Claire Corlett

Fish Food, Fish Tanks, and More
Dr. Howard Tanner discusses “Something Spectacular: My Great Lakes Salmon Story”

Dr. Howard Tanner discusses “Something Spectacular: My Great Lakes Salmon Story”


– Okay, good afternoon everyone. My name is Heather Triezenberg and I’m with Michigan
State University Extension and the Michigan Sea
Grant College Program. We’re very happy to be
a co-host and a partner for this annual Great Lakes Day Conference and are delighted to have
you all back after lunch. This afternoon’s first
speaker is Dr. Howard Tanner, an internationally renowned as the father of the Great
Lakes salmon fishery. He’s also a true green Spartan, having earned all of his academic degrees here at Michigan State University, following his World War II
service in the U.S. Army. When he was selected to
lead the fisheries division of Michigan’s Department of Conservation, he was given the challenge
to do something spectacular. This afternoon he’ll tell
you the rest of that story! With the salmon fishery launched, he returned to MSU’s
campus conducting research in leading the University’s
department of natural resources. Until Governor William
Milliken appointed him as director of the state’s
Department of Natural Resources and he served on Michigan’s
first environmental review board. In his retirement, Dr. Tanner
maintains his connection with fisheries management and
other natural resource issues throughout Michigan through the Conservation Stewards
Program Organization and encourages young people to engage in his favorite pastime of fishing. He actively collaborates with
groups like Project Fish. His presentation today is about
My Great Lakes Salmon Story. Copies of the book are
available in the lobby area. They’re $30 and we’ll have
a short break after his talk for signing and if you
would like to get a copy, you are welcome to do so. Dr. Tanner, please join us and tell us about your spectacular story. (applause) – Well I debated how I was
going to approach this afternoon and thrown away most of it, but I want to start with the focal point of the decision to, my
decision to stock salmon in the Great Lakes and
what made that possible and what followed that. And the situation was
so incredibly favorable that I go back to it as part of the, certainly the peak of my professional life and an opportunity that I just fail, I don’t fail to mention
to myself as I look back over the years. It was, governed
everything I did after that and so I’m going to talk about it and of course it’s the point in my book that I hope that many of you read. But very quickly, there
are a lot of things in my early life that prepared me for the position to be at that time to make that decision. And I’ll try to cover a
lot of years in a hurry. I was very fortunate in my family with a mother for having
been a schoolteacher and my father loved the out of doors and we did everything that was available from mushrooms to brook trout. And high school was satisfactory in the little town of Bellaire, Michigan. We were in the largest class
in the history of the school. There was 19 of us. So that was my early part and the year that I was
18 was quite memorable. I turned 18. I started college at Western Michigan and I met a girl named Helen and we will celebrate our 75th
anniversary later this year. (applause) Her degree is in zoology
and she had the ability to run an office and so she
understood everything I did and took part in most everything and was very much an asset
to everything that I did from family to profession. My army experience I’ll
cover very quickly. I was in the army for
38 months and I served in the South Pacific in New Guinea and most of the Philippine islands and let’s just say that it
was a maturing experience. But I did, I served as a
one man detachment much of the time and I did make some
pretty significant decisions for corporal. And so I found my way back. We were married before I went overseas. We came back and Helen
had finished her degree and we came to Michigan State University. There was no place to live
so we bought a house trailer. And from 1946 I finished three degrees and did a post-doc and, let’s
see, what else did I do? Summertime employment doesn’t matter. Anyway, I enjoyed I think some
very noteworthy professors here at Michigan State at that time. I had a job offer from Colorado State and we went there immediately
following the post-doc in the summer of 1952. So in Colorado, it was my
professional experiences, all of which I think prepared me for this opportunity I was going to have to decide whether or
not to introduce salmon. Michigan was home. Michigan education was
about Michigan situations of lakes and streams. I thought maybe I’d be
studying brook trout up at Seney or some place, but instead I went to Colorado and began 12 years of diverse experience and some of it was simply
different than Michigan and some of it was in preparation for what was ahead of me
when I came back to Michigan. Just to give you a bit
of a flavor of things that happened in Colorado that
would probably never happen in Michigan, there’s not
a lot of water in Colorado and most every drop of
it belongs to somebody and they’re apt to take
it and drain it away at almost any time. So we had reservoirs that we
stocked with fish of all kinds. I tried ichthyology and more
than half of the species of fish were introduced species. So the introduction of fish
