History Of The Lake Superior Fishery © Dave Sorenson
To the early French explorers it was Lake Superieur – the upper lake. Headwaters of the St. Lawrence River drainage and northernmost of the Laurentian Great Lakes. Lake Superior for many people lies above all other lakes, figuratively as well as physically.
A quarter mile at the deepest, Lake Superior’s 2,927 cubic miles of water are nearly as pure today as in 1765 when Father Claude Allouez saw clearly to a depth of six “brasses” – 32 feet.
In these early encounters, what came from these waters as a constant wonder. According to a Jesuit communication of the period, “A single fisherman will catch in one night 20 lake sturgeon’ or 150 whitefish, or 800 herring in one net.”
The explorer Pierre Radisson was no less astonished by the resources of Chequamegon Bay. “In that bay,” he wrote, “there is a channel where we took stores of fishes, sturgeons of vast bigness, and Pycks seven feet long.”
For the Indian tribes fishing and hunting along its shores, Lake Superior and it’s fish were a boundless resource. To make their nets, the Indians twisted and knotted long strands taken from the fibrous inner bark of willow trees. Many gill nets were as long as present day tennis nets and twice the height.
As white men advanced into the region, the local tribes were easily persuaded to supply fish to the French and English outposts in exchange for guns and other barter.
In time the white settlers, themselves, turned to fishing. After 1820, fishing stations established by the fur companies, dotted the shores of Lake Superior. John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company was one of the first to discern profit in commercial fishing.
Eventually a combination of overharvesting and economic jitters depressed the market for fish, and subsequently the industry serving the market. A few years after the economic panic of 1837, many commercial fishing ventures failed. Large scale operations resumed around 1860.
Lake Superior fishermen did not venture far out into the lake from their home ports. Hampered by storms, long winters and small boats dependent on oar and sail, fishermen covered less than half the lake’s 31,820 square miles.
One of the first innovations in this limited shoreline fishery was the pound net – webbing attached to long poles and planted as a submerged wall at depths up to 40 feet. This extended barrier intercepted the fish, guiding them through a small entrance into an enclosed area. From this more or less permanent enclosure they could be scooped up with a smaller dip net.
Pound nets were first used at Whitefish Point in 1864, and then adopted in following years at other fishing sites around the lake. By 1885, there were 125 pound nets off the Apostle Islands alone. The arrival of steam power and larger boats on Lake Superior ended the shoreline fisherman’s hand-over-fist drudgery of retrieving nets. A new era was launched on the lake, and by 1890. Steam-powered drums were hauling up the heavy gill nets.
At the turn of the century, automatic gill net lifters made larger nets possible and fishing more efficient. Lake trout, superceding whitefish as the prime commercial catch, were now being caught both by gill nets and by trolling with a series of baited lines. For the next 50 years, this quality table fish comprised 50 to 60 percent of the economic worth of the Lake Superior catch.
During this long interval, generations of Great Lake fishermen gradually modernized their equipment. Linen gill nets were replaced by nets made of cotton – a softer and more elastic fiber. These in turn, gave way in the late 1940’s to nylon nets, which held up better in water and proved to be over twice as effective for catching legal sized trout and whitefish.
But the improved nets and powered equipment of the fishermen were no match for the ruthless competition of the sea lamprey. Making a shambles of Lake Michigan’s fishery during the 1940’s, this parasitic ocean fish was at the same time beginning to arrive in the upper lake. Many lamprey were attached to ships working their passage through the locks and canals of the St. Mary’s River.
By the mid-fifties, sea lamprey were well established in the eastern third of the lake and ominously present throughout. Lake Superior’s commercial harvest of lake trout dropped from 3.2 million pounds in 1951 to 2.1 million in 1955 to an insignificant 380,000 pounds in 1960.
During this period of severe sea lamprey predation, Lake Superior’s fish were subject to other pressures. Increased fish and efficiency of nylon nets are thought to have caused the decline of localized stocks of lake herring. By 1960, the lake herring industry at the western end of Lake Superior had collapsed.
An additional pressure on herring populations may have been smelt. First recorded in Lake Superior in 1930, this uninvited fish multiplied rapidly in the 1940’s, becoming the most common inshore species by 1960, and a food competitor of the lake herring.
Alewives, another exotic forage fish, became established in 1953, but never in the overwhelming numbers found in the lower lakes, especially Lake Michigan.
For more than a century, government agencies have overseen the Great Lakes fishery. Management programs sought to regulate seasons, catch quotas and mesh size of gill nets. These early efforts met with varying success and soon became embroiled in politics. Under pressure from Wisconsin legislators, Chequamegon Bay, which had been closed to fishing, reopened. Then five years later, it closed down once more.
Fish stocking, on the other hand, went forward with less controversy. Rainbow trout were planted in 1895. Within ten years, resulting stocks were spawning on both sides of the lake. Brown trout, planted at the same time, populated southwestern Lake Superior. In a massive planting of the turn of century, 33.5 million lake trout fry were introduced to the lake.
While commendable, these programs were not uniformly successful. In response, the United States and Canada in 1907-1908 nominally agreed to joint regulation of Great Lakes fishing. Effective cooperation, however, was not achieved until the two countries joined forces against the sea lamprey nearly a half-century later.
The campaign started in Lake Superior. Between 1953 and 1957, electromechanical barriers (known as weirs) were installed in approximately 100 known lamprey spawning streams. While useful in monitoring the number of sea lamprey returning to spawn, the electric barriers were expensive, often dangerous to operate and not entirely effective at reducing the lamprey population.
In 1958, with the development of the compound TFM (3-trifloromethyl-4-nitrophenol), biologists became convinced that chemical control was in hand. Controlled doses of this lampricide were introduced to 12 lamprey infested tributaries of Lake Superior. In the next two years, 60 more streams were treated.
The results were delayed, but dramatic. In 1962, the number of sea lamprey caught at 37 electric barriers had dropped 86 percent from the previous year. With further treatment of additional streams, the sea lamprey was brought under control.
Control of the sea lamprey brought about acceleration of the stocking programs. In 1958, Michigan, Wisconsin and the province of Ontario planted more than one million lake trout. Since then, over 36 million lake trout have been introduced into Lake Superior.
To further rehabilitate its sport fishery,salmon Michigan also began to plant salmon in 1966. Within three years, the state had released a total of over one million coho and chinook salmon to Lake Superior.
The restocking programs have continued and Minnesota has lent it’s helping hand, by starting it’s own program. Tagged lake trout in Lake Superior are not only spawning, but returning to the same grounds season after season. Rainbow trout are making spring and fall spawning runs in the Brule River, the Sioux River and other south shore streams. A wild stock of brown trout are also spawning in these regions and naturally produced coho and chinook salmon are appearing in the lake’s tributaries.
To protect the lake trout spawning grounds, refuges have been established and are off limits to commercial and sport fishermen alike. The development of Astro-turf sandwiches for the planting of lake trout eggs on the spawning grounds has shown some dramatic and encouraging results.
Lake Superior’s long history of overfishing and the onslaught of sea lamprey, which depleted it’s stocks, cannot be denied. But the lake has come back.
Remaining virtually unpolluted, the crystal clear, cold waters of Lac Superieur once again sport an abundance of fish. The spawning refuges of the Apostle Islands are producing increased populations each and every year.
Should history ever repeat itself, Radisson could once again write, “In that bay, there is a channel where we took stores of fishes.”