The responses to the sea lamprey

Governmental and institutional response


Prior to the mid-1940s, the various agencies of the Great Lakes tended to regard the resources of these waters as self-sustaining. The commercial fishery was the favored user-group; access to the fishery was open to fishermen who understood the politics involved.

Frick (1965, p. 89) noted: Regulation of the Great Lakes fisheries has been carried out through a patchwork accumulation of laws and directives rather than by well-organized uniform legislation. Agreement on policy and uniformity in regulations [was] made difficult or impossible by divided jurisdiction: eight states, one province and the two federal governments have all claimed some degree of jurisdiction over the Great Lakes fisheries.

The influx of American fishermen into Canada in the late 1800s, along with fishermen of both countries poaching illegally in each others waters, and the monopsonistic domination by large US firms, highlighted the international character of the fishing industry. Biologists recognized a decline in certain fish populations and called for widespread action, which led to the establishment of an ad hoc joint international commission in 1893. This was followed by a treaty between the US and Great Britain in 1908 proposing a fisheries commission empowered to determine nets, boats and other fishing methods by international regulation. This treaty - a parallel to the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty - failed to receive US Congressional ratification and ultimately died about 1917. In all, 27 formal and informal Great Lakes conferences were held between 1883 and 1943. Only after the sea lamprey was acknowledged to be a serious pest was coordinated international action undertaken. But the resulting Great Lakes Fishery Commission had its executive responsibilities limited to sea lamprey control.

From the beginning, fishermen played an active and vocal role in stimulating agency actions against the lamprey. In the years following 1936, Michigan fishermen in the Rogers City area of Lake

Huron complained of lost production. Nevertheless, approximately 300 American Lake Huron and Lake Michigan fishermen, surveyed by the International Board of Inquiry in 1940, failed to identify the sea lamprey as involved in production losses - overfishing and pollution were regarded as most detrimental. J.W. Moffett, Chief of US Great Lakes Fishery Investigations, reported before the US House of Representatives in 1952 that complaints from fishermen, especially those on Lake Huron, began to increase in the early 1940s; because of wartime shortages neither the Province of Ontario nor the State of Michigan investigated or engaged in serious preventative measures. He noted that it was not until production of trout in Lake Michigan began to fall off in about 1945 "that any widespread alarm was voiced."

An editorial in The Fisherman (Anon., 1948) gave the lack of a statewide fishermen organization as one reason for the poor participation in lamprey programs and weak lobbying strength. The lamprey problem appears to have fostered more interaction. In 1940 the Michigan Fish Producers Association was organized, and several municipalities, counties, and associations lobbied state legislators and congressional delegations.

Small-scale lamprey surveys were initiated by Michigan and the US Fish and Wildlife Service as early as 1938. The International Board of Inquiry (1943) conducted 29 public hearings in the Great Lakes region, attended by some 1,500 commercial fishermen, sportsmen, and officials. Again it was recommended that a joint agency be established. In 1946 a fisheries treaty was signed between the US and Canada, but failed to be ratified because it required that the states relinquish some authority to a federally created regulatory commission.

Also in 1946, a Great Lakes Sea Lamprey Committee was formed and included technical representatives from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Province of Ontario, and the states bordering the Great Lakes. The trapping of lamprey in spawning streams was begun - over 11,000 were captured in the Little Thessalon River of the North Channel in Ontario in 1946.

The Great Lakes Committee, established in 1948, acted as an early forum for the exchange of ideas and for some coordination of programs. Nevertheless, the actions of the various agencies were largely independent and annual funding was not assured. Such funding first occurred for the US program in 1950 (Egerton, 1989).

Thus, early delay in responding to the sea lamprey threat arose partly from a failure to gain support for coordinated action from the agencies involved and from the fishing industry. Spaulding and McPhee (1989, p. 73) explained:

American fishermen did not want any regulation that would even temporarily reduce their catch and earnings. Also they did not want to be put in a situation of dependence upon a geographically remote international agency to deal with problems that traditionally had been taken care of by their individual governments.

Representatives from the State of Ohio were most strongly opposed to the convention, partly on the grounds that equal representation for Canada was unfair for American fishermen who harvested the major portion of the catch. Canada continued its long, if cautious, support for the creation of a Commission.

It was not until December 1952 that continuing problems of overfishing, pollution, and the sea lamprey were perceived widely enough to demand renegotiation of a modified treaty. Meetings of the delegations followed and ratification of a treaty finally came in October 1955. The Great Lakes Fishery Commission held its first meeting in November 1956. It gained responsibility for sea lamprey control and a mandate to foster rehabilitation of the valued fish stocks but, unlike the agency envisaged in 1946, it was not empowered to regulate and enforce fisheries regulations.

