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Most people agree salmon make for good eating. But did you know that these fish also help keep our environment free from invasive species?

MENOMINEE, Mich.—Noreen Johnson remembers riding the bus as a little girl into the town of Menominee during the 1950s and ‘60s. It was a long, bumpy drive, but every mile or so, she’d see a familiar face she knew from the docks.

“We would know the boats, and there would be nets out in the water,” Johnson said. “That was just the way it had been out here for a long time, since the 1880s.”

Commercial fishers lined this main drive in the southwestern Upper Peninsula. For so many, fishing was a way of living, and Johnson was in that number. Her mother’s family was full of commercial fishers, dating back generations.

Raised Catholic, Johnson and her family sat down every Friday night to enjoy a freshly fried plate of fish. Back then, perch cost 50 cents a pound, sold by neighbors. Now, it’s $15 a pound, if you’re lucky enough to get it.

“We would say to my mom, ‘Oh no! Perch again?” Johnson said.

But now looking back on it, Johnson remembers those days fondly, perch and all. In fact, those formative years mean so much to her that she became president of the all-volunteer West Shore Fishing Museum, which tracks Michigan’s proud history of commercial fishing. The museum features exhibits of fishing nets, retired commercial boats, and historical artifacts.

“The Great Lakes fed a good bit of the United States,” Johnson said. “It was cheaper than meat to buy.”

Since that time, Michigan’s fishing culture has changed dramatically. Overfishing, habitat loss, and invasive species wrecked native fish populations in the Great Lakes.

An ovalish, silvery fish from the Atlantic, alewives navigated through canals built to facilitate shipping traffic around the Niagara Falls. Effectively, those canals connected the species of the Atlantic seaboard and Lake Ontario to the rest of the Great Lakes, whereas before, Niagara Falls had played the role of habitat gatekeeper.

The alewife problem once became so bad in Michigan that they would wash up in droves at Sleeping Bear Dunes, creating such a bad stench and contamination that they drove people away.

Closely stalking the alewife, fortunately, were Atlantic salmon, a natural predator. After alewife populations had overwhelmed the Great Lakes ecosystem, the state contemplated the best way to balance out the food chain. 

In the late 1960s, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources hatched an idea. The department introduced Pacific salmon to rivers, with the hope that the natural predators would swim up to the lakes, clear out much of the alewife, and make room for lake trout’s resurgence. 

That program has not only continued but grown over the years, and it’s been quite successful.

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The Salmon Runs

On the Platte River, early October is primetime to see salmon darting and projecting through the water, scales glimmering with the sun’s glare peeking through the hills in the east. Up above, autumn leaves glide to the ground and into the cruising current. Bald eagles line the scantily clad branches, and if their eyes spot the right reflection, they might swoop down to scoop up their dinner.

“This time of year is obviously very exciting for us with all the salmon returning,” said Paul Stowe, natural resources manager at the Platte River State Fish Hatchery.

The Great Lakes region and surrounding rivers are now home to four species of salmon—Atlantic, Chinook, Coho, and Pinks. Many of their lives begin at the Platte River Hatchery. More than 120,000 pounds of fish are raised annually here, and hungry adolescents they are, they feast away until they’re ready to grow up.

After salmon venture out to the lakes to feed, they return home to the river to spawn—the final act, for most species, before they die.

“We’re glorified fish farmers, and I don’t mind farming, either,” Stowe, who raises chickens on the side, said.

Salmon all have a basic lifecycle in common, though Pacific and Atlantic salmon mature at different rates and have different lifespans.

When they’re very young, salmon grow up in the water gravel. Then as they grow, they learn to eat more, becoming swim-up fries as they move upstream, programmed by Mother Nature to find the open water. Their major, somewhat pubescent, transformation comes as a smolt, when they grow into their silvery, reflective scales and have officially eaten enough to head to open water.

Along the Platte River, two weirs, or small dams that divert water, greet the fish on their voyage to the Great Lakes. Herding them to a fish ladder and maturation ponds, officials count their numbers to be sure they’re not clearing too many or too few for entry.

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In the Open Water

Once in the open water, the salmon swim and feed, at the same time controlling the numbers of invasive species. Even if that underlying motive isn’t clear to them, they’re some of the Great Lakes’ best bounty hunters.

“We don’t have the alewife problems that we used to, partially because of the stocking,” Stowe said.

But out on the water, they have a dual purpose—people like to hunt them as well, for their rich, distinctively hued meat. Michigan’s salmon industry has boomed, and many recreational fishers and fishing charters hit the water to get a prized catch. 

Recreational anglers and commercial fishers have historically butted heads. Now, Michigan has only about 50 commercial fishers, down from a peak of thousands, and not all of the current ones even use their license.

Johnson thinks it’s a missed opportunity—that there are fish to be caught. Commercial fishing was a main industry for the 1950s and 1960s Menominee that she grew up in. Many of these licenses are awarded to tribal entities, based off original treaties.

But recreational fishers and commercial fishers have one thing in common, Stowe said. That is, they like to catch fish. The DNR is in favor of that too, so long as it doesn’t risk numbers.

“One thing’s definitely in common with all anglers: A lot of them are just looking to get out there and have a positive outdoors experience. Hopefully, catch a fish,” Stowe said.

Stowe likes to go out on the water himself, and some of his favorite moments on the job are when people ask where the fish are headed. When the answer is a river nearby them, they usually get excited, he said.

For Stowe, the pride in his job comes from seeing his fish reach the open water. Having raised them from small-fry up through smolting, he’s a proud papa.

“Most all of us fish culturists say that releasing your finished product, when you’re all done with the cycle at the hatchery…, is pretty great,” Stowe said. “A lot of people see those trucks and they want to see what’s being stocked in their neck of the woods.” 

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