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Stateside Podcast: How invasive species are changing waterways

Courtesy of Bayport Fish Company

The commercial fishing industry in Michigan, spanning over 100 years, has navigated several transformations. However, one of the most persistent challenges continues to loom large: invasive species.

On the shores of Lake Huron's Saginaw Bay, the Bayport Fish Company stands as proof of Michigan's fishing heritage. It is a small, family-owned fishery that was established in the 1840s. During the 1920s and '30s, Bay Port was known as one of the largest freshwater fishing ports.

Tod Williams, the owner of Bay Port Fish Company has been immersed in the commercial fishing industry since 1978. Over the last 45 years, he observed significant ecological shifts in the Great Lakes.

Lakon Williams oversees the tote filled with white fish, concluding the day's catch. The Bay Port Fish Company employees sorted through 5,000 pounds following a eight-hour day on the water.
Tessa Kresch
Michigan Radio
Lakon Williams oversees the tote filled with white fish, concluding the day's catch. The Bay Port Fish Company employees sorted through 5,000 pounds following a eight-hour day on the water.

“I know in the eighties, when they first bought it … they were catching millions of pounds of carp, catfish, and walleye a year,” said Lakon Williams, Tod Williams’s daughter who now manages the fishery. “Now we probably catch right around 100,000 to 150,000 pounds of whitefish a year. So not only has… the amount of fish we catch changed, but the species of what we're catching has also changed.”

Non-native fish and plants have done a number on the Great Lakes – creating massive changes to the aquatic ecosystem.

“When the sea lamprey came in, they devastated a lot of the deep-water, fish, lake trout, and whitefish so there wasn't a lot of those around,” said Tod Williams.

Sea lamprey are an invasive species in the Great Lakes that attach to a host fish and drain it of its bodily fluids. They first infiltrated the Great Lakes in the 1920s and '30s, inflicting severe damage on native fish populations, including lake trout and walleye.

Then, in 1986, invasive mussels, such as the zebra and quagga mussels, established their presence in the lakes.

“They filter, like, a liter [of] water a day, each one, and they're about the size of a pea and there's millions and billions of them,” said Tod Williams. “They filter all the food out of the water before the little fish get a chance to eat it. So there's less food for the fry, which of course, turn into bigger fish. So there's less bigger fish.”

The clear water that the zebra and quagga mussels are responsible for allows these fish to be seen more easily by predator birds like cormorants.

“Once that water was clear, the cormorants just started [coming.] I mean, [they] just astronomically increased in numbers. … There's not a whole lot for us to harvest.”

In response to these challenges, the Bay Port Fish Company shifted its focus to deep-water fishing, primarily whitefish. They take their boat out about once a week, returning with an average of 5,000 pounds of whitefish following an eight-hour workday on the lake.

While they get significantly less fish than they used to, Bayport Fish Company still has a lot of loyal customers.

“We'll get people from Ann Arbor or Port Huron, Detroit, and somebody from Grand Rapids the other day in Ohio; they find us,” said Lakon Williams. “I'm not sure how, but they know we're here and we've been here for over a hundred years.”

While it has been difficult, the Williams family has managed to weather the changes invasive species have created in the commercial fishing industry.

“I don't know what we can do about it, but time will tell,” Tod Williams said.

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Tessa is a senior student studying Broadcast Journalism and Theatre at Michigan State University and she joined the Stateside team as a production intern in June 2023.
Rachel Ishikawa joined Michigan Radio in 2020 as a podcast producer. She produced Kids These Days, a limited-run series that launched in the Summer of 2020.