Legislation and control programs in the 1950s and 1960s

The initial sea lamprey control program utilized mechanical and electromechanical barriers erected in the lamprey spawning streams. The first US weir was erected in 1951 and Ontario began construction the following year. These barriers were superseded by the use of lampricides selected from among some 6,000 chemicals tested at the sea lamprey research laboratory at Hammond Bay, Michigan. Chemical treatment was initiated in Lake Superior in 1958, because this lake's trout stocks were still relatively healthy and so held the greatest promise of being saved. Treatment was extended to Lake Michigan in 1960, to Lake Huron in 1966, to Lake Ontario in 1971, and to Lake Erie in 1986. Between 1958 and 1960, all Lake Superior tributaries known to contain larval sea lamprey were chemically treated.

In the early decades of this century, most states and Canada introduced legislation for net mesh sizes, closed seasons and catch limits based on fish weight or length. As sea lamprey control measures were instituted and lake trout rehabilitation was begun, increasingly strict regulation was implemented to control the commercial industry. Michigan legislated a closed season for lake trout in 1953 (State of Michigan, 1953). Lake Superior was closed to lake trout fishing in 1962, except to the extent necessary to provide researchers with data. Policies of limited entry to the fishery were instituted by stages.

Ecosystem responses

Prior to 1950, Lake Michigan contained seven species of chub (small coregonines) of varying sizes and growth rates, occupying different depth niches. The sea lamprey heavily attacked the two largest of these (along with the larger salmonids and burbot), and the two large chub species were extinct by 1960. With their demise, the lamprey preyed on the four intermediate-sized species of chub which occupied the lamprey's preferred deep water range and, by 1963, they constituted only one percent of chubs taken in test trawls. On the other hand, bloater chub, now relieved of predation by lake trout and not large enough to be of interest to commercial fishermen or lamprey, gained a competitive advantage and increased to such great numbers during the 1950s that they finally constituted 99 percent of the chub population. They also invaded northern Lake Michigan where chubs had not previously been abundant, and in 1961 were 2.5 times more numerous than the combined chub species present before the lamprey irruption (Hile & Buettner, 1955).

Economic costs and market responses

During this period of destabilization, certain market changes had strong implications for the Great Lakes industry. Reduced costs of meat and poultry, due to improvements in rearing livestock and fowl, together with a rise in the standard of living, led to an increase in the consumption of meat and a decrease in the consumption of fish. Frick (1965) noted the necessity for the fishing industry to improve quality and reduce costs in order to remain competitive. Also, consumer tastes in the lucrative Jewish market were changing, with a greater demand for packaged ready-to-cook or pre-cooked foods at the expense of fresh or whole-smoked fish, as Great Lakes whitefish, pike, and trout had traditionally been sold. In general, the quantity of fish sold as packaged fillets, breaded fish sticks and portions increased.

With these changing consumer tastes and the severe decline in supply of Great Lakes prime quality fish, markets opened for processed fish from western Canadian lakes. These fish were lower in quality, produced with lower labor costs and lower in price to the consumer. Also, processed marine fish became more prominent in the markets. Thus, the sea lamprey problems may have contributed to a shift of some North American marketing patterns, especially in Chicago and New York.

Economic losses to the sports fisheries from sea lamprey predation are difficult to assess. The early history for the sport fisheries has not been documented well. For all three of the upper Great Lakes, this history is a long one, although especially significant was the growth in popularity of lake trout trolling in the 1920s to 1940s. The sport was especially popular in Grand Traverse Bay and southern Georgian Bay. Considerable funds flowed into these regions.

The costs for the sea lamprey control program, as conducted by the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, were calculated on the basis of the historic value of the lake trout fishery in the two countries; for sea lamprey research and control Canada paid 31 percent and the United States 69 percent. Administrative and general research costs were shared equally.

By 1950 the Ontario government was spending about US$50,000 a year for Great Lakes investigations; US expenditures were US$286,500 (US House of Representatives, 1952). In 1958 the total budget allocations were US$914,300 by the US and US$424,500 by the Canadian governments. In 1987 they were US$4,662,000 and US$2,279,300, respectively (Spaulding & McPhee, 1989).

Industry responses

As policymakers in the US and Canada sought common ground for dealing with the lamprey problem, the industry struggled to adapt. Uncertainty about the future of the fish stocks and a worsening economic situation discouraged long-term planning; many individuals simply opted to "muddle through." Fishermen tended to respond by either abandoning their trade, shifting their efforts to new species, or "gypsy" fishing, that is, searching for new grounds and ignoring any territorial rights by extant fisheries.


