PRESS EDITORIAL: Hope and regret in images of a fish as big as a man

The pierhead lighthouse, that rare example of art deco lighthouse design that sits at the end of the breakwater and is featured in the city’s official logo, and St. Mary’s Church, the soaring gothic edifice dramatically perched on a hill overlooking the downtown, vie for the title of Port Washington’s most recognizable symbol.

One of them deserves the distinction today, but in the scheme of history another image was more widely known and more illustrative of the city’s character. It was a commercial symbol, the Smith Bros. Fisheries logo.

The company is long gone, but the logo lives on, preserved in neon on the roof of the Duluth Trading Co. building, which was once the home of the nationally famous Smith Bros. Fish Shanty restaurant and headquarters for the Smith family’s commercial fishing and retail fish market business.

Modern day viewers may think the historic logo portraying a fisherman wearing a sou’wester and oilskins, smoking a corn cob pipe and carrying a sturgeon almost as large as himself over his shoulder was a fanciful creation by an imaginative advertising agency artist. Not so. It was in fact a literal representation, accurate in every detail, of a photograph made in Port Washington in the waning years of the 19th century.

In its era, the logo was a sign of the bounty of nature in Lake Michigan. Today it is a symbol of the devastation of that bounty. The sturgeon was all but wiped out by greedy fishermen who killed the magnificent creatures, some of which were more than a century old, for eggs for the caviar market, and then discarded their enormous bodies. The fish that later sustained operations like that of Smith Bros.—lake trout, whitefish and perch—have been reduced to a barely sustainable population of survivors by invasive species introduced in the lake by man, the likes of the lamprey eel, zebra and quagga mussels and the round goby.

It is fitting, then, that a contemporary sturgeon image is offering a glimmer of hope that the impact of the offenses against life in the Great Lakes can one day be reversed. That image is the photo in last week’s Ozaukee Press of a man holding a healthy, more than four-foot-long sturgeon in the Milwaukee River.

The fish had been raised at the Riveredge Nature Center in the Town of Saukville and released in the river as a youngster in 2007. It spent the intervening years in Lake Michigan and this spring, at the age of 15, followed its instinct to return to its birthplace to spawn. Its voyage, recorded on a transponder implanted when it was released, buoys the prospects that this prehistoric species, whose members can live to 120 years old, will one day thrive anew in the lake.

Fishery biologists are thrilled by this development that proves sturgeon are bonded to their native waters, and everyone should be cheering this latest achievement of Riveredge, the institution in our backyard that works hands-on for the protection and rejuvenation of natural places and waters while nurturing the public’s appreciation of the glories of nature.

Since Riveredge joined the Return the Sturgeon Project in 2006 in partnership with the Wisconsin DNR and U.S. Fish and Wildlife service, it has reared more than 17,000 sturgeon and released them in the river.

“Like everything else,” Riveredge’s senior naturalist Mary Holleback said, “fishermen at one time thought the number of sturgeon was limitless.”

Fishermen in the heyday of Smith Bros. probably thought the same about trout, whitefish and perch, but they couldn’t have known that a horde of invasive creatures would take over the environment that sustained life for native fish.

Though those depleted natives remain threatened, they are hanging on. A modest lake trout population remains viable in the northern reaches of Lake Michigan. Whitefish are enduring in Green Bay and, in a hopeful sign, seem to be adapting to ingest mussels. In the southern Lake Michigan, burbot, good-eating but strange-looking fish also known as lawyers or eelpouts, are said to be thriving, partly because they are feeding on an even uglier fish, the invasive round goby from Asia. Yellow perch, alas, have mostly disappeared.

As long as invasive species not only thrive and multiply, but keep coming in ocean-going vessels entering the Lakes through the St. Lawrence Seaway, restoring native fish populations could well be a goal too distant to reach. But for hope, look at those two images of the noble sturgeon, one signifying the amazing life that once enriched Lake Michigan, the other hinting at what it could be again.

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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494
 

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