Salmon update: Michigan likely to take big stocking cuts

By Howard Meyerson

Michigan is likely to make big reductions in the number of future Chinook salmon it plants in Lake Michigan. Final decisions about that and a lake-wide stocking strategy are expected yet this month by the Lake Michigan committee of the Great Lakes Fisheries Commission, according to state officials.

The decisions follow a year of evaluating options designed to create a sustainable salmon fishery given the fluctuating alewife forage base. Committee discussions in June narrowed the field of stocking options to two choices: a 50 percent reduction in Chinook stocking or a 30 percent Chinook cut and a 10 percent cut for other stocked species.

“The pressure is on. They (other Lake Michigan states) were asking Michigan to take all the cuts. I wasn’t willing to do that,” said Jay Wesley, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources southwest Michigan fisheries supervisor coordinating the process for Michigan.

“The reason we can’t make a 100 percent cut is that most of our big salmon ports are in the southern portion of Lake Michigan and they don’t get a lot of natural reproduction,” Wesley said.  “The rivers from Grand Haven south to St Joe don’t produce as many natural fish as northern rivers.”

A total cut by Michigan would likely result in the disappearance of a fall salmon fishery on southern rivers, Wesley said. While northern rivers with natural populations would continue to see fish return to spawn.

Studies of marked fish show that naturally reproduced salmon make up 56 percent of Lake Michigan’s Chinook fishery.  By two years of age those fish are dispersed all over the lake. They can be caught off any port, Wesley said.

But fall is the season for river fishing in Michigan. That bonanza, he said, is too valuable to lose on Lake Michigan’s southern tributaries.

“Michigan will take more than a 50 percent cut,” Wesley said. Most of that would occur off northern ports where natural reproduction is greatest. Some would also occur on southern ports.

Michigan plants 1.6 million Chinook salmon in Lake Michigan. Wisconsin plants 1.1 million. Illinois and Indiana plant 250,000 and 225,000 respectively. Wesley said Indiana and Illinois have already made big cuts and are not likely to cut more.

“Most of the cuts will come from Michigan and Wisconsin,” he said.

Just how much to cut will also be decided this month. The two options now being discussed are:

  • Option 2, the preferred choice for the Michigan DNR, which calls for a 50 percent Chinook reduction and future adjustments based on monitoring; and
  •  Option 4, thought “best” by just more than half of the 580 anglers that responded to a survey about their preferences. That calls for cutting Chinook by 30 percent and lake trout, brown trout and steelhead by 10 percent. Stocking could be adjusted up or down based on continuous monitoring of the fishery.

Option 4 is better for preserving the alewife population, according to Wesley. It reduces the total number of prey that may feed on alewives. However, it is more difficult to implement, he said. The other species (besides Chinook) require longer stays in the hatcheries.

“Illinois and Indiana anglers are comfortable with Option 2, but most Wisconsin anglers preferred Option 4,” Wesley said. “They were leaning that way but I think we’ve convinced them to go with Option 2.”

Dennis Eade, the executive director for the Michigan Steelhead and Salmon Fisherman’s Association, said his group would support either option.

“We’re on-board with option 2, but if the science says the biomass is impacted to a lesser degree with Option 4, we would be in support of that.”

© 2012 Howard Meyerson

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