The rising costs of labor, gill nets, and other gear, after World War II, pushed the industry to a marginal level in some areas. The increased efficiency of nylon gill nets was offset in part by their tendency to entangle great numbers of the small fish species (chubs, alewives, and smelt that burgeoned in the absence of the predatory lake trout). Labor costs of removing these fish from the nets exceeded their value and, often, gill nets could not be fished in certain seasons (Anon., 1960).

The loss of traditional high-value species forced many fishermen out of the industry. Between 1946 and 1961, the number of Ontario fishermen declined progressively from 3,000 to about 1,700. The numbers of fishermen on Lake Huron and Georgian Bay in the late 1930s had fallen to less than one-third by the late 1950s. The numbers of US fishermen dropped steadily from 5,019 in 1940 to 3,734 in 1960. As observed by J.W. Moffett (US House of Representatives, 1952), "Everyone appeared willing to do something about the sea lamprey but no-one knew just what should be done."

Many enterprises were one-boat operations run by a single family or small partnership. By the mid-1960s, fishing on American Lakes Huron and Michigan had become largely a part-time or seasonal enterprise, with formerly full-time fishermen spending the major part of their time employed in other occupations. Many of the remaining full-time fishermen were "old-timers" who could not easily find a new trade. Such people were unwilling or unable to invest the time and money in their operations to make improvements to deteriorating equipment.

In Lake Superior in the late 1950s and early 1960s some fishermen could not cover their costs and foreclosures occurred. The number of processors or "first handlers" on American Lake Superior declined from 21 in 1959 to only 10 in 1964. The peak number of persons employed by these processors fell from 527 in 1959 to 289 in 1964 (Anon., 1969).

Hile and Buettner (1959, p. 30) described the grim situation on Saginaw Bay:

To describe the commercial fishery of Saginaw Bay as threatened by failure would be unduly optimistic, for it is now collapsing and the process is well advanced. The greatly decreased fishing activities would be much lower except that many fishermen resist abandonment of a lifetime occupation or are protecting capital investment in the hope of better days. This "hanging-on" cannot continue much longer Saginaw Bay fisheries like other segments of the industry have been caught in the "squeeze" created by a rise in cost of production much greater than the increase in the price offish. Limitations of capital, the small size of producing firms, the division of the fishery among numerous ports of landing, legal restrictions on grounds, methods, and time of fishing, and the resistance to change that these conditions encourage, have made most difficult the adjustment that might have eased the stringency. The Saginaw Bay fishermen, in the main, are taking and handling fish in the same way as for several decades past.

Increasing industrialization in the Saginaw Bay area during the early 1960s drew people away from fishing on a full-time basis (Anon., 1968, pp. 45-6):

The industry is on the verge of total collapse. Firms who have "consumed" their existing gear and boats and have borrowed to the limit of their credit are nearing the end of the tether. The small independent and the part-time operators who accounted for considerable production are disappearing through superannuation or abandonment of work that pays too little. Young men are not attracted to an industry where rewards are scant for independent operations and pay, as an employee, is the Wage Board minimum. Unless the trend is halted, Saginaw Bay will have no in dustry to take advantage of that hoped-for day when sea lamprey control and other measures may bring the return of plentiful high-value fish.


The fishermen who survived with least difficulty were those located at places having a multi-species fishery, such as Grand Haven on Lake Michigan, rather than those depending on one or two high-value species. Also, "vertically integrated fishermen" with their own retail outlets were able to purchase fish from other areas, when their own catches failed.

Some fishermen managed to adapt to the loss of high-value lake trout and whitefish by turning their attentions to lower-valued species. During the period 1960-66, seven species - lake herring (also coregonines), chubs, alewives, carp, yellow perch, smelt, and whitefish - contributed 500 tons (453 mt) or more to Michigan's production (Crowe, 1968). The Great Lakes Fishery Commission (1956, p. 23) considered the implications:

Undoubtedly, most fish populations in the upper Great Lakes are affected by the sea lamprey directly and very definitely affected indirectly. Shifts in the distribution of the fishery placed pressures on fish populations that normally were not heavily exploited. These pressures resulted in some temporary maladjustments in the shoal and bay fisheries and certainly had their effect on the relationships among the fish species.

In Lakes Michigan and Superior the deep-water fisheries concentrated on chubs, and increased production after 1948 and 1957, respectively. However, the pattern was different on American Lake Huron, where chub production remained relatively low during the period of lake trout decline (Anon., 1968). The revival of the chub fishery in Lake Huron did not occur until 1958 (following publication of reports of abundance by the US Bureau of Commercial Fisheries), temporarily increasing both numbers of fishermen employed and gross earnings, until the slump in production after 1961.