was a very common thing out there, everything from grayling and Rocky Mountain rainbow to everything, all warm water species, bass,
oh including white bass, including striped bass,
walleyes, northern pike. Before I got there, they
had introduced northern pike in a number of places and
they said in one lake, the northern pike never get very big. So by that time, I was
teaching graduate students. Well, a student looked at it, came back, and said, “They don’t get very big “because they’re not northern pike. (laughter) “They’re eastern chain pickerel.” (laughter) And I had in from the
years about ’54 to ’60, I had 22, 23 graduate students and the diversity of their
experiences were the diversity of mine as well. And we as a department were building lakes wherever we could. We’d build a lake over
on the western slope called Sweitzer Lake,
stocked it with a variety of warm water fish, and they all died, except the fathead minnow. And before they died, they turned black. And so we turned a student, a student onto the problem
and eventually an answer that you’d never get in Michigan. There was a soil toxin,
deildrin, not dieldrin, I’ll come to it later. But anyway, it was something
that the ranchers knew about. They didn’t put cattle on that soil. But anyway, the fish lived to
about three months and died and that was one. Then we took part in a national study. Why did in some lots of hatchery rainbow, why did 80% of them turn up
with hepatoma liver cancer? So we had a small piece of that. So had a great diversity,
particular, oh and one more. Now I’m over into, I’m
chief of fisheries research and I have eight or nine biologists and one of them was responsible,
had been responsible for quite a long time in
stocking kokanee into Colorado and very successful, a
plankton feeder feeding in reservoirs that had great fluctuation. Sometimes plankton was
about the only food supply. Anyway, kokanee was well
established in a variety of lakes and frequently stocked and he
wanted to stock coho salmon. And I didn’t know anything
about coho salmon. I did soon, I went to the
west coast to sample it, but he did a thorough
review and my research for coho was basically
to review his review. And there were certain
points of that review was that there was in Montana
there had been a stocking of coho that completed the life cycle. But the really telling
one was in California where they had kept three
generations of coho in a hatchery. So the question of, that
was immediately raised to me and I came back to stock
coho in Michigan was, well, they have to go to salt water. And it was clear that there
was no obligatory reason for the salmon to spend
time in salt water. So those experiences, oh, I had some interesting
survival episodes in Colorado. I got buried in an avalanche, I got shot, and so not only do I respect
the experiences that I had, that I marvel that somehow I’m still here. (laughter) And there was one I left out. Back in the Philippine
islands during World War II, I got my orders over the radio and through teletype machines. I checked the teletype everyday. I was expecting to go home soon. The orders came in for me to take first available
aircraft to Manila, but I had a Jeep and not much to do and so I had, when the orders came in, I had already gone fishing. Somehow it reminds me of the expression you can’t keep a squirrel on
the ground in tree country. So I had the opportunity and I was off and I came back that afternoon and there were some long
faces in the office. Another person had
received the same orders that I was supposed to have received. The plane took off and crashed
in the South China Sea, killing everybody on board. So my orders came again and
I took the plane the next day and I didn’t fly for six years after that. So those were some of my
experiences of personal. So I came back to Michigan
and here were the other facets of that decision. Michigan was alive with change. There was, I tend to blame it on the fact that the members of the
greatest generation were moving into pieces of authority
and setting standards and moving ahead and making choices. But it was more than that. The so-called environmental
movement was underway. Michigan United Conservation
Clubs had gathered several hundred dead
ducks, oil-soaked ducks from the Detroit River and dumped them on the lawn of the Capitol. There was numerous groups
that were announcing that they were in the
environmental movement. The DDT was becoming identified
as a lot of problems. Rachel Carson had written her
book, and the title you know, Silent Spring, came from research done on the campus of Michigan
State University. Michigan was in the middle
of the beginning of this. So one day in Colorado, I got a phone call and they said, “Why don’t
you apply for the opening “as chief of fisheries?” I said, “I didn’t know about it.” And they said, “Well
do you want to apply?” I said, “Probably.” And Helen and I talked it
over that night extensively. We were very happy in Colorado. We had our three children by that time and I was happy in what I was doing. I wasn’t paid an awful lot of money. Maybe that would be worth
mentioning as a contrast. I had been there 12 years
with numerous promotions and I was making $10,800 a year. When Michigan offered me
15, part of the reason for coming back. But I’m an only child. My wife’s an only child and we
