No porta-potties this year; a sign we have renounced our foolishness and nature has healed?

May 7th, 2013, 8am

Not much remains this year of the once huge annual smelt run at this end of Lake Superior. For years these 4 to 9 inch invaders caused a big sensation each spring. Some years residents on Minnesota Point lost their wooden porches to the hoards of fishermen looking to fuel their nightly campfires as they ‘smelted’ gathering tubs of the small silvery fish.

Smelt were native to the Atlantic Coast and spots like Lake Champlain below the Niagara Falls. About 1912 someone brought smelt into the upper Great Lakes region, above the Niagara Falls barrier, and introduced them as a prey species to feed game fish in Crystal Lake, Michigan. By 1946 the smelt had escaped and infested the four upper lakes and were discovered in Lake Superior where they were not found previously. Usually the population of an invasive species explodes when it enters a new ecosystem. So in the 1950’s, men like my father would come home during the smelt’s spanning run with 32 gallon garbage cans full of small silvery fish. I don’t remember what he did with them all. I guess like with zucchini from a summer garden, you hope you have enough good friends who want to share in the ‘abundance’.

The exploding population of an invasive species usually causes problems. The real abundance of Lake Superior tanked in just those years. The herring, which had been a huge fishery in lake Superior, nearly disappeared. The commercial fisherman of Lake Superior’s North Shore believe increased pollution and the arrival of smelt depressed the stock of herring.

Most notably on the North Shore, the Reserve Mining Company in Silver Bay which separated iron ore from Minnesota’s taconite rock dumped 47 tons of waste rock slurry a minute into Lake Superior for 25 years before a court order stopped the shameful ecological affront to the Lake. The slurry caused sedimentation and gray water, but herring need cold clear water to thrive.

Steven Dahl, a commercial fisherman on the North Shore, in his book, “Knife Island: Circling a Year in a Herring Skiff’ believes the smelt explosion contributed to the herring fishery’s demise, a claim, however, the biologists are less comfortable making. The tiny smelt have teeth like large preditors: lake trout, northern or walleye. The vast smelt population, he believes, preyed heavily on the tiny herring fry. Who knows for sure, he says, but consider the time line. About 1976 the smelt population collapsed and remained at a much lower level. In 1980 Reserve Mining Company stopped polluting Lake Superior with rock slurry and by the mid 1980’s the herring had returned.

A temporary bonanza, the annual smelt run, represented our shortsightedness and marked an ecological disaster.

This year I saw a commercial fisherman dipping smelt out of his trap net, but also noticed the City had not installed the temporary porta-potties at the 12th street beach to accommodate smelters. No porta-potties; a sign we have renounced our foolishness and nature has healed?

Shu and David Wade said thanks.

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Ken Jackson

An avid outdoors man. Retired and retiring, living on the shore of Lake Superior

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