The fish we eat


The Great Lakes are immediately recognizable to Michiganders, who are lucky enough to border four of them. I have a framed satellite image of these beauties, five familiar patches of deep blue on a bronze leaf background. They are the largest connected body of freshwater lakes on earth. Michiganders rely on them for sport, recreation, natural beauty, and the fish we eat. But maybe we take them a little bit for granted.
When Native Americans lived here before European immigrants, they enjoyed a bounty of fish from pristine Great Lakes waters: sturgeon, lake trout, whitefish, herring, and perch, among about 150 species.

Settlers, astounded by this resource, went crazy with commercial fishing and netting.

It wasn’t sustainable. Unrestrained overfishing and invasive species decimated populations. Sturgeon and lake trout nearly went extinct, upsetting the delicate balance of the lakes. For example, trout fed on a small fish called alewives. When the trout died off in the early to mid-20th century, alewives became an invasive species. Salmon were introduced to eat the alewives, and were so successful that there weren’t many left for them - and now the salmon have started to die off.

Humans brought other threats to Great Lakes fish. International freighters, traveling along canals and deep-water trenches in shallow places like Lake St. Clair, brought zebra mussels – those tiny nuisances that cluster on boats, industrial pipes, and wreak havoc in shallow-water areas. Twenty years of hard work have virtually eliminated the zebras, but their cousins, the quagga mussels, have taken over. The quaggas cover the deep bottoms of the lakes, and suck the plankton out of water that the fresh-water fish feed on. Their presence is also linked to the algae blooms that blanket the shores along Lake Erie in northern Ohio.

Anyone who was around Michigan in the 70s remembers the mercury warnings. While mercury in some form is naturally-occurring, coal-fired plants surrounding the lakes emit higher levels that settle on the ground and surface water. The insects become contaminated, and the small fish eat the insects, who are in turn eaten by the larger fish. The mercury cannot be adequately processed. Advisories called for people to limit consumption of species like whitefish.

Later, industrial contaminants like PCBs, flame-retardant materials, and insecticides like DDT have been found in increasing levels. Exacerbating all these problems is climate change causing increased lake water temperatures, that allow bacteria to thrive.

Environmental efforts have stemmed or reversed much of this harm, but that may be changing. Washington has called for slashed funds for Great Lakes restoration, and even those in Michigan are shrugging their shoulders. Watchdog groups like the Michigan League of Conservation Voters (LCV) have forcefully advocated on issues dear to the Great Lakes.

In March, the President proposed reversing the EPA’s 2014 directive for power plants to cut carbon emissions by 30% by 2030. These emissions contribute to mercury levels that affect our fish. Michigan LCV Executive Director Lisa Wozniak wrote, “Cleaning up the Great Lakes isn’t just about correcting the mistakes of the past but leveraging a vital resource for the future. ... Michigan’s livelihood is on the line.”

This is not hyperbole. This summer, the company that operates the 64-year-old “Line 5” oil pipeline, running through the Straits of Mackinac, disclosed that it found “a number of gaps” in the protective layer of enamel coating on the pipes. Wozniak called for a shutdown of “this outdated, poorly maintained and dangerous pipeline.”     

My local fishmonger Mike Monahan (Monahan’s in Kerrytown, Ann Arbor) steers his ship away from the political turbulence – though he cannot help but be concerned about issues like Line 5. He reads voraciously, stays up on issues affecting our beautiful lakes, and takes great pride in his products. Monahan buys only from reputable sources, and “wouldn’t sell any fish unless I felt it was safe enough to serve my own family.” He’s weathered the changing species, limited availability, mercury warnings, and other periodic advisories to consistently maintain a showcase of glistening, freshly-caught fish. One would like to think these are like those the Natives caught centuries ago, before there was even a Michigan. We need to keep it that way.

Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht & Roumel, PC, a firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment and civil right litigation. He also has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and writes a food/restaurant column for “Current” magazine in Ann Arbor. Follow him at @nickroumel.