had aging parents back here. There was numerous reasons and Colorado is really a very dry state. And so Michigan with the Great Lakes was really the focal point
for a career in fisheries. So I came back and I found the director to be Ralph MacMullan who
I had knew a little bit in graduate school. And he was now director. He was a biologist, maybe one of the first professionally trained people in that position of
supervision and leadership. And he was very loud, quite profane, and I always said he did solve
most problems with his fist. He didn’t have very delicate choice, but he got things done and
he wanted more things done. And we had a couple of good conversations and I remember that one of them, he was critical of the fisheries division and their failure to make progress. So he was telling me he wanted progress. He wanted things done. And as I was about to
leave, he said, you know, “Get something done, and if
you can, make it spectacular,” hence the name of my book. And soon after, I thought I
did something quite spectacular when I arranged for the
introduction of kokanee. That came first. We brought them back. We sent a crew out to Colorado. Colorado was very cooperative. I would’ve expected that anyway and we brought kokanee back
to be reared in the hatchery and stocked in Torch
Lake and in Higgins Lake. That program came to
naught, but it was sort of an ice breaker for
the coho introduction. However, and incidentally, Governor Romney planted the
first kokanee in Torch Lake. We had quite an active,
effective connection with the news media at the time. I think the people of
Michigan were quite affluent at that time and as I tell my story, a lot of them were going far distances to enjoy a fishing experience
or a hunting experience. The important thing about the
coho salmon is its proximity to 50 million people plus. So anyway, it was a situation of people and government was changing. Not only was it Ralph MacMullan, but there was a new constitution written. It was written just over here
in the International Center with President Hannah as the chair. So Michigan had just
rewritten their constitution. There was the environmental movement. There was a need for change, a need for correcting past mistakes. It was no longer appropriate
to have the management of the Great Lakes with a key
value of commercial fishing. There was just loud, clear signals that recreational fishing
would be much more valuable and meet the criteria
of manage the fishery, manage the resource for the greatest good for the greatest number for
the longest period of time. And I knew that coho were not available. This biologist of mine
in Colorado, Dick Kline, had introduced the kokanee and he tried to introduce the coho. And Oregon and Washington
consistently turned him down and he was a native of Oregon. He had good connections out there. But they just said, “We don’t have enough “for our own purposes.” And so it ended up while
I was still in Colorado, still chief of fisheries research, he got I think 350,000
eggs from a private source. And we introduced those into Colorado in the Granby Reservoir
and nothing happened. The Granby fluctuated in volume
about 25 or 30% every year. There wasn’t a lot in
the way of a forage base and the coho lived, but
they never survived. And some of that was
after I left Colorado. So I came back to Michigan. I was asked to make a
change, dramatic if I could and I’d introduce kokanee and I thought that was pretty significant, spectacular. But then comes the moment. I went home one night and probably mid-evening
I got a phone call. I think it was from my
major professor Bob Ball, who was visiting a daughter
out in Oregon or Washington and he said to me, “You
know that there’s a surplus “of coho on the west coast?” All of these things had to happen at about the same from my experiences to the situation in Michigan to things that were going
on to professional members of the greatest generation taking control and then a breakthrough with a new feed that produced more vigorous
smolts in the Columbia Basin. And so those smolts
had had time to return. For the very first time
there was a surplus of coho on the west coast. So anyway, I listened to the message. I figured very likely he was correct, but everything I’d heard up to that time, that was not true. There was not coho available. And so I went to bed that night. I didn’t sleep, but thinking
about what would happen if those coho were truly available and could I get some if I asked? Well, down in Colorado, I was active in the American Fisheries Society and I served on committees and so forth with the chief of fisheries
in Oregon and Washington. I knew them as Ernie Jeffers
and Cliff Millenbach. And so I sat awake nearly all night. I wasn’t too worried about the biology, but if I were to do that and if it failed, that wouldn’t be a problem. If it succeeded, there would
be some dramatic changes and not only in Michigan,
but in seven other states and the province of Ontario. How could I possibly dare to do something? But apparently, I was going
to be given the opportunity. So the next morning, I went to work and there’s a three hour difference between here and Oregon. So I had to wait for
awhile and I called Ernie and I called Cliff and the answer was, I said, “Can we have some coho?” And they wouldn’t say,
“Well, maybe,” or “Perhaps.” They were saying they would
