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Despite the coaster’s obscurity today, the fish was once a star on the stage of Lake Superior angling. When Europeans first arrived here, biologists believe the fish swam by the millions along the rocky Lake Superior shore and up an estimated 105 Lake Superior tributaries (including at least 30 in the United States) to spawn, making it the dominant near-shore species.
From the mid 1800’s on, sportsmen and sportswomen traveled from across America and even from Europe to catch the fish. The taste was marvelously subtle but memorable. The muscular fish was radiant when pulled sparkling from the water. And fishing guides and clients alike appreciated that the fish was especially easy to catch. But fishermen over-fished. Sand from logging poured into rivers and buried the clean, rocky stream bottoms that the fish needed for egg laying. Dams blocked or inundated other breeding stretches. Pollution changed the chemistry of streams. The coaster’s population came crashing down. By the 1930’s, George Shiras, a Marquette naturalist and early photographer for National Geographic, was already writing about the disappearing coaster.
Shiras’s work provides vivid proof of the coaster’s great PR conundrum: for decades, coaster devotees—government biologists, university researchers, tribal biologists and local advocates—have been warning of the fish’s demise, but beyond this dedicated group there seems to be almost no broader awareness of the fish’s plight and a puzzling hesitancy to ban fishing.
When coaster advocates asked the Michigan Natural Resources Commission to protect the fish in 2005, instead of a ban on fishing, the commission just reduced the bag limit to one a day and increased the minimum size to 20 inches. And despite all the reports written, there had been no long-term study of the coaster until one began in 1996. “We are still learning the basic ecology of the fish,” Huckins says. Reminder, we’re talking about a fish that was once a central piece of the Lake Superior food web and has tremendous angling potential (i.e., tourist dollars). We’re not talking about saving some obscure minnow like the snail darter.
Dr. Ed Baker, Huckins’s co-lead researcher and biologist at the DNR’s Marquette office, has long championed the fish. I ask him how the coaster could have fallen this far before people pushed for endangered species protection. “In the current angler community there’s a lack of experience with the coaster. They don’t understand what coaster fishing was in 1900, so there’s no cry for coaster restoration,” he says. “When we try to get anglers interested, they start to change the subject. ‘When are you going to stock more coho?’” In short: the coaster needs a fan base.
Perhaps to help resolve the fish’s publicity issues, Huckins and Baker agree to let me tag along on their August sampling study on the Salmon Trout River in the U.P. Their work for the study began back in 2000. Two main goals of the study are to chart population trends by recording the types and sizes of fish living in the Salmon Trout and to gather tissue samples for DNA analysis to see if the coaster is a distinct breeding population.