ALPENA - After 42 years of studying many kinds of fish, Department of Natural Resources Fisheries research biologist Jim Johnson is retiring June 20.
The Alpena Fisheries Research Station director has seen lots of changes in Michigan's fish, including a number of success stories. He's also dealt with disappointments and frustrations. Although he'll be wrapping up work at the lab and office, he'll still keep a net in the water by working with citizens groups and typing up the results of his research.
Johnson got his start one summer while attending Central Michigan University, he said. He worked night shifts at Pontiac Motors in Oakland County to pay his way, and one day saw a Department of Conservation crew - the DNR's predecessor - electrofishing his favorite trout stream.
"I asked, 'Well, you know if I didn't sleep and worked at Pontiac Motors at night and shocked the river with you guys during the daytime, would you be interested in me volunteering?' And they said, 'Yeah, sure,'" he said.
That sold Johnson on fish conservation, he said. From there, he worked summers with the department until he graduated in 1972, getting married the same year, he said. He took a job with the Nebraska Game and Parks Division, eventually heading the state's research section. After seven years he took the lead research job for Utah's conservation department, giving him the experience he needed to come home.
Back in Michigan, lake trout were struggling in their native habitat, Johnson said. Sea lampreys were killing them, and their diet of alewives caused a nutrient imbalance that hurt reproduction. Now, the population is recovering as natural reproduction picks up, something Johnson never expected to see in his career. It's one of the many changes Johnson witnessed in his 25 years of studying Lake Huron.
"From the bottom up and from the top down, they've been thorough and systemic," he said.
Starting in the 1990s, alewives collapsed after zebra and quagga mussels affected their food web and wild-spawned chinook salmon started eating even more of the bait fish. Their collapse left Lake Huron with a self-sustaining fishery for walleye, with lake trout not far behind, Johnson said.
Both species are eating invasive gobies, and the only missing part is the lake herring, Johnson said. These native prey fish would provide food for larger predators, and take some predation pressure off young smallmouth bass, other predator fish and yellow perch. They're doing well in northern Lake Huron, but aren't often found elsewhere in the lake.
Changes aren't finished, Johnson said: zebra and quagga mussels aren't doing as well nearshore, and other population dynamics are shifting as well.
"It's going to require a long period of no more invasive species coming into Lake Huron before things can ever settle down," he said.
Another success Johnson saw includes successful double-crested cormorant control efforts, which directly boosted the success of the DNR's steelhead stocking program, he said. Thunder Bay's reef project also is succeeding, and the walleye management plan he and Dave Fielder created also proved fruitful. The next step is to keep improving the lake's steelhead fishery by experimenting with sizes of stocked fish, and to adjust Atlantic salmon stocking methods.
Johnson recently received the Jack Christie and Ken Loftus Award from the Great Lakes Fishery Commission for his contribution to understanding Lake Huron's ecosystem. He said the award recognizes the major accomplishments he and station staff have made. It's all work that helps Lake Huron's managers make decisions concerning the lake's fisheries.
"We would never do anything at our office that we didn't think wouldn't lead to better management of the lake," he said.
Despite this, Johnson said there's some doubt as to whether Johnson will be replaced. That's due in part to spending $2 million on a new research vessel to replace the aging Chinook. This redirects money from other projects or adding staff to the station.
Other than $1 million in state general funds going toward the new boat, most Great Lakes ecosystem management is funded through an excise tax on fishing gear, Johnson said. He's hoping lawmakers and the public will support spending more tax dollars on keeping the lakes healthy.
The single biggest disappointment for Johnson during his time on the Great Lakes has been the failure to stop invasive species from getting in, he said. Anglers also have to deal with the results of a disaster they didn't create. Without sea lampreys, for example, biologists would have around $20 million each year to spend on more worthy projects.
"If it weren't for invasive species, we wouldn't have a whole lot to do, we wouldn't be asking for more people," he said. "We wouldn't need a bigger staff than what we have now, probably. The system would be stable once we understood what the fishing controls needed to be."