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Great Lakes Native Fisheries

Reconnecting the Foundation of the Great Lakes Fish Populations

Story Highlights
  • A native fishery is a complex, multi-dimensional food chain.
  • Healthy, stable Great Lakes native fisheries mean a healthy, stable commercial and recreational fishing industry and freshwater ecosystem.
  • The Great Lakes Project is helping restore native fish populations through restocking efforts, restoring spawning areas and addressing pervasive threats such as invasive species.

In the Great Lakes, native fisheries are the foundation of a $4 billion commercial and recreational fishing industry, as well as a living indication of the health of the entire freshwater system.

Habitat loss, overfishing and the rapid rise of invasive species have changed Great Lakes native fisheries in drastic and often remarkably swift ways. These changes have had a significant bearing on local economies and overall ecological health of the lakes.

The arrival of non-native species—such as alewives and zebra and quagga mussels—virtually wiped out cisco, whitefish and other species at the middle of the food web. These invasions drastically reduced fish populations at both the bottom and top of the web. In turn, they led to a significant decrease in the commercial fishing industry throughout the region.

Though it is not realistic to reverse all of this past damage, we can apply our systems perspective and help Great Lakes native fisheries adapt to the ‘new normal’ by restoring some native fishes to historic breeding and feeding grounds.

The Great Lakes Project’s planned work includes:

  • Enhancing native populations through restocking efforts or reintroductions.
  • Studying fish to understand where the fish go, assess why they're not coming back on their own and inform efforts to rebuild fisheries.
  • Restoring spawning areas by providing and improving spawning habitat in Lakes Ontario, Michigan and Huron.
  • Abating pervasive threats near spawning areas.
  • Conducting supporting science and building implementation partnerships: Many government agencies and technical committees have jurisdiction over fisheries in the Great Lakes, so working partnerships are crucial to determining where and how to create new projects.

By introducing pilot projects across multiple sites, we will build the science and practices needed for implementation that can return native species into the fabric of the Great Lakes food web, restoring an important component of the system and supporting commercial and recreational fishing interests.

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