The Rarest River

Wayne Groesbeck
Vice Chair
Muskegon River Watershed Assembly

In the mid-seventies, the Great Lakes were in the throes of “Coho Fever,” as big hard-fighting Pacific salmon had established themselves in the “Big Lakes”. They were eating their way through the overabundance of alewives, an invasive ocean baitfish that had arrived in the ballast water of international cargo ships. This new excellent fishery generated a number of associated organizations. One was the Great Lakes Sport fishing Council headed by Dan Thomas, a contractor from the greater Chicago area and a type A+ personality.

The Sport fishing Council held annual two-day meetings in Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, and most memorably at the Niagara Falls Aquarium in New York. At the conclusion of one meeting, a rather elegant dinner was held at a restaurant adjacent to a nature preserve at the tip of Lake Erie. Of the forty or so attendees, about half were salmon charter captains, but the Sons of Lake Erie, the Hoosier Coho Club, the Minnesota Musky Hunters, and the Michigan Anglers Association, among others, were all represented.

Seated next to Director Thomas was a slender gray-haired man who was introduced as Dr. Howard Tanner of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. The sport fishermen at the table sat in awe; Dr. Tanner was the scientist who had first proposed planting Pacific salmon in the Great Lakes and made it work. Not only had those salmon created an unprecedented fishery, but they were controlling the population explosion of invasive alewives. Like many scientists, Dr. Tanner had not sought public exposure, so those of us in attendance felt we were being granted an audience with celebrity, if not royalty.

Dan requested that we each introduce ourselves, and state our affiliation and hometown. At my turn, I said Wayne Groesbeck, President of the Michigan Anglers Association, from Muskegon. Interrupting the progression, Dr. Tanner declared “You people in Muskegon don’t know what you’ve got there. The Muskegon River is a ‘Cool Water System,’ it supports a complete suite of cold water species and warm water species. Only two percent of the rivers in North America are that way.”

Dr. Tanner was right. I knew the Muskegon contained a variety of fish and a few times had caught something I couldn’t identify, but I had never considered the nature of the system as a whole. I have since learned that our river’s diversity applies to plants, invertebrates, mollusks, and everything else in the food web, as well as fish. I have also learned how fragile our river’s status is: an average annual warming of just a few degrees would destroy our unique diversity.

Years later, my revelation was reflected in the title of Jeff Alexander’s landmark book “The Muskegon River: The Majesty and Tragedy of Michigan’s Rarest River.” That rareness is its cool water status, something we must all be dedicated to preserving.