Larry Lyons: If you haven’t noticed, all the seagulls are at the fair

Published 9:08 am Wednesday, August 12, 2009

lyonsstarLast week while covering the Cass County Fair a couple members of the editorial staff questioned why there are so many seagulls at the fairgrounds and so few along the more traditional Lake Michigan shoreline. The answer seems obvious, “Because nobody can resist all that scrumptious fair food.” That bit of humor is actually truer than you may think.

The gulls of the Great Lakes have had a roller coaster past related directly to man’s mucking around with Ma Nature. Way back in the 1870s Atlantic salmon were introduced into the Great Lakes in hopes of enhancing the sport fishing. Problem was, the lakes’ food sources were in natural balance with the native predator fish, largely lake trout, and the modest populations of fish eating birds like gulls so there wasn’t enough to support the additional salmon.

Thus ocean dwelling smelt were introduced and they found the big lakes just peachy. Soon after, alewives were accidentally introduced and they, too, thrived. A third accidental introduction that brought all the invasion stars into alignment was the dreaded sea lamprey. They killed off the large predator fish, leaving the smelt and alewives an unhampered road to expansion. Smelt and alewife populations went nuts in their new found waters. Both are surface schooling fish so they were accessible to the gulls. With this new bonanza of chow gull populations exploded all along the Great Lakes coasts.
The Atlantic salmon didn’t take hold but the next half century was a boom time for the two primary species of Great Lakes gulls, the Herring gull and the Ring-billed gull.

Despite the gulls living in gluttony on both live and dead alewives they couldn’t keep up. Us more seasoned beach bums remember back in the 1950’s and ’60’s when rotting alewives littered all the Great Lakes beaches. The stench was awful and you literally had to tip-toe your way through the carcasses. It was wreaking havoc with beach related tourism. In the mid-1960s the presumably perfect solution surfaced. Introduce salmon, this time the prolific Pacific Ocean species of coho and, later, chinook and steelhead.

If it worked they should trim down the alewife population and provide the bonus of a new fishery all in one. This time they didn’t dink around with it like the previous Atlantic salmon experiment. Several Great Lakes states joined forces and started pouring in salmon like there was no tomorrow. Since 1965 over three quarter billion salmon and trout have been stocked in the Great Lakes.

As we all know, the salmon did phenomenally well and they lit into the alewives with gusto. It seemed everyone was happy. The alewives began to disappear from the beaches, fishermen were ecstatic and tourism flourished beyond imagination. But there was a loser, the gulls. Their restaurant was fast going out of business. The Ring-billed gulls proved quite adaptable and moved inland where they found food rich, flooded fields and especially people-food laden landfills, picnic areas and, yes, bountiful fairgrounds.

The larger Herring gulls had a tougher time. They much prefer a healthy fish diet and were reluctant to resort to scavenging people food. But, do as you must, and they are gradually shifting inland as well. This is evident by the surge of trans fats, which are only found in processed food, appearing in Herring gulls. Researchers first suspected chemical pollution was behind the steady decline of Great Lakes Herring gulls. Instead they have found a rise in trans fats directly in correlation with the decline in alewives. The Herring gulls have been forced to join their cousins in the people food line.

I remain a bit of a beach bum and still roam the Lake Michigan shores. Except for large gatherings at nesting colonies, the only gulls you see now are at the busy public beaches and marinas. Walk a couple hundred yards from the crowds and the gulls all but disappear. The sand underfoot is squeaky clean pristine. That’s nice for me but a biological desert for a sea gull. So, if you got’ta go out to dinner why not make it that yummy fair food?

Carpe diem.

Larry Lyons writes a weekly outdoor column for Leader Publications. He can be reached at