Editor’s note: This article was written by 2023 MISG summer undergraduate intern Ava Tackabury
My name is Ava and I was a Michigan Sea Grant Environmental Intern for the summer of 2023. I am currently in my third year at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor where I am studying Earth & Environmental Sciences and Environmental Anthropology. Outside of my studies, I enjoy traveling, teaching yoga, and anything outdoorsy. I love to explore the ways through which humans are entangled with the natural world—it is this passion that guides my personal and professional pathways.
This summer, I was sponsored by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources through my Michigan Sea Grant Environmental Internship. I moved north to the Charlevoix Fisheries Research Station where I stayed on the beautiful coast of Lake Michigan for about twelve weeks. I worked collaboratively with partner agencies (see acknowledgments) on an ongoing lake whitefish habitat study. Historically, lake whitefish spawned upstream in Lake Michigan tributaries each fall (see photo below). Following mass habitat degradation from 19th-century logging/damming industries and more recent population issues, however, there has been a dramatic lake whitefish decline including the near loss of river spawners.
Lake whitefish are an important species ecologically, culturally, and economically and play an important role in the vitality and sustenance of the Great Lakes. In recent years, especially, filling research gaps within the existing whitefish literature has been crucial. With the help of my supervisor, research manager Dave Clapp, I was able to formulate and adapt a lake whitefish spawning habitat quality survey for about 13 northern Michigan rivers as well as some of their smaller tributaries. This survey details the distinct characteristics of each river and categorizes them based on their suitability for lake whitefish spawning (it will be accessible via a GIS layer that can be appended to maps). It is our hope and ambition that this data can be used in the future by restoration agencies to reestablish lake whitefish spawning runs in Lake Michigan to revamp populations throughout the basin. Rather than delve into the fine details of my work, I’ve decided to share with you my biggest takeaways from working with fish this summer.
What can we learn from whitefish?
Lessons in life ways
As humans, it is easy to place ourselves center in the narrative of our lives within the natural world. However, as sensical as this mindset may be to us — the Self in the narrative — our stories are far more entangled with Other species than we may come to realize. To assume humans to be “at the top,” intrinsically separated from animality, or the only species to operate with intentionality becomes feeble in the grander natural world schematic. Let’s say here that (most) actions carried out by our previous generations were intended to meet what they perceived to be the needs and desires of future generations (e.g. damming rivers to benefit industry, introducing new species into the Great Lakes to combat old problems, or logging whole forests to meet the timber demand). Now, looking back, we can see that many of these actions, while narrowly beneficial to some groups, actually turned out to be quite detrimental—to both ourselves and other nonhuman species. In these examples, humans get to story the world while all others are merely secondary characters. This thinking neglects the narratives of our fellow nonhumans, for they, too, are instinctual and intentional beings. In turn, this human-centric thinking ultimately leads to our own demise.
We do not often take the time to consider what life is like for the various species that have to live on the edge of decline as they experience anthropogenic disruptions, habitat loss, and a changing climate. This summer, I was tasked with exploring rivers through the eyes of lake whitefish to find suitable future spawning habitat. Lake whitefish have been known to exhibit very strong spawning site fidelity—meaning, as young larval fish, they actually imprint on the chemical signature of their natal habitat. Later on in their adult lives, they may seek out the same habitat to spawn and lay their eggs. No matter the argued mechanisms behind these behaviors (pure instincts or otherwise), lake whitefish have purposeful stories and unique histories as individuals and species, as do we. As humans, we are in a powerful position that we must take seriously. We must serve to uphold the longevity of species in a way that not only acknowledges but embraces and embodies their way of life. Perhaps we can begin to mutually story our world, minding the beautiful entanglements between us all.
