Friday, May 4, 2012

There’s No Such Thing as Coasters


 Why Michigan Needs to Maintain Strict Limits in Coastal Waters of the Upper Peninsula.



As I’ve publicized before, I’ve joined an adventurous group of gentlemen to go to Isle Royale National Park and fish for and document the endangered Coaster brook trout.  

Except that they don’t exist.

Let me clarify.  I’ve always heard and read about Coasters.  They are spoken of here in Michigan in hushed tones.  Coasters are lake dwelling brook trout said to exist only in Lake Superior.  They grow to mythic proportions and ascend tributaries each fall to spawn.  While most are probably about twenty inches long and three pounds, they can grow to thirty inches long and ten pounds.  .  In times past they were said to be numerous, and sportsman flocked to UP river mouths to catch giant brook trout.  I have always been told that they are an endangered subspecies of brook trout native only to Lake Superior

This isn’t true.

I mentioned in a post some time back that we were going to Isle Royale to fish for the endangered Coaster brook trout and raise awareness for their conservation and one of my more astute readers asked the question “How do we know they’re an endangered species and not just brook trout?”

I had always taken the answer to that question for granted- this is Michigan, those are our fish.  As a budding amateur journalist I was intrigued.  After all, I’ve caught 18” brook trout through the ice on Lake Michigan near Petoskey.  DNR biologist Neal Godby once referred to the big brook trout they net incidentally in Burt Lake while surveying walleye as “Coasters”.  And the USFWS people I had run into at the lamprey weir on the Little Carp river in the Straights of Mackinac had told me of the large brook trout they catch incidentally in their traps there.  Could these also be coasters?

A couple of people who I had mentioned this to knowingly suggested that I don’t know what a real coaster is.  Perhaps they’re right.  It could be that they don’t know either.

So I contacted DNR biologist Neal Godby and asked him what information the DNR had and the ream of material he sent back was astonishing.   Long story short- there are no Coasters.  To be clear- Coasters occur as a phenomenon, but they are not a genetic subspecies or type.  Even more amazing was to read that all of the northern Great Lakes brook trout are genetically identical, even the Nipigon fish.  While Eastern brook trout had been stocked at one point in some streams in Michigan, solid evidence shows that all of Michigan’s cold streams connected to the Great Lakes were colonized by brook trout after the grayling were extirpated by fishing and logging activity.  We still have our native fish.  And yes, that would make those extremely rare large Lake Michigan or Huron brook trout “Coasters”.

want to catch fish like this? Don't keep ten of his babies.


The fun thing about being a sportsman in Michigan is all the intrigue and peril.  I knew that if I only shared the DNR’s research and chosen studies I would be ridiculed.  “Don’t you know the DNR is all politics?”  “They just don’t want another Endangered Species to manage, and so they cherry picked their studies to shoot down the designation”.

Those arguments could seem to have some validity.  After all, the information shared with me stated that the US Fish and Wildlife Service had applied for ESA protection for Coasters.  But what stood out to me was that they had lost.

So I contacted the Fish and Wildlife Service office in Ashland Wisconsin to find out what they had to say.  I had a really nice conversation with biologist Henry Quinlan.   It turns out that their ESA protection request was procedural.  They were petitioned by private groups to have Coasters get ESA protection.  They are required by law to jump through the hoops when petitioned and so they did. Except that USFWS research agrees with that cited by the DNR- there is no evidence that Coasters exist as a genetic strain.  None.  To the contrary, the evidence suggests that Lake Superior is the perfect home for brook trout to reach their full genetic potential.  Put them in some cold but miserable brook beset by otters and mink and they might live to three years and ten inches.  Put them in Lake Superior with lots of deep water to escape to and tons of chow and they can live for several more years and become the sumos of their kind.  When you add in the overwhelming genetic evidence the answer is clear to me- Coasters are brook trout in their perfect environment.  And this leaves me even more hopeful- as long as we have brook trout, there will always be Coasters.

So let me be clear.  Coasters do not exist, not as a genetic strain.  Coasters do exist as a phenomenon of Lake Superior, the ultimate brook trout pond.  This distinction is important, as it shifts the focus (and resources) from trying to identify and save a genetic strain that doesn't exist, to preserving habitat and promoting regulations that will foster strong Coaster numbers once again.