New markets for less-valued fish such as carp and yellow perch were also opened. Markets for species such as carp, yellow perch, and suckers were highly competitive and characterized by fluctuating prices; fishermen were forced to raise their efficiency and adopt new fishing and processing methods. The growing abundance of small species, such as smelt, alewives, and bloaters, and the loss of the large predators were making the traditional production gear -gill and pound nets - obsolete. These new target species demanded a shift from selective harvesting of larger fish to volume production. Fishermen had traditionally sold their catch of whitefish and trout either in the round or gutted. Now, mechanization of packing facilities was necessary. Also, improved processing techniques such as reduction plants, as well as new and improved methods of preservation (due to the tendency of the lower-value frozen fish to spoil more quickly), were essential.

Thus, the small size and labor-intensive character of fishing enterprises on the upper Great Lakes began to change. On Lake Superior, for example, as individual fishermen left the industry, their licenses were purchased by firms which could afford extensive investment and which possessed capital sufficient to permit them to weather the vagaries of changing markets and unpredictable resources. In the 1960s, the fishing enterprises of Jackfish and Port Coldwell on the Canadian North Shore failed along with the lake trout on which they depended; their people moved and these villages ceased to exist. During these years, licenses frequently changed hands until, finally, the eastern and western Lake Superior Canadian fisheries came to be dominated by larger firms, such as Ferroclad Fisheries (north of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario) and Kemp Fisheries (based in Duluth, Minnesota).

Emigration and intensification

Did some fishermen, confronted with the apparent inexorable loss of high-value species and without confidence in future benefit to be derived from conservation, opt to increase fishing intensity in order to harvest fully all those fish which remained? This does not appear to have been the case on American parts of Lakes Huron and Michigan. Hile (1949) reported that fishing intensity for lake trout generally declined after 1939. Hile et al. (1951a) also showed that intensity indices for the Michigan waters of Lake Michigan generally declined after World War II (with the exception of Green Bay, Wisconsin), a phenomenon the authors attributed to the increased targeting of whitefish, a coregonine.

Declining trout abundances, furthermore, coincided with World War II. In the early years of the war, many younger fishermen were drafted as valued sailors for the navy. The fishermen's associations lobbied strongly for exemption, noting that exemptions were already given to farmers as food producers. They eventually won their case, preventing further destabilization of the industry through the loss of manpower.

It is possible, however, that wartime demands for food led to the escalation of fishing effort in some waters. Conservation was accorded a minor place in resource development programs during World War II (Highsmith et al., 1962). The increase in lake trout production from the Illinois waters of Lake Michigan in the early 1940s, for example, has already been noted. According to Frick (1965), price inflation during World War I stimulated heavy fishing in the Canadian waters of Lake Erie, a phenomenon repeated to a lesser degree during World War II.

In the face of failing resources during the early lamprey years, certain fishermen sought new grounds. Some Lake Huron gill net fishermen, during the lean years after the late 1930s, moved their operations to Lake Michigan where fish stocks were still productive, remaining there until the loss of that lake's trout or in some cases entering the chub fishery (Anon., 1968). In their turn, fishermen from northern Lake Michigan ports such as Charlevoix moved south to Grand Haven, etc. Many of these men already had previous ties to the area, having traditionally fished these southern open waters during winter months.

As the lake trout fisheries of Lakes Huron and Michigan were failing, those of Lake Superior still remained lucrative. In Canada there did not appear to be any major transfer of men or equipment from Lake Huron to Lake Superior. For the American shore, however, J.W. Moffett (US House of Representatives, 1952, p. 55) noted:

Many fishermen moved into other fisheries, greatly increased the pressure on certain fish stocks and seriously overcrowded several areas where fishing for species other than lake trout was good. Lake Superior trout fisheries were overexploited because of heavy market demands until they too are now in a precarious condition. The Lake Superior lake trout fishery would have ceased or certainly become drastically reduced had market prices remained as they were before the loss of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron fisheries. Increasing sea lamprey populations in Lake Superior are threatening seriously to repeat the history of their predations in the other lakes In the State of Michigan waters the output has been maintained by increasing fishing pressure more and more as the abundance of fish has declined rapidly toward a critical level.

In 1949 trout production from American Lake Superior had increased 6 percent from the 1929-43 mean, but fishing intensity was up 62 percent (Hile et al., 1951b). Moffett noted:

Species not subject to extensive sea lamprey attacks are threatened by transfers of fishing pressure by fishermen forced to seek new grounds. In the highly productive waters of northern Green Bay [Lake Michigan], for example, the fishing pressure on some of the major species has increased five- to tenfold or more within the last 5 or 6 years (US House of Representatives, 1952, p. 74).

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