Don't Move A Mussel
The year is 1968. Dick Sternberg is pulling his 14-foot foot aluminum boat out into Lake Michigan for the first salmon run the lake has ever known. Water extends to the blue horizon. Even the giant lakes of his Minnesota home don't begin to compare.
In those days, at least where Dick and his fishing buddies were launching, there was no ramp, so he and the boys had to carry the boat.
Today's high-tech salmon gear didn't exist yet. Armed with just their walleye rods that these Minnesota kids spooled with heavier line, they shoved off into the Great Lake.
Today, king salmon swim in those waters, but in 1968, it was just cohos – silver salmon.
"I remember firing up the motor and flipping out a Tad-Polly from Heddon," says Sternberg. "Couldn't have gone 100 feet and a salmon slams it and spools me! We chased it and landed it on 10-pound line. It was just amazing to see anything like that. Got that fish unhooked, and cast out and did it again. Unbelievable trip for someone who's never even seen a salmon. That became a big part of my life, to see that evolve over the years - the fleets of boats, the downriggers, the whole variety of trolling accessories."
And it did become a big part of his life – his, and the lives of many.
Just 6 hours from his Minnesota home, Dick and his buddies might drive to Lake Michigan four or five times every summer, "during the hot part into the fall."
Today he's reminiscing, these 45 years later, while he picks through the North Woods in search of morel mushrooms.
"But then the water started really clearing up," he says. "You'd let your line click the bottom and you'd pick up zebra mussels."
Sternberg and his fishing companions noticed that there were no more alewives – the baitfish became harder and harder to find.
"The reason the salmon were introduced there in the first place was to control the alewives so they wouldn't wash up on the beaches and clog up pipes in Chicago," says Sternberg. "So now the alewives are gone and the fishery has kept deteriorating. You can still catch fish, but it's like, you know, one one-hundredth of what it used to be. Some days you get nothing."
Sternberg estimates that an average day of fishing 10 years ago might have meant 12 to 18 salmon in the boat.
"Now you're down to a couple if you're lucky," he says, "and there's no line at the cleaning stations. Used to be a line at the cleaning station – now there's nobody there."
What's the difference?
A mollusk. Actually, two of them. Zebra mussels may be the better known, but the aggressive Quagga Mussel can tolerate colder waters, go deeper and out-compete the zeebs, according to Sternberg.
Sternberg isn't just a common-joe angler like you and me. He's a fisheries biologist by trade, he penned the uber-famous Hunting and Fishing Library, and he believes that the real problem is getting people (like you and me) to understand that this could happen to them – happen to their lake – and it's devastating when it does.
"We're up to about 60 lakes in Minnesota that have 'em. We have 12,000 lakes that are considered lakes, and countless more small bodies of water. There's no possible way you could have someone watching all of them," Sternberg says. "There are 3,000 public accesses and twice that many private accesses. People wonder what the heck are we going to do to slow this down? Education is the biggest part of it."
So that's what groups like Wildlife Forever are doing. Billboards, print campaigns, signs – that's all part of it, but they've taken the message to television in a series called Silent Invaders. Maybe you've seen it?
"Silent Invaders was created 2 years ago with US Forest Service, Great Lakes Restoration and other partners," says Pat Conzemius, Program Manager. "It's the first of its kind – an invasive species show that highlights different invasive species and what's being done to stop their spread. It also tells anglers what they need to do to help the fight. The program looks at fisheries like Lake Michigan and the Welland Canal and how that let zebra mussels into the Great Lakes."
The war is won by every angler picking up their weapon – in this case, a power washer or a brush – and evidence suggests that us weekender types follow the lead of the pros.
"We started working with the National Professional Anglers Association several years ago," says Conzemius. Professional anglers can be our allies and our ambassadors. They can change the way tournament operations are done, help educate the angling community about what they can do – cleaning boats, draining livewells, and never dumping bait. They're our stewards and role models."
So I called Pat Neu at the NPAA and asked him about it.
"What we're doing with our members is using their ability to communicate to help spread the word," he says. "Our members are organizing youth events and we support them by supplying rods and reels to give to the kids, along with tee shirt that we call our "NPAA Future Pro" tee shirt with a stop aquatic invasive species message on the back. It's cute and the kids wear it all over – it's like a bunch of walking billboards. That's been extremely effective. Last year we had 47 events with an average of 70 children at those events. That's 3,500 times the number of people who see those "billboards." That's where you see the power of the grassroots message."
Walleye pro Tommy Skarlis is one such ambassador.
"As professionals, if we're not part of the solution, we're part of the problem," Skarlis says. "I'm proud to say that I'm seeing a big movement among professionals and other tournament anglers to protect our natural resources by doing all we can to stop invasives by not only inspecting, removing and thoroughly cleaning invasives from our rigs and bait buckets, but also spreading the word through seminars and one-on-ones with other anglers."
Back in the North Woods, Sternberg and his two dogs are wrapping up their morel hunt and making their way back to their lake home.
Almost breathlessly, but not for the effort of the hike, he says, "These invasives are just really scary. On top of the zebras and the quaggas, you've got spiny water fleas. The asian carp, the rusty crayfish – they're egg eaters and they cut down the vegetation, and they'll clear cut the lake."
"But," he finishes. "There's hope."
Problems caused by Zebra & Quagga Mussels
> Rapid population explosion – multiplication by a factor of 10 each year
> Filters out the bottom of the food chain, causing collapse of the fishery
> Increased water clarity leads to algae blooms
> Algae die-offs deplete oxygen and lead to fish kills
> Clear water pushes fish to deep water making them harder to catch
> Leads fish to become more nocturnal, reducing angler success rates
> Sharp shells slice angler's lines, leading to lost tackle and frustration
> Shells pile up on beaches and kids cut their feet
> Zebra mussels cause e-coli problems when they wash ashore and decompose, leading to beach closures.
> Reduced tourism as a result, impacting local economies
> Waterfowl die-offs due to avian botulism resulting from increased bluegreen algae in system
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about the author
Recycled Fish is the national non-profit organization of "anglers living a Lifestyle of Stewardship both on and off the water, because Our Lifestyle Runs Downstream."