Michigan has other giant brook trout producers, and they are no Lake Superior.  I would die to catch one of these fish.  I’m not at liberty to name these lakes, but they do exist.  Fish in the 3-5 lb. range are possible.  Book a trip with Brad Petzke and then take a walk with him.  He’ll show you some fish.  The fact is, if you toss brook trout into any large body of water with ideal temperatures and a good forage base, they can start to resemble the brown trout you are used to.  They get big, mean, fat, jowly, and oh so catchable.  The point being, give them food and space and they will grow.  If anything, Coasterism is a testament to the genetic plasticity of brook trout.

I think that there has been a rather nostalgic idea here of what Coasters are- our salmon.  That they live that lifestyle, being borne in natal streams, smolting and heading to Lake Superior to feed and grow, then returning to the gravel they were born in to complete the cycle. None of the scientific evidence supports this.  The biggest frustration in the Hurricane river study was that once those fish dispersed, they almost never came back.  Ever.  Coasters don’t smolt, seem to completely lack a homing instinct, and many spawn on off-shore gravel.

So instead of trying to preserve our piscatorial Sasquatch here’s what I propose.  Let’s raise the bar here.  For instance, certain groups would like to see the catch limit in Michigan’s UP raised to ten brook trout, from the current limit of five.  This is absurd. To be fair, proposed creel limit changes would not affect streams that already have tighter restrictions, but what about the dozens of creeks and non-restricted rivers?   If you want Coasters you had better not be cleaning your streams out of seed fish.  Michigan has set the minimum size limit on all coastal waters of Lake Superior to 20 inches with a limit of one fish and this is a good start.  Canada has enacted similar rules- one fish per day that must be at least 22.5 inches.   When I was up in Nipigon last year they spoke of catching coasters as routine.  Henry Quinlan informs me this was not the case 15 years ago.  Some locals fought these rules, but in the end good science prevailed, and now they are catching fish again.

Michigan is a great state, with a proud heritage and a tremendous fishery.  It is my dream to stand on a beach in the UP and catch a Coaster some day.  I guess my argument here is less about whether Coasters exist than not wanting to see us take a step backward by enacting the proposed ten fish limit in the UP.  The days of “living off the land” are over.  They never existed, which is why fish stocks got so depleted in the first place, and why fish and game laws were enacted.  I enjoy eating trout, but I’ll never stock my freezer with them again.    I enjoy them fresh as a delicacy, not as something that is going to get me through the winter.  If you support the ten fish limit don't complain about the lack of Coasters.

Enough said.  I’m going fishing.



35 comments:

  1. Nice article Jason!I am not a Michigan native and live in western Michigan so my Brook Trout exposure is very limited. I have caught a few including a 17 incher. The thought of them running up rivers like Salmon growing to large sizes sounds crazy! Not so long ago on the Grand River we caught Lake trout like they were bluegills in the late fall, now almost nothing. Funny how the ecosystem can change seemingly not for the better.

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    1. Thanks. Lake trout generally will only enter streams in the fall here- they require cold water. We catch them from shore here in the spring until the waters warm and they go deep again.

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  2. Good Read. I was under that assumption without wanting to prove it...but the name "Coaster" is never going to leave just as the name "Steelhead" is is forever going to be used by our local spawn baggers; which is a good thing. There both mythical names that remind me of my first hook up with those aquatic footballs.

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    1. I hope the term "Coaster" never dies. It's our term for big Lake Superior brookies, and I love it.

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  3. Hi Jason. Thanks for the interesting post. For more information, you might contact Professor Casey Huchins at Michigan Tech. He is an expert on brook trout in general, and he has conducted extensive studies on the similarities and differences between resident and migratory brook trout. One result of his studies with colleagues at MSU and DNR is in this March 2012 publication:

    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0380133011002450

    In short, they did determine that "Brook trout above and below a falls on the Salmon Trout River differ genetically."

    On a related note, Casey is also a good source for scientific information regarding the proposed regulation change. His summary: The science does not support an increase in the limit for U.P. brook trout.