Lessons in fragility
Fragility is an inherent part of any ecosystem, regardless of any disturbances. In the present world, fragility is entangled in the webs of the natural and anthropogenic worlds leaving us constantly in an edge state of uncertainty, teetering between stability and disarray. We, as a society, are much more vulnerable to miniscule changes than we tend to believe. Our path dependencies, the inflexible habits and existential states we have naively built in an ever-changing world, are leading to rapid, unintended consequences. These unintended consequences create runaway problems or problems that seem to endlessly stack on top of one another in a snowball effect. Feedback loops, while not all intrinsically harmful, are extremely hard to control at large scales. Unfortunately, issues of fragility occur across all scales big and small, often feeding into one another. We must remember, though—fragility may be inevitable to a certain extent, but fragility is preventable.
Through my work this summer, I witnessed the fragility of whitefish bodies and habits firsthand. The ripple effects within food webs that are typically invisible are increasingly amplified across populations. Following the arrival of invasive species in the Great Lakes basin, like zebra and quagga mussels, Diporeia spp., a major food source for whitefish, experienced a huge population decline. This, stacked on top of spawning habitat loss, other invasive species like lamprey, and climate change, has accumulated into a complex conglomeration of entangled problems for whitefish populations. Populations are very sensitive and vulnerable to even the slightest ecological disturbances, so a whole slew of them is not entirely favorable either. We see this fragility reflected in our economy—within the commercial, tribal, and recreational fisheries that are dependent on healthy whitefish populations. We know from historical examples that just one obstruction in the chain can hinder an entire system (think 2021 Suez Canal Evergreen Obstruction, for example). More work is necessary to stabilize and rebuild our Great Lakes fisheries, particularly by restoring keystone populations. By recognizing these fragility cracks, and working resiliently to seal them, perhaps we can move toward a state of flexible stability.
Lessons in revival
Being constantly surrounded by the doom and gloom of society (often perpetuated by the media), making sense of the changes around us can become exhausting. Headlines like “Lake Erie algal bloom now the biggest it’s been all summer,” “Invasive species cause billions of dollars in damage worldwide,” and “One-third of freshwater fish face extinction” seem to swarm us and compete nonstop for our attention on the daily. However, the more we allow ourselves to become engulfed by these narratives, the harder it becomes to see the light, and the strong potential for revival. We may not yet understand all the complexities and mechanisms behind our current problems, but we are finally beginning to recognize our role in them and acknowledge our responsibilities in solution-building. While we must not neglect the need for a sense of urgency, our roles as individuals in these greater wicked problems are simple, if we allow them. We must acknowledge that the world is ever-changing and that we have reached a “new normal” (which is also continually evolving). We cannot keep operating through historic lenses. Let’s open ourselves to this new normal, to the ability to think outside ourselves—within the minds of whitefish or others.
With our willingness for adaptability and plasticity, there is still ample room for hope for revival. Following more than 100 years of extirpation, adult lake whitefish have recently been found spawning within major Wisconsin tributaries to Green Bay, Lake Michigan. Lake whitefish in Green Bay waters have shown a major increase in abundance since the revival of the spawning runs. Researchers have also discovered spawning lake whitefish in the Detroit River following decades of remediation efforts. However, there still exists a multitude of gaps in river-spawning whitefish research including, but not limited to, chronological factors, physical conditions (e.g. water temperature or river discharge), spawning habitat selection, and processes behind larval drift. Coupled with the continually-amplifying effects of climate change, little is known regarding how whitefish will respond to future changes. It is now more important than ever to situate ourselves within this changing “new normal,” recognize and embrace the fragility of our world, and cultivate a mutual existence with our fellow whitefish and species beyond.
Thank you so much to all of the incredible partners who made this work possible!
CMU; The Little Traverse Bands of Odawa Indians Kris Dey, Kevin Donner, Chad Lafaver, Gary Michaud, & Kelsi Wygant; MDNR John Bauman & Dave Clapp; MISG (NOAA-National Sea Grant); The Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians Russell Aikens, Kaya Beaudoin, Katherine Bentgen, Douglas Smith, & Jason Smith; The Nature Conservancy Jamie Dobosenski & Matt Herbert; WDNR.