Editor’s note: Faced with evidence that Asian carp have managed to find their way past an electrical barrier, earlier this month Gov. Jennifer Granholm called for aggressive action to prevent the fish from entering the Great Lakes: “In the meantime, we must use every available tool at our disposal to protect the Great Lakes, including closing the locks, expanding eDNA testing and applying additional rotenone as necessary.”
This week, The Chronicle’s local history columnist Laura Bien takes a 40-year look back into the past at the use of rotenone on a local lake – Ford Lake. That body of water received a passing mention in Matt Naud’s environmental indicator column on phosphorus – it involved a 1991 algal bloom. But back in the early 1970s Ford Lake wasn’t blooming algae, it was blooming fish.
In 1973, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources wanted to turn Ypsilanti’s Ford Lake into a fisherman’s paradise. They planned to stock it with muskellunge, rainbow trout, and large- and smallmouth bass.
The only problem was the lake’s population of “rough fish” – mostly the common carp, plus bullheads and suckers. Carp are not native to Michigan. They were introduced in the late 19th century by the era-equivalent of the DNR as a valuable food fish that was cheap to keep on artificial ponds dug on farmers’ land. The farmers’ aquaculture projects inevitably spilled into Michigan waterways.
A century later, the DNR planned to douse Ford Lake with the piscicide rotenone to kill the carp and other rough fish, then whisk the remains into the Ypsilanti Township landfill and restock the pond.
Instead, the project led to a statewide ban on rotenone.
The first step was to lower the lake level. Rotenone was expensive, and a smaller quantity of lake water would mean less poison. Upstream organizations in charge of various sections of the river and its dams agreed to help. The dams closed, and the level of water in Ford Lake dropped by a yard.
One setback at the beginning of the project presaged the disaster to come. After the rotenone had been delivered and stored on the banks of Ford Lake, someone decided it would be a hoot to roll the 50-gallon metal barrels into the water. Scuba divers had to be hired to fish out the barrels.
The local organization overseeing the project was JYRO, the Joint Ypsilanti Recreation Organization. JYRO expected that a thousand or so volunteers on shore and in boats would assist in the cleanup, based on an informal survey of local residents. The organization scheduled the task on Mother’s Day weekend. JYRO expected so many private boats to turn out on the lake that the DNR sent down a special marine safety boat to supervise the fleet.
On May 10, the barrels of rotenone were loaded onto a few small motorboats and laid on their sides, two to a boat. Hoses led from the openings in the can lids, running along either side of the boat pilot, and extending over the stern into the water churned by the power motor. Sitting a foot or two from one hundred gallons of poison, the pilots were not furnished with protective gear.
Rotenone was harmless to humans, said DNR fish biologist Walt Root, as quoted in the May 9, 1973 Ypsilanti Press. “‘It’s a dehydrating agent,’ he explained. ‘I had a mouthful of it once as an experiment, and it dries your mouth. Fish are highly allergic to it . . . [i]t causes the blood vessels to shrink in the gills.’” The paper added, “Labels on the drums, however, indicate the chemical is toxic.”
“The boats skimmed gingerly across the lake,” stated the May 11, 1973 Ypsi Press, “depositing the liquid in their spray.” The poison sank into Ford Lake’s murky depths. Dead fish began to wash up on shore.
The newspaper presented this as a culinary opportunity.
“Anyone who can make it to the banks of Ford Lake,” suggested a May 11 Press article, “can take home all the fish he can eat for the next few days in the wake of [the fishkill]. The thousands of dead fish, mostly carp, are free for the taking. JYRO officials say they must be carted away and are giving area residents first crack at the kill.”
Food writer for the Press, Dorothy Zack, seized the occasion to publish fish recipes. Her May 15 column headlined “Lots of fish around gives new menu ideas” said, “The fish kill in the waters of the Huron River and Ford Lake bolstered household stocks of fish for the dinner table . . . those that went into the freezer are still waiting for new recipes.” She advised dipping filets in whipped eggs and coating them in cracker crumbs or cream of wheat. The photo accompanying the article depicted a massive slab of salmon that dwarfs the smaller filets available in supermarkets today.
Residents didn’t bite.
But “fishing” with rotenone wasn’t such a far-fetched idea. Derived from the roots of plants in the pea family, rotenone had been used for years by indigenous people in South America and Australia for fishing. When the plant roots were crushed and thrown into the water, dazed fish would surface for capture and consumption. The use of plants containing rotenone or other poisons for fishing was widespread. Various Native American peoples used black walnut, horse chestnut, poke, and other plants. Fishing with poison was practiced in the Pacific Islands, India, and Africa – in fact, on every continent.
