salmon, precisely at that time. Stocking fish was about to change completely, nation-wide. Soon after, Tanner learned that the state of Oregon fisheries department had Coho Salmon eggs to spare.

coho salmon eggs

One phone call later, a million Coho eggs were on their way to Michigan.

The experiment worked like a charm. As soon as Coho established a foothold in the lakes, they started feasting on the alewives, and the entire ecosystem started to slowly rebound. Soon after, Tanner and his colleagues started introducing other species of fish. Thanks to them, the Great Lakes have become a multi-million dollar recreational fishery.

The Outcome

Nowadays, the alewives are all but gone. With no food source, the Salmon population has started to dwindle, and scientists no longer see the need to continue stocking them. But this is not a bad thing.

What’s actually happening is that the Great Lakes are finally starting to return to their natural state. With the invasive species gone, Lake Trout and Walleye are coming back, and Whitefish is as abundant as ever. This is the ultimate success of Howard Tanner’s plan. But that’s not all.

In 2012, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service estimated the annual net value of the recreational fishing industry on the Great Lakes to be somewhere between $393 million and $1.47 billion.

These were just some of the stories about the history of fishing on the Great Lakes. You could spend a lifetime exploring all the adventures this place has witnessed. Through fishing and storytelling, the legacy of fishing on the Great Lakes lives to this day. And may it continue for many years to come.

sunset on the great lakes

What do you think about the history of fishing on the Great Lakes? Do you have a part of its history you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments below.

Rather be fishing?

Get great fishing tips, travel inspiration, and fun facts straight to your inbox, once a week, every week.
Invalid email address This email address is already subscribed

Something went wrong!

Unfortunately we can't subscribe you at this moment due to a system error. Please try again later.
Comments (4)
  • Tommy

    Apr 11, 2019

    Hi i am researching other fishing blogs for a class project and i like your blogs and am wondering if you can help me out.

    Leave a reply
    NameRequired *
    Your comment Required *

    • Reply icon


      Apr 12, 2019

      Hey Tommy,

      Thanks for reading, I’m glad you like the blog.

      Sure, what would you like to know?

      Looking forward to your reply.

      Leave a reply
      NameRequired *
      Your comment Required *

  • Ron

    Jul 26, 2020

    when indicating that the lakes are returning to their natural state, you mischaracterized completely what is happening. The alewife population crashed because there is no food in the water (plankton) for them to feed on. That is because it is all being eaten by other invasive species (zebra and quagga mussels). Fortunately, the mussels are now being eaten by yet another invasive species (gobies) that the the native fish (lake trout, etc…) actually eat. The reason the value of the recreational fishery is so large is indeed due to Tanner, because it is driven by the salmon fishery, which is now flagging in the face of the demise of the alewife. Thus, the future is not necessarily bright because it is unclear that the salmon will adapt to eat the gobies which is a bottom species, whereas the salmon, which is a pelagic species, feeds up in the water column where the alewives reside. I realize you are writing this as a bit of a summary, but you leave the impression that the lake is returning to its natural state and the future of the billion dollar recreational industry is bright. The reality is that the lake is nothing like its natural state and that native fish are doing well is a matter of happenstance. On the other hand, the future of the salmon, the non-native driver of the recreational fishing industry, is at best cloudy.

    Leave a reply
    NameRequired *
    Your comment Required *

    • Reply icon


      Jul 27, 2020

      Hi Ron,

      Thanks for sharing, that is some very insightful information.

      As you pointed out, we did try to provide a summary of how the Great Lakes fisheries have changed over the last century, particularly through the story of Howard Tanner and his efforts. If we condensed the timeline too much there at the end, we apologize.

      Just to make a distinction for our other readers, the alewife population decline we mentioned in the text occurred between the 60s and 80s. I believe you’re referring to what happened in the early 2000s, when invasive species such as the zebra and quagga mussels started competing with the alewives for food.

      You are completely correct in saying that the future of the Great Lakes fisheries is uncertain. It remains to be seen whether Salmon will adapt to eat another species. In the absence of alewives, however, native species like Yellow Perch, Whitefish and Lake Trout will hopefully have an opportunity to bounce back. Only time will tell.

      Thanks again for sharing, and have a great day!

      Leave a reply
      NameRequired *
      Your comment Required *

    Leave a reply
    NameRequired *
    Your comment Required *