Francis X. Donnelly, Detroit News staff writer
They're oily. They're smelly. They draw flies. Alosa pseudoharengus, or alewife, has risen from the bowels of Lake Michigan and invaded the beaches of northwest Michigan. From Leland to Ludington, hundreds of thousands of the finger-size fish have been washing up along the 100-mile stretch of coast for several weeks.
The sudden emergence of the silver interlopers elicited a decidedly nonscientific response from Gail Weiss.
"Ew!" the 12-year-old sputtered recently after spying one of hundreds of fish at Orchard Beach State Park in Manistee. "Gross!"
But this fish story has a silver lining.
All the carcasses littering the beaches are a good sign for the $7 billion sport fishing industry on the Great Lakes, said biologists and charter boat captains.
Salmon and trout eat alewives, so the big numbers of the tiny fish mean the larger fish have plenty to eat. That makes anglers smile because salmon and trout are among their favorite catches.
"It's completely natural," said Andy McQuillan, owner of Hawg-Tide Sportfishing Charters in Frankfort, who has spotted the fish in his nets. "It's a good sign because salmon thrive on them."
Fish experts concerned by the few alewives in the past decade have been heartened by their return.
The deaths don't worry them because some alewives are sensitive to sudden drops in water temperature, said Dave Clapp, manager of the state Department of Natural Resources fisheries research station in Charlevoix.
"They're prey for trout and salmon," said Clapp. "From that perspective, it's a good sign that food will be available for them."
Even seagulls get something out of the deal. The alewives that aren't eaten by salmon in the water are scavenged by the birds on land.
So, to review: fishermen, state researchers and squawking carnivores — happy. Twelve-year-old beachcombers and tourism offices — not so much.
The website for the Leland Chamber of Commerce opens with a video extolling its sandy beaches and crystalline waters.
"It's mystical. It's magical. It's Leland," coos the narrator.
If a dead alewife appeared in the series of images flashing across the screen, it was buried below the shimmering surface of Lake Michigan. Yet its beach had a silvery hue last week with the slithery guests.
In Empire, another lakeside resort 20 miles south of Leland, merchants worried what the fish might do to business.
Beryl Skrocki, owner of Sleeping Bear Surf and Kayak, fretted that sales were already hurt by cold weather in June.
"When people came in talking about it last week, I was, 'Oh no!'" she said. "We don't need another blip in our tourism season."
A decade ago, Skrocki hiked to an Empire bluff overlooking the lake and was struck by the vista below. She took another step and was overwhelmed by the stench of rotting alewives, an invasive fish, on the beach.
Listening to her customers, she fretted the nightmare might return. But she was comforted when they said the problem was worse in other towns.
A weekend ago was a bad time for the fish to be visiting Empire, a village of 378 west of Traverse City. It was the resort's annual Anchor Days festival, which included a parade and a standup paddle session on the lake. As unwelcome as the vagabonds are, they're nothing like their forebears. In 1967, 20 billion alewives forming a 40-mile plume of dead fish stormed upon the shore of northern Michigan. "Compared to the '60s, this is nothing," said Jim Dexter, acting chief of DNR fisheries.
Back then, lakefront residents tried to stop the ghastly visitation by erecting fences in the water. It didn't work.
Fish burned, bulldozed
Michigan and other states experiencing the problem trawled the water for the corpses and buried them. Others burned and bulldozed the fish.
Salvation finally came with a plan to stock the Great Lakes with salmon. It reduce the number of alewives and boosted the fishing industry by giving anglers a popular fish to catch.
Among fishermen, at least, alewives were transformed overnight, from despised to beloved.