have to get some permission and of course I would have
to get some permission from, at least from my director. So I said, “Well if I get a
formal request to you for coho, “can you respond positively?” And they said, “Maybe, we’ll try.” And they didn’t know anything
about the Great Lakes. But anyway, I, after having
stayed awake most all night, I went to see my director and he said, “Sure, go ahead and do
something spectacular.” And so an application was made and the reason that, part of the reason that I was able to make that decision was, I think it was Ernie said, “We got a wonderful bunch of coho. “We’re about done.” So if I was going to make a decision, there was nothing to send to a committee, there was nothing to
ponder or to research, the literature research that we had done in Colorado was my only research on coho, but we had done that much at least. And so I put in a formal
request to both states. They both said, “Yes, we’ll
send you a million eggs. “Here’s what you need to do.” And they gave me further
instructions afterwards. But please send a crew out here to, so we can make them aware of the coho and the needs in the hatchery and so forth and I did that and they went out. And we had a great deal of fanfare. We had publicity all over. All the outdoor writers
were writing about it. We had broken them in on the kokanee. And so Oregon came through. In fact, I have to thank those
people over and over again. They extended their egg take in order to get a million eggs for Michigan. On the other hand, in Washington, a couple of politicians got in the
way and Cliff was unable to deliver the first year,
but thereafter the next year and the year following,
Washington also supplied coho. So that was the key to
this decision that I made. And the biology was rock solid. Oh I had flown over Michigan
to visit fisheries offices in the Upper Peninsula
and on the way back, the pilot said, “Look down there.” We were somewhere west of Beaver Island and there was a mass of
dead alewife floating. And I said to him, “Tell
me how big that mass is.” So he sort of circled a little bit. That mass of dead alewife
is about seven miles long and about a half a mile wide. There was all kinds of
complaints about dead alewife on the beaches. Some of the beach oriented,
resort period had shut down, it smelled so bad. So there was a, not only
a lot of food available, but it was, in itself, was a problem. So later on the coho arrived. There was opposition. The federal government objected to it and I was, we had a gentleman’s agreement with Wisconsin and
Michigan, and Minnesota, that we would not, any of
us, introduce a new species without concurrence from
the other two states. I knowingly broke that
choice because I had to, I just had to. And they reminded me of it a
few times that I had done that. And I don’t think that Minnesota
has ever stocked salmon. They have stuck with steelhead and of course it’s just the western end of Lake Superior anyway. So, we had the coho in the hatchery. There was some of the news
media was in favor of it, in fact, most of it. But people in Michigan
had never seen a salmon. They’d never caught a salmon. If you got a six pound
smallmouth, you had a big fish. And there was some
steelhead, but the experience of large fish was minimal. And people didn’t have
boats for the Great Lakes. There really wasn’t much
reason to fish the Great Lakes, some Mackinaw fishing. The federal government in the form of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission and the Bureau of Commercial
Fisheries were sled length into their restocking of lake trout and the eel, the lamprey and suppression were their major programs. The intent of the Great
Lakes fisherman was fixed on restocking the supply
of Mackinaw trout. And I was on the podium when they opened the
Jordan River hatchery. And so anyway, that was the
situation that was going on. We had to pump sunshine for all the time that the coho were in the hatchery and then they were planted
in the spring of ’67 at the Platte River Hatchery
with a full blown ceremony with dignitaries speaking
and stocking fish. And so we waited the summer of ’67. A few isolated incidents came
along, small fish 12 inches, fish 16 inches, just a few
glimmers along the way. And then in the fall of
’67 came the explosion of the coho fishery. And I can’t really
describe the pandemonium that that produced, but the news came out and people were calling up their friends and saying, “Hey, we caught five salmon “and they average 12 pounds
and you got to get up here.” And so everybody came to
the west coast of Michigan. It was pandemonium and
there was many people who have described that,
they think of the Manistee. The motel, you couldn’t get
a motel room within 40 miles and pretty soon they ran out of gasoline and the real crisis was
when they ran out of beer. (laughter) It was a dangerous situation. Anyway, just try to picture a fisherman with a hand rod fishing in Platte Bay and he’s got a lighting
net about that big around and his body isn’t strong
enough and his boat is too small and he doesn’t have a radio. He’s never heard of a down
rigger or a fish finder. And there were hundreds
of boats in Platte Bay. And the estimate that
Michigan made that year was that the fishermen caught,
in Michigan waters, about 40 to 50 thousand coho salmon. More specifically, John
