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The story of how salmon got to the Great Lakes, told by the man who made it happen

Mar 11, 2019 10:13AM ● By Editor

By R.J. Wolcott of the Lansing State Journal - March 11, 2019


Close to 10 million chinook and coho salmon swim in Lake Michigan, Lake Huron and Lake Superior. 

There were none when Howard Tanner started as the chief of the Michigan Department of Conservation's Fish Division in 1964.

His boss, Ralph MacMullan, spent much of their first meeting lambasting the fish department for its previous lack of action and dysfunction. Heaps of dead fish were washing up on beaches, the lakes were overly commercially fished and there was little recreational fishing to speak of.

He gave Tanner a mandate: "Do something.

"And if you can," he added, "make it spectacular."

By introducing salmon into the Great Lakes in the 1960s, Tanner did just that.

And, more than 50 years later, his old boss' words have become the title of his new book, "Something Spectacular: My Great Lakes Salmon Story."

Tanner, who is now 95, was born and raised in Michigan. He attended Michigan State College after serving in the U.S. Army in World War II. He spent twelve years in Colorado as a professor at Colorado State University and as chief of fishery research at the Colorado Department of Game, Fish and Parks before returning to Michigan. 

Married for over seven decades Helen 94 and Howard Tanner 95 share a laugh while having their portrait taken Wednesday Jan 23 2019 at their home in Haslett  Howard is known as The Father of the Great Lakes salmon fishery  In 1966 commercial overfishing and invasive sea lampreys and alewives had decimated the trout population As the then fisheries chief for the Department of Conservation Tanner introduced Coho salmon to the Great Lakes  The following year salmon fishing season was bornBuy Photo

Married for over seven decades, Helen, 94, and Howard Tanner, 95, share a laugh while having their portrait taken, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019, at their home in Haslett. Howard is known as "The Father of the Great Lakes salmon fishery." In 1966, commercial overfishing and invasive sea lampreys and alewives had decimated the trout population. As the then fisheries chief for the Department of Conservation, Tanner introduced Coho salmon to the Great Lakes. The following year salmon fishing season was born. (Photo: Matthew Dae Smith/Lansing State Journal)

And, when he did, he learned quickly just how dire the situation facing the Great Lakes was. 

On a flight to visit with biologists in Marquette, Tanner looked down and saw a mass of dead alewives — a small, short-lived species of fish — west of Beaver Island.

"it was huge," Tanner recalled.

He asked the pilot to give him an estimate on the size of the pile of dead and rotting carcasses. 

"We circled a time or two, and his best guess was that it was seven miles long and half a mile wide."

At the time, alewives were washing up along lakeshores in such large numbers that officials used backhoes to bury them, said Marc Gaden, communications director and legislative liaison for the Great Lakes Fishery Commission. 

"It's hard to imagine today," he said, "when you can swim in the lakes and walk on the beaches."

Commercial fishing and invasive sea lamprey had wiped out the alewives natural predators: lake trout and burbot.

Their numbers were exploding. Conservation officials said at the time that 95% of the biomass in lake Michigan was alewives, Tanner recalled.

Howard Tanner 95 of Haslett reflects on his years as the former chief of the Michigan Department of Conservations Fish Division Wednesday Jan 23 2019  Tanner also served as director of the Michigan DNR   Tanner is known as the Father of the Great Lakes Salmon Fishery  He introduced coho salmon to the Great Lakes

Howard Tanner, 95, of Haslett, reflects on his years as the former chief of the Michigan Department of Conservation's Fish Division Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019. Tanner also served as director of the Michigan DNR, Tanner is known as the "Father of the Great Lakes Salmon Fishery," He introduced coho salmon to the Great Lakes. (Photo: Matthew Dae Smith/Lansing State Journal)

Tanner calls that a S.W.A.G., which stands for "scientific wild-ass guess." Still, it was a monumental challenge, not to mention the smell of dead, rotting fish.

But in the abundance of alewives, Tanner saw an opportunity. He wanted to establish a recreational fishing industry and thought the alewives would be great prey for salmon.

He'd learned about coho salmon while working in Colorado and thought they'd fit the bill. Coho and kokanee salmon were introduced by Colorado state officials.

Tanner knew it'd be an uphill battle to convince people in Michigan to make take such drastic action.

“During the formal education that followed my World War II experiences, I was thoroughly immersed in a well-established dogma: never introduce an exotic species," Tanner wrote in his book.

He'd expected to have trouble finding the coho eggs he wanted. That changed with a phone call in October of 1964, alerting him to a surplus in the Pacific Northwest.

“I was so excited!" Tanner wrote. "As I sit in my chair some fifty years later, I still feel an echo of excitement as those thoughts surface – a night view of the fishing scene, the thrill and some apprehension about what lay ahead is so difficult for me to describe adequately, not to embellish, but just to recall.”

The following spring, then-Gov. George Romney flew to a site on the Wilkerson Creek to release the first batch of young kokanee salmon.

It was a complete failure.

None of the fish were ever seen again, Tanner wrote. 

But in the spring of 1966, having obtained a batch of coho salmon eggs from Oregon, he tried again.

They couldn't get the governor this time. Instead, State Rep. Arnell Engstrom released the first coho salmon into the Platte River from a golden bucket with the date, April 2, 1966, displayed prominently. 

Except it wasn't really the first batch, Tanner writes in his book. The week before, hatchery crews released several hundred thousand coho salmon into that same river and into Bear Creek. 

Recreational fishing exploded in popularity in the decades that followed. In total, it's a $7 billion industry across the Great Lakes, Gaden said, with $1.5 to $2 billion of that in Michigan. He credits Howard and his fellow fisheries managers of that era with transforming the Great Lakes waterways from a liability to an asset.

"You don’t pour your heart, soul and resources into something you don’t love," Gaden said in reference to efforts to preserve the Great Lakes. "You have to connect people to the resource."

Trying to do what Tanner did in the 1960s today would be extremely difficult and meet with heavy resistance, said Jim Dexter, chief the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Fish Division. The lakes were greatly threatened, and people were more willing to take the risk associated with introducing a new species.

"Howard didn’t have a great idea whether this would be successful," Dexter said. "It totally changed the entire landscape and the direction of where port communities ended up going."

The introduction of salmon showed that, despite the size of a system like the Great Lakes, humans can exert extreme influence and should keep in mind, Dexter said.  He also notes that no such silver bullet exists yet for solving the problem of approaching Asain Carp.

The silver lining, however, is the actions of the 1960s and 1970s led to a greater focus on preserving and protecting the Great Lakes. 

"We have crystal clear water today," Dexter said. "You can see 100 feet down in the springtime. In the '60s, you couldn’t see 10 inches down."

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Dr. and Mrs. Howard Tanner on their wedding day in 1944. (Photo: Courtesy photo)

Watch the Lansing State Journal Report here.