BOOK REVIEW: Something Spectacular: My Great Lakes Salmon Story

New autobiography from Dr. Howard Tanner, father of the Great Lakes salmon fishery, is an important contribution to the annals of history and an engaging read.

January 24, 2019 - Author: , Michigan Sea Grant,

Cover of Dr. Howard Tanner's book.

It would be hard to understate the impact that Dr. Howard A. Tanner had on the Great Lakes region. Tanner was at the helm of the Michigan Department of Conservation’s Fish Division from 1964 until 1966. During this brief moment in time, Tanner set the course for massive change. Ultimately, his decisions were largely responsible for not only the introduction of coho and chinook salmon, but also the shift in emphasis from commercial to recreational fisheries management on the lakes, the rise of state authority and decline of federal authority to manage these fisheries, massive changes to state hatchery systems, and the beginning of state involvement in Great Lakes fishery research.

In the court of public opinion, Tanner’s actions were heralded as a great success. Coastal tourism boomed, tackle companies flourished, and property values soared as “coho madness” drew unprecedented numbers of anglers from Michigan and surrounding states. Beaches that had been littered with the decaying bodies of invasive alewives now bore witness to the birth of a world-class fishery. The small silvery alewives were nearly worthless to commercial fishermen, but their booming population provided ample food for salmon.

This 30-second story is common knowledge around Lake Michigan. It is one of those rare moments in fisheries history that transcends the community of anglers, commercial fishers, and fisheries professionals. The oft-paraphrased “line of dead fish 300 miles long” that littered popular public beaches and prime waterfront real estate was undoubtedly a key to public interest, but the booming salmon fishery that followed also enjoyed broad appreciation due to its obvious economic impacts.

It would have been tempting for Tanner to focus only on the positive in this autobiography. Indeed, he is certainly cast as the hero of the story, but there is also a great deal of reflection on the salient criticism he received. By his own admission, he was well aware of the “firm dogma against introducing non-native species” that was based on the hard lessons and failures of the past.

Tanner’s rebuttal to his critics sometimes reads as realpolitik justification or contention that the ends justified the means. After all, we now have more resilience and stability in predator-prey balance thanks to the increased number of predatory species found in open water. However, Tanner is also very honest about his primary motivation to “do something … spectacular” and create a new recreational fishery.

It is fortunate that Dr. Tanner elected to write this book late in life (he is 95 at the time of publishing) because he was able to write with unvarnished honesty without risk to his professional position or the careers of colleagues. Of course, Tanner often references his membership in the “Greatest Generation” of WWII veterans and this context is very important to understanding the attitudes and cultural norms that enabled these decisions. Even so, some of Tanner’s stories might be judged more critically by today’s standards.

Originally, his plan to do something spectacular for Michigan’s sport fishery involved three non-native fish. From an historical perspective, the discussion of all three fish species that were considered was particularly interesting. Kokanee salmon (a landlocked form of sockeye salmon) were introduced to inland lakes in Michigan before coho salmon were stocked in the Great Lakes, based in part on Tanner’s knowledge of fisheries for stocked kokanee in reservoirs from his time in Colorado. In short, the kokanee program was a failure despite early predictions for their success. Striped bass stocking in certain Great Lakes waters was considered in addition to salmon, and Tanner details the difficult decision to destroy striped bass broodstock after they were brought to a hatchery in Michigan from South Carolina.

At the end of the day, Tanner maintains his belief that the salmon introduction was “the right decision at the right time.”  A great many anglers, coastal residents, and small business owners along the Great Lakes’ shores would agree with this wholeheartedly. Among fisheries biologists and Great Lakes ecologists, I think it is fair to say that opinions are more nuanced while state-licensed and tribal commercial fishers have more negative views (which are explored along with sport fishing views in the book Fish for All).

In addition to providing an insider’s perspective on the birth of the Great Lakes salmon fishery, Tanner provides readers with a look at his early life spent fishing for trout, deployment in the South Pacific, and his graduate research on lake fertilization. Along with providing context for his later work, these early chapters serve to remind us just how much things have changed since the early days of fisheries management.

For example, Tanner initially hypothesized that fertilizing lakes would increase trout production. After adding nutrients to a lake, Tanner observed that trout growth increased over the first summer, but there was a large fish die-off that winter due to oxygen depletion below the ice. Today we take it for granted that fertilizing glacial lakes in the upper Midwest is a terrible idea because excess nutrients lead to increased decomposition and decreases in dissolved oxygen. Early research projects like Tanner’s provided the science that led to our current paradigm of seeking to reduce nutrient inputs to lakes, as opposed to increasing them.

Mindsets change slowly, but Dr. Tanner’s tell-all autobiography paints us a vivid picture of that moment in time where everything changed dramatically and almost overnight. Those times still factor into the psyche of today’s anglers. The mix of seemingly unlimited forage, the overnight sensation of a booming fishery in response to stocking, and the equation of “more fish stocked = more fish caught” that held true for decades left a deep imprint. Now, as we collectively look toward the future, Tanner’s book provides crucial historical context for our present situation and a thoughtful exploration of the critical factors that led to his decision.

This book is available in hardcover from MSU Press for $39.95 (or ebook $31.95) at http://msupress.org/books/book/?id=50-1D0-44D9#.XD458ml7mM8

Author’s note: Looking back at my own life and career, Dr. Tanner’s influence looms large.

My decision to study Fisheries and Wildlife at Michigan State University was based on two things: they offered a course in ichthyology (the study of fish – at the time I did not understand exactly what fisheries management entailed), and the fact that the Red Cedar River flowed through campus and supported a run of coho salmon. As a student at MSU, Dr. Tanner gave a guest lecture in a course on Great Lakes issues and I began to use the example of his decision to explain to family and friends what the field of fisheries management is all about, and how it can relate to people who don’t necessarily care about fishing.

Now, as an extension professional working with Great Lakes charter captains and recreational salmon anglers, I can attest to the fact that Dr. Tanner’s legacy is very much appreciated by people who launched their own businesses, organized their social life, and invested their savings on the promise of salmon in the Great Lakes. After half a century of salmon and the appearance of quagga mussels, spiny water fleas, round gobies, and other invaders, we are now grappling with the question of how to best balance the mix of salmon and trout species with shrinking (or a least changing) food resources.

Michigan Sea Grant helps to foster economic growth and protect Michigan’s coastal, Great Lakes resources through education, research and outreach. A collaborative effort of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University and its MSU Extension, Michigan Sea Grant is part of the NOAA-National Sea Grant network of 33 university-based programs.

This article was written by Michigan Sea Grant Extension Educator Dr. Dan O'Keefe under award NA14OAR4170070 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce through the Regents of the University of Michigan. The statements, findings, conclusions, and recommendations are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of Commerce, or the Regents of the University of Michigan.


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