I’ve had a few people ask me if I know anything about all the dead fish along our Old Mission Peninsula shorelines. I figured they were probably alewives, but that’s as far as my knowledge about them went.
Yesterday, I stopped by the Bowers Harbor Boat Launch to get a picture of the sunset, and sure enough, all along the shoreline were dead fish. Not only dead fish, but that lovely dead-fish aroma and the flies that go along with such.
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I’ll swing by Haserot Beach today and report back on whether they’re rampant along the shoreline there, too.
After a bit of Googling, I found a story that Grace George wrote for the Traverse City Record-Eagle a few weeks ago.
Grace checked in with Heather Hettinger, a Traverse City-based DNR fisheries management biologist, who said her office has been getting lots of calls about the dead fish. Heather says “this mass mortality event is just part of the alewife’s life cycle in Lake Michigan.”
In the Spring, alewives come to the shorelines to spawn. As the snow and ice thaw, we get these quick shifts in temperature, and alewives can’t properly regulate their body temperature, causing them to die off in large numbers. (According to this story from the Watershed Council, alewives are actually saltwater fish native to ocean environments. They were first seen in Lake Ontario in the late 1800s and next in Lake Erie in the 1930s. Since then, populations have expanded to all the Great Lakes.)
Grace writes, “The Michigan DNR began stocking salmon in Lake Michigan in the late 1960s to manage the alewife population and create a sport fishery. Soon after, the lake’s alewife population began to shrink, as did the piles of dead fish on the beach in the spring, as the salmon consumed them.”
Jay Wesley, DNR Lake Michigan Basin Coordinator, says this is the biggest alewife die-off he’s seen in the past ten years.
“The alewife population was at a historic low in 2015 and has increased some in recent years,” he wrote in an email for the Record-Eagle story. “These die-offs are minuscule compared to what we would see in the 1950s through the 1990s.”
That comment sparked my memory. I was born in 1960 and have lived along the shores of the Old Mission Peninsula my entire life. Now that I think about it, I do remember swaths of dead fish when I was a youngster, to the point – as Heather said in the story – that they’d have to bring in heavy equipment to haul the fish away.
But she also notes that fish like chinook salmon, coho salmon, steelhead and brown trout eat the alewives as part of their diet.
My question is, will they eat the dead fish, or only while they’re swimming around alive in the water? If you know, feel free to answer in the comments section below.
By the way, here’s the sunset photo I took that same night. You can see the alewives in the water. I walked out to the end of the dock at the boat launch and then quickly retreated to my car and put my windows up.