Oligotrophic fish communities of the Great Lakes have undergone successive disruptions since the mid-1800s. Major contributing factors have been intensive selective fisheries, extreme modification of the drainage, invasion of marine species, and progressive physical-chemical changes of the lake environments. Lake Ontario was the first to be affected as its basin was settled and industrialized earliest, and it was the first to be connected by canals to the mid-Atlantic where the alewife (Alosa pseudoharengus) and sea lamprey (Petromyzon marinus) which ultimately became established in the Great Lakes were abundant. Oligotrophic fish communities were successively disrupted in Lakes Erie, Huron, Michigan, and Superior as the affects of population growth, industrialization, and marine invaders spread upward in the Laurentian drainage.
The degree and sequence of response of families of fish and species within families differed for each factor, but the sequence of change among families and species has been the same in response to each factor as it affected various lakes at different times. The ultimate result of the disruption of fish communities has been a reduction of productivity of oligotrophic species that ranges from extreme in Lake Ontario to moderate in Lake Superior, and which has reached a state of instability and rapid change in the upper three Great Lakes by the mid-1900s similar to the situation in Lake Ontario in the mid-1800s. Since oligotrophic species (primarily salmonines, coregonines, and deepwater cottids) are the only kinds of fish that fully occupied the entire volume of the deepwater Great Lakes (Ontario, Huron, Michigan, and Superior), the fish biomass of these lakes has been reduced as various species declined or disappeared. In Lake Erie, which is shallow, and in the shallow bays of the deep lakes, oligotrophic species were replaced by mesotrophic species, primarily percids, which have successively increased and declined. All oligotrophic species are greatly reduced or extinct in lakes Ontario and Erie, and are in various stages of decline in lakes Huron, Michigan, and Superior, from greatest to least, respectively. The percids appear to be near the end of their sequence of succession in lakes Erie, Ontario, and Huron (primarily Saginaw Bay) where only the yellow perch (Perca flavescens) remains abundant. The yellow perch appears to be on the brink of decline in Lake Erie, which has been more severely influenced by water quality change than the other lakes.
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Factors of ecologic succession in oligotrophic fish communities of the Laurentian Great Lakes