Salted with Sharks

“We Won’t Be Back in 2015”: Fishermen Urge Action on Low-Water Threat to Salmon Run

In Breaking, Open Season, Uncategorized on September 13, 2012 at 2:52 pm

By Emily Votruba

A group of concerned fishermen are mounting a campaign to avert what they feel might be a failure in this year’s salmon run. Thousands of fish are dead and dying in the low water of the Betsie Bay trying to make it up into the Betsie River to spawn. Justin Vanderlinde, the game officer for Benzie County, and Mark Tonello of the Fisheries Management department both met with several fishermen this morning at Elberta’s Marina Park.

Lon Busch, a retired schoolteacher from Houghton Lake, posted this sign (below) at Stapleton’s and others at Crystal View Cafe and Wesco this week.

Fisherman Lon Busch posted this sign at Stapleton’s in Benzonia this week. He’s hoping his concern over the dying salmon in Betsie Bay will “go viral.”

Mr. Busch and his friends Leonard Merrill (Merrill’s Water Power Sawmill), Jay Durling (Benzonia), and Dennis Parise and Rick Pons (North Carolina) were gathered at about 10 am this morning, gazing out at the birds walking around in the grass and weeds growing in the middle of the bay. Several fishermen could be seen in the distance standing in inches of water where last year canoes and other small craft easily glided.

“This is the lowest Lake Michigan’s been since 1961,” said Mark Tonello, the fisheries management biologist Lon Busch had called to the scene. “And the lake controls the water levels in the Betsie Bay.”

Busch and his fishing buddies are impatient with this explanation and are hoping something can be done. “They can say all they want about lake levels, but if someone doesn’t cut through the bureaucracy, the 2012 salmon run will be killed. The early migration is already destroyed this year,” said Busch.

“Two, three weeks ago there were thousands of dead fish in that river,” Busch said. “They would get to that low point in the channel and they couldn’t make it over, and the turkey buzzards were waiting for them. Then the seagulls would come and finish them.”

The salmon seek the thermocline, a level of water at lower temperatures and greater oxygenation, to guide them upriver. According to Busch, this year’s heat and low water threw many more fish than usual off course, stranding them in the unusual mid-bay shallows and the southwestern part of the bay.

“We need volunteers and about a thousand shovels,” said Busch, less than half-jokingly. He and his friends have been making calls all week to everyone they can think of, urging the DNR, the EPA, Trout Unlimited, the Little River Band and the Manistee and Grand Traverse Bands to take action. Busch met with the Benzie and Frankfort–Elberta Chambers yesterday and even stopped in at Luedtke Engineering to see what it would take to get them to dredge a pathway for the fish from the bridge to about 300 yards out into the bay.

The salmon have about a four year life cycle. After hatching upstream, the young eventually head out to the big lake, spend a couple of years, and then come back to the Betsie to breed again. The salmon gasping in the bay now are dying before they spawn.

“In three to four years you’ll feel the impact of this—2015. But we won’t be here,” said Dennis Parise, who is the treasurer of his local chapter of Trout Unlimited in Table Rock, North Carolina. He and fellow Trout Unlimited member Rick Pons have already decided that year won’t be worth the 900-plus mile drive north.

Like Lon Busch, Jay Durling has fished the Betsie River for over 40 years. “With what’s going on here, it’d be a question as to whether I’d move up here now. My wife and I moved up here to fish. I’m going to live where the fish are. I haven’t had my boat in the water in two weeks,” he added, sounding amazed.

The fishermen watched the tiny figure of Tonello in the distance as he walked in inches deep water toward the “main channel” leading to the mouth of the river, checking out how many fish were making it on their way to the bridge over M-22 and on upstream. “He’s almost to the no-bullsh*t zone,” said Busch. “When he gets to that point over there [gesturing], and sees how bad it is, we’ll see what he thinks.”

Another man could be seen on the islet just off the tribal property holding some kind of pole and a net. “He’s out snagging,” said one of the men. “He doesn’t know Justin [Vanderlinde]’s right over here.”

Justin Vanderlinde couldn’t comment on the record without departmental approval, but he spent several minutes discussing the situation with those gathered. There was some question as to whether dredging a path might do more harm than good.

“Today would have been the perfect time to do it. We’re at half-time [in the run] now,” said Durling.

There was some speculation from the fishermen that officers might come and “shut down” any fishing and snagging here for the time being.

“You should have seen it here in the early 90s. Frankfort and Elberta were ghost towns because the salmon got a liver disease. Everybody was gone,” said Durling.

“Fishermen always spend more money up here than sun-worshippers. If something doesn’t happen soon, you can kiss us goodbye,” said Busch. “We’ve probably spent $1,000 this week,” Parise said.

“This is a FEMA situation. There is no plan,” said Busch. “We need action right now. Today. The rain isn’t going to make this go away.”

Busch, Durling, and Vanderlinde discussed the fact that the mouth of the Platte had recently been dredged. “But that’s federal, see,” said Busch. The fishermen feel there’s favoritism toward the success of that fishery because of tribal treaty commitments and because spawn and roe there are collected and sold out of state for DNR revenue.

Busch picked up a text message from his friend Michael R. Smith, who was at that moment attending the Trout Unlimited national convention in Asheville, North Carolina. The text indicated that Smith was talking about the Betsie River problem at that meeting.

Just then a group of five or six other fishermen walked past on their way back to the parking lot. “We’re from Detroit,” one of them said. “You let us know when. We’ll bring shovels.” They headed to their cars.

“If there were water in the river, you wouldn’t see all these cars here, and you wouldn’t have had the pleasure of meeting us, because we’d be in the river too,” said Busch.

Tonello and another DNR officer were preparing to leave. “Of course we never like seeing fish dying in the water,” said Tonello. “But we’re dealing with Mother Nature here, with Lake Michigan, and historic low levels, and there’s not much we can do about it. I went out and saw several fish make it up into the river. Each Chinook hen has about 5,000 eggs. I don’t think it’s anything to be concerned about over the long term, though it’s certainly already affecting the river fishery. The salmon are adaptable. They run from late August into December. The population is in the 10s of thousands. This is a small part of the overall run.”

“They don’t believe what we believe,” said Busch. “Durling and I are Vietnam vets. We’ve been coming here for 40 years. Two 14 [2014] will be one of the best seasons ever, because the 2011 run was by far the best run I’ve seen in 20 years. It came early and ran forever. But in one August what they’re going to do is close it off.”

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Read Mark Tonello’s 2009 Betsie Bay Fishery Report here.

  1. Excellent reporting, oh weary one!!! Hope you can catch some zzzs soon…?

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