Lake Michigan salmon stocking to be cut by 50 percent

By Howard Meyerson

Plainwell, Mich. — A decision has been made. Lake Michigan states will reduce chinook salmon stocking by 50 percent next year. Approximately 1.65 million fewer will be planted in Lake Michigan, according to state officials.

The decision puts a period on a year-and-a-half-long discussion between states and angling groups about how to best balance predator and prey in Lake Michigan, where the alewife population has been declining.

Michigan, which enjoys a growing abundance of naturally reproduced salmon from northern Lake Michigan streams, is likely to plant 1 million fewer hatchery-raised salmon. It will take the lion’s share of cuts, Michigan officials said.

“I think we will be cutting back by over 60 percent, and probably over 65 percent, because we have so much natural reproduction,” said Jay Wesley, the DNR’s point man in the recent discussions.“It’s shocking to see how it will be applied to each port, but if people maintain a lake-wide focus, they will come to terms with it.”

Jim Fenner, the past president of the Ludington Charter Boat Association, said Option 2 – cutting chinook by 50 percent – was his preferred choice. That was one of four choices Lake Michigan anglers and natural resources agencies have considered.

“I didn’t want to see the lake trout cut. We’re just starting to see a fair number show up, along with a spring fishery for browns,” Fenner said. “If we had to take a cut, we wanted it to be the kings. We’re not concerned about cutting 50 percent. But we are concerned about how that will be applied.”

Exactly who will cut how much is still being negotiated, according to Wesley. Other states have been pressuring Michigan to shoulder most, if not all of the cuts because it has wild salmon to fall back upon.

Wesley refused the idea of Michigan making all the cuts. The state plants 1.68 million chinook salmon in Lake Michigan tributaries every year.

Southern Michigan ports do not have natural reproduction. Anglers there rely on hatchery stocks from around Lake Michigan, the occasional wild fish, and those stocked in southern tributaries. The tributary plants provide an offshore and river fishery each fall when stocked salmon eventually return to the river to spawn.

Michigan officials are working up criteria for determining just where the cuts will take place. Those decisions are slated to go to the Natural Resources Commission in September.

That criterion emphasizes maintaining a brood stock at the Little Manistee River where the Michigan DNR collects salmon eggs. It gives priority to net-pen stocking sites too, according to Wesley. Those are the downstream locations on Lake Michigan tributaries where young hatchery salmon are held in pens and acclimate to the river environment. The salmon are released when they’re large enough to smolt and make their way downstream into Lake Michigan. Net-pen salmon survive better than those planted directly into rivers.

“We will reduce stocking more in areas with natural reproduction,” Wesley said. “We will eliminate sites where we plant directly in the river and maintain net-pen sites as best we can. We will continue to evaluate where stocking fish contributes the most to the fishery.”

Bob Munch, a board member for the Southwest Michigan chapter of the Michigan Steelhead and Salmon Fishermen’s Association, said he and other members would have fought the decision two years ago. He changed his mind after attending the spring workshop in St. Joseph about the problem of having too many big predators in the lake, feeding on too few alewives.

“They gave a good presentation and we (members) thought, ‘Yes, we need to cut back on stocking fish.’ Two years ago there would have been a lot of yelling and screaming,” he said.

Munch and other chapter members are concerned that they may not get their historic allocation of hatchery salmon for their net pens. The chapter raises between 130,000 and 140,000 annually.

“We’ll get fish, but I’m not sure how many,” Munch said. “Hopefully, they will be fair with us so we can have a viable fishery. No one likes to get cut, but we have to look long term and we do realize there is a problem.”

Fenner said Ludington charter captains are concerned, too. Their net-pen project has been a source of pride. Its success has leveraged financial support from the community. Eliminating it, he said, would have serious ramifications.

© 2012 Howard Meyerson

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