HYDE PARK — Chicago experienced its worst fish-based disaster in 1967, when the small alewife fish died en masse, choking the shoreline with millions of dead fish.
Those who lived through the disaster — and smaller, similar die-offs of the small herring-like fish — said they struggled to figure out what to do with the huge mounds of rotting fish.
“I remember not going anywhere near Promontory Point or other beaches because the rotten smell was overpowering during the summer a month or two each year when the dead alewives were littering the beach in thick piles,” said Melissa Shackman, who lived in Hyde Park in 1967.
Alewives got into the Great Lakes through through the Welland Canal around Niagara Falls from the Atlantic Ocean in 1949 and were firmly established in Lake Michigan and Huron by the ‘60s.
Feeding on small crustaceans, now nearly extinct in the lake, they multiplied rapidly, peaking in 1967, when a bloom of toxic blue-green algae near Gary killed millions of the fish.
The fish clogged up the intake pumps in Lake Michigan and North Side faucets would only produce a trickle as officials called for Chicagoans to boil their water, which was saturated with rotting fish.
“Were we glad we lived on the South Side, where there was a water filtration plant, which kept the little creatures out of our water faucets? You betcha!” said Diana Havill Ryan.
She said she would march down to the beach with five-gallon buckets to collect the fish to put in her garden. The fish made excellent fertilizer, she said, but there were some unintended side effects.
“All the neighborhood cats came to our yards, and they rolled in the smelly creatures — and some dogs also came,” Ryan said. “They, too, were interested in rolling in the smell.”
She said she got a very hearty crop that year out of the plants that weren’t rolled on.
Managing Editor Shamus Toomey recalls disposing the fish growing up:
But others who used the same method said their plants produced a strange fruit that year.
“There were these tomatoes that tasted fishy because the fish were sometimes used as fertilizer,” said Leslie Travis, who also put fish in her garden.
The alewives also ruined a style of beach party on the South Side that’s never returned.
“They ruined the smelt fishing parties along the lake because the shore line smelt went out to deep water when the alewives were dying on the shoreline,” said Louise McCurry. “Our nets were filled with dead alewives.”
By the early 1970s, Chinook salmon introduced into the lake in 1967 had knocked down the number of alewives to tolerable levels, but the lake never returned to what it was before.
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