What will happen to the fish of many names?
By STEWART A. MCFERRAN
Of all the natural resources Michigan has been blessed with, the one that is perhaps the most valuable and dear to the heart is fish. Ask any fishers – men, women or children – why they love to go fishing, why they love catching fish, and you will find that it is not just for recreation, it is a labor of love.
One group of fish, perhaps more special than all the rest, is called Coregonus. This sub-family of the salmons, known as whitefish, is said to have at least 68 different types. Special in value and special in kind as natives, they are also known as cisco. The ciscoes are valuable as food for larger fish, such as Lake Trout, Walleye and Northern Pike, and for humans who harvest them commercially.
There are said to be nine kinds of cisco found in the Great Lakes. Known by many names, the Great Lakes ciscoes are part of a larger group that circles the arctic. They are a family that swims with salmon of northern countries like Finland, Norway and Russia. There are the Hoyi and the Artidi. The Blackfin, Shortnose and the Pygme whitefish. The mooneye and kiyi, chub and zenithicus.
Each niche has its own kind, and anglers in different regions have their own names for the catch, as do the scientists who study coregonids. A staple of the Great Lakes fisheries, this native group includes the lake whitefish (coregonus cupliaformies), a wild-caught fish still found in supermarkets, either ready to cook or already smoked. It has been a staple of the Great Lakes commercial fishery for hundreds of years.
All the Great Lakes had a mix of coregonids that teemed in the lakes. But the lake whitefish are all but gone in the southern lakes: Erie, Ontario and southern Lake Michigan. Habitat degradation, due to development and pollution, overfishing, and invasive, non-native species – such as sea lamprey and rainbow smelt – have taken a toll on this group. Zebra and quagga mussels have filtered the small creatures coregonids love.
Many of the nine persist, nonetheless. They still thrive in the deepest, darkest wells of the biggest lakes in North America. The coregonids have hidden reserves and there is a conservation effort under way.
Titus Seilheimer, Ph.D., of the Michigan Sea Grant program, provided the following figures, a comparison of coregonids and salmon caught in Lake Michigan over similar periods of time:
● Coregonids, 1879-1920: 14 million pounds per year
(Great Lakes Fisheries Commission data)
● Salmon, 1986-2019: 5 million pounds per year
(Legler Salmonid Working Group, Predator-Prey Ratio Model)
These figures show the historic importance of the Coregonus group and may inform future decisions.
So, what is being done to protect this community of fishes?
The Great Lakes Cisco Wildlife Action Plan (2015-2025) has partners at Central Michigan University, the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, MDNR and the Nature Conservancy. Additionally, there is a small but dedicated group of researchers that study and work to preserve the Coregonus group: Titus Seilheimer, Ph.D., Biology, University of Wisconsin–Madison; Dr. Ellen George, Ph.D., Adjunct Professor, Jefferson Community College, Waterton, N.Y.; Cory O. Brant, Ph.D., of the U.S. Geological Survey Great Lakes Science Center, in Ann Arbor, and the bi-national Great Lakes Fishery Commission. For the trio, it is a labor of love. You can tell by their Tweets and the t-shirts they wear.
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources has the difficult job of managing fisheries’ resources. They have worked with their Tribal partners for more than 20 years. Together, they decide who gets to catch which fishes. The Tribal treaty that was signed in 1836 guides them, as does the federal government.
The 2000 Consent Decree
The fisheries resource was divvied up 20 years ago with the consent of stakeholders: the DNR, tribes and sportsmen.
That 20-year agreement expires in August. New rules about who may catch what fish need to be re-established by then. Negotiations are happening now.
But the decline of the Coregonus group has continued for 20 years since that agreement was made. Sports fish available to catch by hook and line have also declined in that time. The fisheries’ resource “pie” is smaller than it was when the agreement was signed. All stakeholders are bound to get a smaller piece of the pie by August.
The decision-makers are representatives from the State of Michigan, five tribes and the federal government. They meet in secrecy, in various locations, and are tight-lipped about the process and outcomes. What will this group decree in August? Whatever they decide will be reflected in the manual of fishing regulations provided with every fishing license. Commercial fishers will also feel the effect of the decision.
Just how are we to proceed with the “allocation, management, and regulation of State and Tribal fisheries in the 1836 Treaty waters of the Great Lakes,” as outlined in the 2000 Consent Decree?
The restoration of native coregonids is a course of action that will surely be on the table, as well as consideration of all other fish that make up one of our most beloved resources. The Chippewa-Ottawa Resource Authority, a group of five fishing tribes of the 1836 Treaty, will consider this, and a host of other issues, before publishing the agreement next month.
Stewart A. McFerran worked as a deck hand for Lang Fisheries in Leland. With Captain Ross Lang, he fished for Coregonus hoyi and Coregonus clupeaformis.
Name that whitefish and cisco sidebar
Cory O. Brant, Ph.D., of the U.S. Geological Survey Great Lakes Science Center, in Ann Arbor, and of the bi-national Great Lakes Fishery Commission, provided us with his list of the various whitefish and ciscoes:
1) cisco, a.k.a. lake herring (Coregonus artedi),
2) bloater (C. hoyi),
3) Kiyi (C. kiyi),
4) deepwater cisco (C. johannae),
5) blackfin cisco (C. nigripinnis),
6) shortnose cisco (C. reighardi),
7) shortjaw cisco (C. zenithicus),
8) lake whitefish (C. clupeaformis),
9) Lake Superior’s pygmy whitefish (Prosopium coulterii), and
10) round whitefish, a.k.a. menominee, (P. cylindraceum).
“Whitefish and ciscoes are lumped in the same genus (Coregonus), while pygmy and round whitefish are a distinct genus (Prosopium) – still not sure why!” Brant said. “C. johannae and C. reighardi are currently reported as extinct.”