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    1. Tim- thank you for sharing the link and contact info. I will follow up on it, as I find Coasters to be infinitely fascinating. I don't have a stake in this, and merely started researching it to satisfy my curiousity.

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  4. This is a damn good piece, Jason. Thanks for challenging misconceptions and conventional fisheries management wisdom.

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    1. Russ- thank you so much, it means a lot. I think knowing the truth will help us better manage these fish and promote better practices by anglers and the state.

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  5. Awesome post. I always enjoy a piece on conservation that is rooted in facts and not emotions. Even though I'm passionate about conservation, I like to have all the factual knowledge straight on an issue.
    One minor thing the biologist in me couldn't help but notice was your use of the term "genetic plasticity." Genetics aren't really plastic, but the phenotype expressed certainly can be. The more biologically accurate term is "phenotypic plasticity."
    Again, great post!

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    1. Jay- Thank you, and thanks for the correction, as I do like my pieces to be as accurate as possible. "Behavioral plasticity" may have been a better term to use as well. I work construction by day and do my best. I was shocked to learn that Coasters were not a strain or sub-species.

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  6. Awesome stuff! They might not have a genetic strain, but the phenomenon is all it takes. Being smart about regs can only benefit the fishery and the fisherman.

    Well done sir.

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    1. Thanks Sanders. Come out and chase them with me some day.

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  7. Another thing I'd urge everyone to keep in mind: the DNR also takes a position -- supposedly based on science -- that
    --
    "The available evidence suggests that increasing the daily possession limit from five fish to 10 fish on Upper Peninsula streams likely would have minimal biological effects on brook trout populations, so sociological considerations will contribute significantly in determining whether the DNR will implement the proposed regulation change."
    --
    http://www.michigan.gov/dnr/0,4570,7-153-10364-274228--,00.html

    For the possession limit, then, the DNR is proposing to base their decision on "sociological considerations". Might they also be leaning that way on the Coaster question?

    I'm not suggesting that we know that there is such a think as Coasters. I am suggesting that there may not be enough science to say that there isn't.

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    1. The DNR being the popular whipping boy that they are is exactly the reason I also contacted the USFWS and talked directly to the biologist that deals with them. His words? "We can find no evidence in either our research or any others that they are anything but just brook trout".

      You have to remember that the DNR serves all interested and affected parties on all issues. Their consideration of sociological issues is a valid one from a management standpoint. I'm not defending their stance, only their rationale.

      We can't will genetic Coasters into existence, but we can protect watersheds and populations to try to encourage healthy populations of brook trout in Lake Superior.

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  8. Very entertaining post and beautiful brookies. Any new information about brook trout, from anywhere in their range is always welcome in my book. I just wish some of our Long Island coasters still existed. There was one in the 1800's reported to have rivaled the world record.

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    1. Kiwi- if you have brook trout in your rivers then you no doubt have some salters around still. They would just be rare, that's all. I used to fish Long Island in the salt, with I would have fished the fresh as well.

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  9. If I ever caught a three pound brookie, I'd drop to my knees and praise the fishing gods at DNR.

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    1. There's a lot of atheists here who don't know what they've got.

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  10. Great post. It's just like any natural resource, I guess -- easy to love it to death.

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    1. That's the funny part, we really have it good here in MI.

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  11. Awesome post, Jason! I vacationed in the UP as a child and recall vividly the beauty of the wood, streams and Lake Superior. Have never fished these waters, but would welcome the opportunity. The brook trout is an amazing fish and I believe it also is known to reach it maximum genetic potential in parts of Maine and Eastern Canada. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. Hey- that sounds like a throw-down. Ahem, the world record fish was caught in the Nipigon river, a Lake Superior tributary and at 14 pounds puts it head and shoulders above the rest. I'll grant you that those other places have big fish too. Any place that produces 6-10 lb fish has it going on.

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    2. Not meant to be a competition, Jason, just a general thought that if we protect our waters in places that have ideal conditions, then they will produce big fish. Maine's state record is 9 lbs and the unofficial record from western Canada is in the 15 - 17 lb range (released before verified - the way it should be). I hope we all agree to fight for the conservation of these special places.

