The Lake Superior fish community underwent massive changes in the second half of the 20th century. Those changes are largely reflected in changes in abundance of the adults of principal prey species, the ciscoes (Coregonus spp.), the invasive rainbow smelt (Osmerus mordax), and the principal predator, lake trout (Salvelinus namaycush). To better understand changes in species abundances, a comprehensive series of gillnet and bottom trawl data collected from 1958 to 2008 were examined. In the late 1950s/early 1960s, smelt abundance was at its maximum, wild lake trout was at its minimum, and an abundance of hatchery lake trout was increasing rapidly. The bloater (Coregonus hoyi) was the prevalent cisco in the lake; abundance was more than 300% greater than the next most abundant cisco, shortjaw cisco (C. zenithicus), followed by kiyi (C. kiyi) and lake cisco (C. artedi). By the mid-1960s, abundance of hatchery lake trout was nearing maximum, smelt abundance was beginning to decline, and abundances of all ciscoes declined, but especially that of shortjaw cisco and kiyi. By the late 1970s, recovery of wild lake trout stocks was well underway and abundances of hatchery lake trout and smelt were declining and the ciscoes were reaching their nadir. During 1980–1990, the fish community underwent a dramatic shift in organization and structure. The rapid increase in abundance of wild lake trout, concurrent with a rapid decline in hatchery lake trout, signaled the impending recovery. Rainbow smelt abundance dropped precipitously and within four years, lake cisco and bloater populations rebounded on the heels of a series of strong recruitment events. Kiyi populations showed signs of recovery by 1989, and shortjaw by 2000, though well below historic maximum abundances. High abundance of adult smelt prior to 1980 appears to be the only factor linked to recruitment failure in the ciscoes. Life history traits of the cisco species were examined to better understand their different responses to conditions of low and high predator levels, i.e., late 1950s–early 1960s vs. post 1980. Bloaters are most likely to become the predominant cisco in the absence of strong predation and the least abundant under prolonged predation; smelt share this pattern. Conversely, the lake cisco and shortjaw cisco fare better when predator abundance is high. The recovery of lake trout in Lake Superior reestablished a strong top-down influence on the fish community and its present structure and organization appears to be approaching an equilibrium that reflects a more natural state. If lake trout recovery is sustained, shortjaw cisco abundance is expected to increase and join lake cisco and kiyi as dominant cisco species, and bloater and smelt will oscillate at lower abundances.
Additional publication details
Successional change in the Lake Superior fish community: population trends in ciscoes, rainbow smelt, and lake trout, 1958-2008