Rotenone works by absorption into fish gills. Though the World Health Organization classifies rotenone as a “moderately hazardous” poison, and a link to Parkinson’s disease has been suggested by clinical trials, it is generally poorly absorbed in the human digestive tract, though deadly to fish. Rotenone breaks down quickly in the environment. It’s also used as an insecticide and pesticide. The DNR had used rotenone in Michigan since the 1930s.
Nevertheless, the crowds of eager fish-harvesters, shore-cleaners, and the fleet of boats never appeared on Ford Lake. Dead fish continued to accumulate.
Then someone in charge of the dam at the south end of Ford Lake opened it by mistake. Poisoned water poured into Belleville Lake. In its morning May 14 edition of the newspaper, the Press called it a “mishap.” By the evening edition, the story had expanded and the headline had changed to “Thousands of fish killed in Belleville.”
The May 14 Press quoted DNR fish biologist Ed Bacon, who “said the poisoning was embarrassing . . . ‘Dead fish do smell, and sometimes they smell all the way to Lansing.’” His words would prove prophetic.
As the fish continued to pile up on Ford Lake’s shoreline, large black flies appeared. Rats were seen, some shot with an air rifle. The handful of cleanup staff worked desperately to shovel up and bag the fish and heave the bags into a front-loader, but they couldn’t keep up.
Irate calls were coming in to Gary Owen, a Democratic state representative involved with the cleanup. He authorized a group of 105 state prisoners to transfer from Pontiac to Ford Lake to help pick up fish.
The paper issued an invitation to residents to come down to the now-fetid shoreline, mingle with the felons, and pick up fish corpses.
“[JYRO] is mad because too few citizens have come out to help,” said the May 18 Press. “JYRO was counting on the help of close to 1,000 volunteers, that estimate drawn from responses received before the planned fish kill. But E. L. Abbott, JYRO chairman, says only about 25 people have come out.”
The original estimate of 150 tons of fish carcasses had been surpassed days ago. Dead fish kept coming. In desperation, a makeshift “road” was plowed down one steep lake bank for the front-loader. This road consisted of a section of lakeside scraped bare and at an angle so precipitous that in another era it might qualify for its own reality show. The front loader crept carefully up and down the slope, and the tonnage of fish continued to climb.
The community hoped for relief. On May 22, the paper published an article optimistically headlined “Fish clean-up almost finished,” though in fact the effort was only a little over halfway done. Four-hundred tons of fish had been removed. The prisoners and cleanup workers had left the project. “But [state fish biologist Walt] Root didn’t see that as posing any problem,” the article indicated, “as all the remaining fish are on the south side of the lake and away from residential areas.”
The following day’s Press story, headlined “Fish outlook good in two area lakes,” was even more upbeat. “At Ford Lake, DNR has begun restocking the lake while cleanup of dead fish continues,” it said. “About 92,000 rainbow trout were put into the lake Tuesday and before the week is out DNR plans to stock 100,000 smallmouth bass and 1.75 million walleye fry . . . in the future, there are plans to stock pure-bred muskies, large mouth bass, hybrid sunfish, and channel catfish. Ed Bacon, DNR fish biologist, said the potential for fishing in Ford Lake was ‘terrific.’”
One day later, the DNR issued a statewide ban on rotenone.
“The accidental killing of thousands of fish in Belleville Lake has prompted a temporary ban by the Department of Natural Resources on chemical fish kill projects in Michigan’s lakes,” said the May 24 Press.
The ban didn’t last long, however; that fall the DNR proceeded with a rotenone fishkill in Belleville Lake, as planned months prior. Cooler temperatures alleviated smell problems. The smaller project was completed. The Ford Lake fishkill saga had ended.
A July 2010 walk on the boardwalk in Ford Lake’s North Bay Park offers a chance to pause on the birdwatching platform near a reedfield and examine the foot-deep lake bottom, rippling in wavy light.
Carp-sign consisting of squiggly S’s in the sand reveals where carp in the shallows wiggled around in the warm water, looking for delectables.
Carp love canned corn and bread bits. Leftover spaghetti and pieces of old hot dog buns are their foie gras. They even like canned peas, possibly the only organism who does. You may as well bring some nummies to the park next time, in homage to this ineradicable fish. Despite poisons, front-loaders, trucks, state representatives, improvised roads, drained lakes, fish-plucking felons, and the efforts of an entire state’s Department of Natural Resources over decades . . . they’re not going anywhere.
This biweekly column features a Mystery Artifact contest. You are invited to take a look at the artifact and try to deduce its function.
Last column’s Mystery Artifact elicited some creative guesses. Lisa Bashert guessed a griddle (close enough), abc guessed a crepe pan (close enough), cosmonican guessed a pancake griddle (nailed it).
The tag on this recent Ypsilanti Museum acquisition says it is a “pan-cake” griddle meant for use on a hearth.
This week’s artifact is another recent museum acquisition currently in storage. Can you guess its function? Hint: It came from the same recently-acquired collection as the pancake griddle. Good luck!