Fish of the Past Poised for Comeback in Lake Michigan

Kevin Donner, a scientist with the Little Traverse Bay Band of Ottawa Indians (LTBB), devotes a large part of his career, and most of his twitter, to what was in Lake Michigan until recently a forgotten fish. “The Cisco was one of those animals central to tribal existence,” Donner said. “But if you’d asked two to three years ago, I’d say they’re pretty much gone.” However, recent shifts in the lake’s ecology have favored the Cisco. “Our work has been able to show that they are more widespread and actively recruiting. There’s a real chance to help these populations recover through human intervention,” Donner said. As Donner and his small team study the reemerging Cisco, fisheries and scientists are gathering to discuss how they can best help the fragile fish.

According to Tracy Galarowicz, a fisheries biologist at Central Michigan University, recovery of Cisco, “could revitalize Lake Michigan fishing.” Before their population collapsed in the 1950s, it was common to have seasons where more Cisco were reeled in than all other fish put together. Lake Michigan charter fishing alone produced over $280 million in gross sales from 1990-2009, and provided 6,288,230 hours of work, more revenue and employment than all other Great Lakes combined. In 2013, Lake Michigan commercial fisheries produced over $1.5 million in dockside sales, the second most of any great lake. While the plan for future Cisco recovery will likely involve stocking, scientists have already found success in restoring the Cisco’s habitat.
Cisco are known to spawn in the shallow reefs that line coastal areas, making them particularly vulnerable to external stresses. “Over the years, human activity has been degraded the Cisco’s habitat,” said Galarowicz, “harming their ability to reproduce.” In the summer of 2015, Galarowicz helped head a Nature Conservancy project in Traverse Bay to restore one of these damaged reefs, strategically placing 450 tons of rock in the lake. “The reef is now as successful as any other,” Galarowicz said. “We saw native species return in just a couple months.”

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Tracy Galarowicz addresses the Mt. Pleasant Audubon Society

Tribes license most of Lake Michigan’s commercial fishing operations, tying tribal communities especially close to the issue. “If you went around to the fish houses here until the 1960s, they would tell you the Cisco drove them,” said Donner. Today, these fish houses collect almost exclusively whitefish, which Donner says is worrisome. “Anytime you rely on just one species, you are putting yourself at risk ecologically.” For Donner and the LTBB, the Cisco’s value expands beyond economic stability. “The tribes have a spiritual connection to these animals,” Donner said. “A big part of tribal culture, starting with the creation stories, focuses on native species.” As a result of these economic and cultural influences, tribal fisheries have expressed a particular interest in the restoration effort.

Sara Adlerstein-Gonzalez, an applied ecologist at University of Michigan, is the Principal Investigator of the Michigan Sea Grant restoration. “The tribes are at the forefront of the restoration discussion,” she said. Ultimately, Adlerstein-Gonzalez says, her role is not to make the decisions regarding the restoration, but to “provide background information for how stakeholders want to go about it,” meaning the tribal fisheries will play a central role in the project’s outcome.

Despite a shared desire for the fish’s recovery, neither fisheries or scientists agree on how to best carry it out.  “The number one threat to Cisco are competing agency objectives,” said Donner. “Different agencies take wildly different approaches.” The biggest question, according to Donner, is “whether to stock native species, or whether to bring in Cisco from other lakes.” There’s a chance the shallow water Cisco that remain would not be a viable population to rely on, Donner said, because the lake may have shifted too far from its original state. “In the last 25 years,” said Donner, “the entire ecosystem has flipped on its head.” But new Cisco could bring with them unforeseen harm, an effect Adlerstein-Gonzalez says is an inherent risk with introducing non-native species. “If it’s true they still have a chance,” she said, “I would preserve the natives.”

In addition to this question, some fisheries are concerned that Cisco stocking could hurt their business by taking up space in hatcheries. This is especially true when it comes to Lake Michigan’s top sport fish, Salmon. According to Adlerstein-Gonzalez, however, “the stocking of Salmon is not what is driving population abundance, food availability is.” In fact, as the population of Alewife, the Salmon’s current prey fish collapses, according to Donner there’s a chance Cisco may be a crucial replacement. “A healthy Cisco population could be a way to maintain Salmon moving forward,” he said.

The success of the restoration effort is also subject to environmental changes. Invasive species were one of the stresses that first devastated the Cisco population, and aquatic invaders are colonizing the Great Lakes all the time. “We keep asking ourselves, what will be the next invasive species,” said Galarowicz. Another threat to the Cisco could come from climate change. “In general, over the past 60 years, the coverage of cold air has been shrinking, and lake ice has been reduced,” said Frank Marsik, a climate scientist and meteorologist at the University of Michigan. Cisco eggs rely on solid lake ice as protection from winter storms, and, “if the warming trend is to continue, that’s a problem for the Cisco,” said Marsik.

But while warming temperatures could threaten the Cisco, in truth, said Marsik, “it’s hard to say exactly how climate change will impact the lake.” This theme of uncertainty is one held by many involved with the restoration. “We know very little, so we should be more humble, and collaborate,” said Adlerstein-Gonzalez. “We don’t know what to expect if the Cisco food web comes back. Nobody really knows what the truth is.”

Nonetheless, the return of the Cisco would be one step closer to restoring Lake Michigan to its original function. “We are still in the early stages of this discussion,” said Donner, but the time for Cisco may be running out. “There’s a possibility the window of opportunity could disappear,” said Adlerstein-Gonzalez. But she is just one of many putting their backs behind the recovery, and for the first time in decades it appears that, with a push, the Cisco could have a chance in Lake Michigan. Galarowicz looks to the successful reef restoration as signal of hope. “I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I never thought we could go and change Lake Michigan.”

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