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    3. Oh, I was trying to be funny. And yes, I agree with you about conservation and protecting waters. The point of the post really- if Coasters aren't a genetic strain to protect, then all we have to do keep common sense regulations in place and restore or protect the streams they spawn in. I love all brook trout, no matter who's waters they swim in.

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  12. Isle Royale National Park has a lot of preserved fishes in their water ponds. It's best to support eco-friendly activities and keep these endangered species alive. It's a shame though that Coasters weren't real after all. The fishes' scales look really individual and colorful from your photographs.

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  13. A couple of things to think about re: coasters. First, look carefully at the genetic studies. Fish and Wildlife agreed with MDNR that there is no evidence that Coasters exist as a genetic strain. "None." The correct statement is that the genetic studies completed to date show no genetic difference between stream brook trout and coasters. More detailed work can and should be done. Second, both Fish and Wildlife and DNR have an interest in keeping coasters off of the list. If coasters make the list then they have to spend time and money on habitat protection and enforcement (it would have also complicated issues with the Kennicott mine). Listing species complicates their work and lives so they prefer to err on the side of not listing.

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    1. It's always difficult to know who to believe, as it seems there's always a scientific study that contradicts another. There's also the political conspiracy side of things. If you had it in for the DNR I could understand, as the state can ill afford yet another species to coddle, but Fish and Wildlife isn't trying to work itself out of a job. We can't will coasters into existence- the DNA evidence should be fairly simple. I am not against the notion of coasters as a sub-species or strain, indeed I thought they were such until I started asking questions and found out that there is no evidence of their existence. None. Not even one study. To me that's fairly conclusive. I do welcome more studies- anything that draws more attention to our fish and the need to preserve what we have is welcome.

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  14. Great article! Like someone above said- Casey Huckins at MTU is the coaster god. I worked with him while in grad school and he's a great resource. I work for a gov organization and I wouldn't always take what they say to be the gospel. But I know Casey has done some really great research on the topic of coasters. With my background in genetics, I'd say no, there is no genetic difference between regular brook trout and coasters...just like there is no genetic difference between a steelhead and a rainbow trout. The difference is where they spend their life stages.

    I also agree with you on the creel limits. U.P. folks love to eat their fish but I don't think they realize how much the whole system is affected by everyone taking their limit all the time. Lets all practice catch and release for a year! Haha.

    Keep up the great writing.

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    1. Thanks MJ. Glad you enjoyed it. Genetics is a funny field. You should try telling a West-coaster that we have steelhead here in the Great Lakes. They always bristle at the suggestion. Even worse when I say that we have steelhead runs from our inland lakes. Personally I'm only interested in what will effectively help preserve what we have. Thanks for stopping by.

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  15. The days of “living off the land” are over. They never existed.

    Yes, they did exist for my mother's ancestors who lived along the Great Lakes for thousands of years before the white settlers arrived and then depleted the stocks. Other than this correction, great article!

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    1. You are most right IC. I was referring to Europeans. Once they colonized North America subsistence living was a thing of the past. Combine their sheer numbers with their cultural attitudes toward fish and game and it was over. Thanks for the comment.

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  16. Gonna be a great trip Jason. Pulled the Kayak down yesterday and started getting the gear out. Can't wait... Only 10 more days!

    BW

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  18. I don't think it's totally accurate or responsible to say that the coaster life history is not at all heritable or influenced by genetics. Though L.S. coasters are not a genetically separate stock from resident brook trout, several unique stocks of brook trout are present in the lake and it's tributaries (see the Wilson et al. 2008 paper). These stocks have persisted in this environment for ~10K years. I don't think it's unreasonable to assume that they have developed traits which allow them to more efficiently utilize the habitat available to them.Some of these stocks may have a greater propensity to exhibit the adfluvial life history. A partially heritable basis for anadromy has been shown in other salmonids, including arctic charr.

    What I'm trying to say is: Though Coasters may not be a separate species or stock, the stocks (genetic strains) of brook trout in and around the lake are unique. If we loose them, we can't simply replace them by stocking brook trout strains from, say, Southwestern Wisconsin.

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    1. I'm not sure I said that at all. I agree that coasters are uniquely adapted to our waters. Let's hope we keep them.

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