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Folks in Fishtown Raise a Stink Over Largest Alewive Die-Off in 15 Years


Some folks in Fishtown are raising a stink as fish washed ashore in the spring continue to crowd shorelines.

Over the past six weeks people all along Lake Michigan have been reporting hundreds of dead fish that have washed ashore. Some folks in fishtown are wondering why they’re here, and when they’ll be cleaned up.

One woman visiting from the Detroit area says she could notice the smell when she pulled up to the beach.

“What is that smell,” She laughs. “So, at first you’re wondering a little bit and you just have to watch your step after that. Once you know you’ve got to just watch where you’re walking.”

The fish that washed ashore are called Alewives. Alewives are typically salt water fish that migrate to freshwater. When in freshwater the temperature tends to be cooler which can lead them to die and wash ashore.

Heather Hettinger is a Fisheries Management Biologist for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. She says the die-off happens every year, but on a much smaller scale.

“We see it for a couple weeks and then the water warms up, they’re done spawning and it kind of goes away,” Hettinger explains. “So, this year that cycle is taking us a little bit longer because Mother Nature is keeping us in a little bit of a cooler situation.”

The DNR says this is the largest die-off they’ve seen in the past 15 years. Places like Van’s Beach in Leland are crowded with dead fish piled along the shoreline.

“I would say the heaviest concentration of fish has been along the western Leelanau County shoreline from Good Harbor to probably Cathead Bay. Most of the peninsula,” Hettinger says.

In the 70s and 80s when the die-offs were much worse, some public beaches did actually hold alewive clean up events, but Hettinger says we’re nowhere near those levels.

“It is an inconvenience. I know it attracts flies and insects that we don’t necessarily want around, but bare in mind its for a limited time. And once these fish break down get washed back into Lake Michigan it really is for the benefit of the ecosystem,” Hettinger states.

The nutrients released from the decomposing fish benefits the water and the animals that inhabit it. The nutrients are especially important with invasive species like Zebra and Quagga Mussels in Lake Michigan. Those species use the nutrients from the water provided by the dead Alewives. Then once those species die the nutrients are being locked up at the bottom of the lake and can no longer be used.

So, while some folks in Fishtown raise a stink the woman visiting from the Detroit area says it’s a small price to pay.

“It’s a little smelly and when you’re walking on the beach it’s not the most enjoyable thing. But knowing that in the end our fisheries and our lakes are in a much healthier state. It’s really good news.”