McGregor ran the weirs that were only partly
finished on the Platte River, on the little Manistee
River and on Bear Creek. He ran those for that fall
after the main fishing season and he, John was one of
the hardest working people that I ever saw. I regret so much that my book
wasn’t out in time for John. But anyway, I had many
conversations with him about his experiences there. He worked his crew 21 days
straight handling the coho that were captured in the
weirs, took two days off, worked another 23 days and
in total handled a total of 256,000 coho and the
average weight was 12.6 pounds. They must have been able
to go into the lake, open their mouth, and there was, I remember the alewife wasn’t
the seven or nine inch fish that everybody saw, but two
generations younger than that and smaller than that. We never found out how much
the gill nets in Wisconsin might have harvested or Illinois. In Indiana, they said 10,000 fish, but that was a swag if I ever heard one. And so remember we didn’t have any creel census or anything. It was Katy bar the door. And so that was the explosive answer to the stocking of the coho. And it was on my mind
that I had done something that would affect the other seven states and the province on Ontario,
but it was turning out okay. In fact, going back after I
had spent that night thinking about whether or not to ask for coho, I told my wife I’m
either going to be a hero or I’m going to be a bum and
right now, I’m not sure which. I might turn out to be the Benedict Arnold of the fisheries world depending
if something goes wrong because I was there and I was
the one to make the decision. And so the rest of it
is pretty much history. The economic value, the
sustained fishery for 50 years. The problems that have
developed since then, totally unheard of at the time. Now that’s my part of the coho story and I’m not aware of how
long I may have been talking. If there’s time, I would welcome questions and I don’t hear well,
I don’t see well either. (applause) So she’s going to take the questions and tell me about it and I’m
going to sit in that chair. – [Man] You said the
biology was rock solid and I just wondered if you could expand on that a little bit. – So he wants to know about the
biology being rock solid so. – Oh and I’ll probably
remember some things I failed to mention the first time. There was a huge amount of alewife, very similar to some of
the (unclear) species in the Pacific and that the
salmon customarily fed on. The temperature was right. There was experience elsewhere
with coho in fresh water. They lacked the food supply that we had. We have spawning streams
where the steelhead spawn, where the brown trout spawn
coming in from the Great Lakes. And so I thought that all the elements of a biological fit was there,
particular the food supply. And, oh, I failed to mention one thing. After the first fall of fishing success, there had been multiple
years of huge numbers of dead alewife on the beaches. In the summer or spring of
’67, it was the worst ever. What probably had happened
is that an invasive species had finally encountered the ceiling and there was some limit
that they had encountered and the die off was huge. And the next summer, there
was almost no dead alewife on the beaches. And everybody knew that the coho did it. We said, no, there wasn’t
enough coho out there to make a dent in that population. And then about that time
we shut up and said, okay, we’ll take the credit for it. (laughter) – [Heather] So how did the other states and provinces find out about the decision? – Before, of course the news media dealt with it extensively. Some of the news media was in opposition. There was official opposition from the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries. I went before there was any salmon planted to the Great Lakes Fishery Commission and presented what our
program was going to be. They very politely listened to me and I finished in about half an hour and there was not a
question, there was not a, there was silence. Pretty soon the chair said, “Next issue.” And so I visited Fred
Carbine to see if there was anything that we could work together on. He didn’t want to meet me in his office. He wanted me to meet me
at his home in Ann Arbor. So I went there and the
discussion was very short. He very politely said, “Howard,
we have no common ground.” And that was the end of that. Some of the environmental
people took it as dogma that you never never
introduce non-native species and to a large extent,
that’s pretty good advice, but salmon and trout have
been stocked around the world, mainly by England during its colonial days and there are very few examples of where a problem was produced. I was aware of a problem in Colorado where brook trout had been
stocked to the detriment of the native cutthroat. And I was, I searched further, I found out where rainbow
stocked in Lake Titicaca in South America had
eaten the smaller fish, which was the basic catch
of the existing food fishery in that area. So I couldn’t find very many mistakes. Oh, and I didn’t do this,
but I take it as correct. There was a record of salmon being stocked at least 35 times prior to
the introduction of coho in the Great Lakes. – [Heather] Please join
me in thanking Dr. Tanner for being a speaker this afternoon. (applause)

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