Howard Tanner’s Legacy Lives On

Some salmon expected in the future on Lake Michigan. Photography courtesy Michigan DNR

Howard TannerBig decisions require strength of character and the fortitude to see them through. Howard Tanner, Ph.D., can testify to that. He was state fisheries chief in 1966, the year he introduced Pacific coho salmon in Lake Michigan, ushering in a new era for fisheries management which emphasized sport over commercial fishing. It was risky, and Tanner, who later became the Michigan DNR director, was well aware of the pitfalls.

“If we do this, I will either be a hero — it is going to work — or I will be the biggest bum to come down the street in a long time,” Tanner shared with me in a 2011 interview, recounting his thinking during those edgy days.  He was 87 and we had met at his Haslett home.

Now 92, and thoughtful as ever, he repeated that anecdote while addressing a crowd last spring at the Platte River State Hatchery where the DNR was hosting a 50th anniversary salmon release. Tanner’s understated delivery drew a hearty laugh, but the situation was not without irony.

Lake Huron’s Chinook salmon fishery collapsed in 2004. Lake Michigan’s Chinook fishery has been waning for years. Coho salmon continue to do well, but state fisheries managers are running out of options for the big Chinooks known as “kings.” They are now making other plans.

“We are working on another (Chinook salmon) stocking reduction for 2017,” said Jay Wesley, the DNR’s Lake Michigan basin coordinator. It will be the second cut since 2013 when Michigan and other Lake Michigan states cut stocking by 50 percent to conserve alewives, the forage Chinooks need to thrive. It was a noble attempt, but still not enough. There remain too few alewives to feed them all, Wesley said.

“If we do this, I will either be a hero — it is going to work — or I will be the biggest bum to come down the street in a long time.”
— Howard Tanner

What Tanner couldn’t predict was the invasion of zebra and quagga mussels — nor how they would alter the food chain by filtering out the algae and plankton that alewives need to thrive, causing their numbers to drop. Where coho have a diverse diet, Chinooks eat little other than alewives.

Alewives are at “historic lows,” Wesley said.

So low, in fact, that Chinook stocked in Lake Huron swim to Lake Michigan to feed. Fisheries managers know this from studies of tagged fish. Their arrival in Lake Michigan offsets any gains from stocking cuts. Lake Michigan tributaries now also produce wild Chinooks, the progeny of once-stocked fish that naturally reproduce. They comprise 60 percent of the Lake Michigan Chinook population, according to Wesley. Once again, more mouths to feed.

Howard Tanner on stage

Chinook salmon will remain a part of the sport fishing experience in Lake Michigan. But with only so much food to go around, stocking may eventually be discontinued. Coho stocking would continue, Wesley said. And in that, Howard Tanner’s legacy would continue on.

Tanner launched an extraordinary recreational fishery, one that provided economic gains to lakeshore communities for 50 years and tremendous recreational opportunity. What may come of the fishery remains to be seen. It is likely to be more diverse, with more steelhead and lake trout available to anglers. The state of Michigan, of course, will be able to boast of having a wild salmon fishery that was unheard of 50 years ago. And that is thanks to Dr. Tanner.

Howard Meyerson is an award winning writer and managing editor of Michigan BLUE Magazine.

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