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Fish of the Great Lakes
Nature Bulletin No. 295-A   February 24, 1968
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Richard B. Ogilvie, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

As you stand at the top of one of the tallest buildings in downtown Chicago and look north, west and south over the city that stretches to the horizon like a gigantic checkerboard, it is hard to imagine how this place must have looked when the first white man came. To the east, however, lies Lake Michigan -- just as it was a thousand years ago except for man-made changes along its shoreline. Because of this enduring character, it is natural to suppose that the fish populations of the Great Lakes have stayed about the same. This is far from the truth.

The Great Lakes form the largest body of fresh water in the world and, in addition to being vital for transportation, are our richest source of freshwater fishes for commerce and for recreation. Lake Michigan is the only one lying entirely within the United States. With the control of fishing divided between the various states and Canadian provinces that border on these lakes, there have been bad management, drastic changes in the fish populations, and serious depletion of their yield. Inadequate protection, overfishing and unwise fishing, including destruction of too many small immature fish, have been greatly responsible. Fish diseases, bad pollution, and invasions of the lakes above Niagara Falls by the smelt, the alewife and the sea lamprey, have had far-reaching effects. Certain species, once abundant, like the Sturgeon, Cisco, and some of the seven species of Chubs, have become uncommon.

The total commercial catch in all of the lakes is about 100 million pounds per year. Our nation's share supplied by more than 5000 fishermen and 2000 boats -- makes up more than half of the total yield of the freshwater fishing industry in the United States. Further, virtually all of the choice high-priced varieties come from these lakes. These include Lake Trout, Whitefish, Lake Herring, Chubs, Blue Pike, Yellow or Wall-eyed Pike, Sauger, Yellow Perch and Catfish. Suckers, Bullheads, Carp, Burbot and White Bass are also caught for market. In addition, the Great Lakes furnish fine sport fishing to hundreds of thousands of anglers who get bigger average catches than in other inland waters.

The Great Lakes provide a wide variety of habitats for fish. In general, the shallower waters have the largest variety of species and yield the greatest catches. Thus Lake Erie, the shallowest, was the most productive and the home of over fifty kinds. Lake trout and chubs prefer the deeper water of other lakes which reach depths of 700 feet or more, but the inshore waters and bays of such lakes yield the bulk of the catch.

Although the white fish is called "the king of freshwater fishes", the lake trout is the most valuable. It has become a popular sport fish for "deep-sea" trollers and formerly yielded millions of pounds to net fishermen. In recent years, however, the spread of the parasitic sea lamprey almost wiped out this excellent fish in Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, and threatened it in Lake Superior. The whitefish has suffered serious overfishing and urgently needs wise management. Too many are caught before they are large enough to spawn. The herrings and chubs make up almost a quarter of the total annual catch of all fish but they, too, have been treated wastefully.

Most people are familiar with the smelt and its stiking history since it was planted in Crystal Lake, Michigan, in 1906. It escaped into Lake Michigan, multiplied until 12 million pounds were taken in 1940, and then almost disappeared in 1942-43, due to an unknown epidemic disease. Now it is again increasing.

All that stinks is not smelt.

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