Michigan salmon catch limit remains five in 2015, but is that a good thing?

Captain Brian Butts, owner of Sea Flea Charters, helps Ashley Wiersma hold a big salmon she caught while fishing Lake Michigan in 2013. Far fewer that size were caught in 2014. Photo: Howard Meyerson

Captain Brian Butts, owner of Sea Flea Charters, helps Ashley Wiersma hold a big salmon she caught while fishing Lake Michigan in 2013. Far fewer that size were caught in 2014. Photo: Howard Meyerson

By Howard Meyerson

Anglers will be able to catch five salmon a day once the 2015 fishing season opens, but is that good news or bad? State fisheries officials say they are looking at new ways to determine what the daily limit should be.

A proposed change has been talked about for several months now. It was presented to anglers January 10 at the annual Ludington Fisheries Workshop, held by Michigan Sea Grant.

“We are working on getting acceptance for using a predator-prey model to determine daily limits,” said Todd Kalish, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ Lake Michigan basin coordinator. “The predator-prey ratio, in my mind, is cutting-edge science.”

Science over social pressure

What that means is the annual decision to raise or lower the daily limit would be based on the volume of forage in the lake.

Until now, the decision relied on two other factors: charter angler success — what percentage of the trips result in three fish per outing; and the catch rate per angler. The new approach will be science-based rather than performance-based.

Why is it important? Chinook salmon feed mostly on alewives — and the number of alewives remains low.

U.S. Geological Survey staffers who conduct the annual lakewide forage surveys said the 2014 trawl results are not finished, but things don’t look good.

“Based on my ‘eyeballing’ of the trawl catches in 2014, I would expect the alewife lakewide biomass estimate to be low … in the same ballpark as the estimates for years 2004-2012 … maybe even a little bit lower,” said Chuck Madenjian, research biologist with the Geological Survey’s Great Lakes Science Center in Ann Arbor and co-leader for the annual bottom-trawl effort on Lake Michigan.

The salmon fishing action on Lake Michigan was sporadic in 2014. Anglers shown here on Sea Hawk Charters out of St. Joseph, had a good early season day in June before fishing slowed down on Lake Michigan. Photo: Howard Meyerson

The salmon fishing action on Lake Michigan was sporadic in 2014. Anglers shown here on Sea Hawk Charters out of St. Joseph, had a good early season day in June before fishing slowed down on Lake Michigan. Photo: Howard Meyerson

The predator-prey model already has been adopted to determine how many fish to stock each year, Kalish said. Now, it will be used to determine how many fish anglers can take.

Having too many alewife-eating predators, like chinook salmon, can lead to a crash in numbers, Kalish said. That happened on Lake Huron in 2004. He and others hope to avoid that on Lake Michigan.

Higher bag limits allow alewife populations to be conserved by getting more of the predators out of the lake.

Dennis Eade, executive director for the Michigan Steelhead and Salmon Fisherman’s Association, said his organization supports the five fish limit and predator-prey model. It puts science ahead of social pressures and the arm-twisting that comes from angling groups. Eade is concerned the Lake Michigan fishery is headed for a crash.

“We are very happy the DNR wants to keep the five fish limit,” Eade said. “If anything, I think this is the year to increase the salmon take (further). Our members will be happy with five, or increasing the limit to 10 to lower the number of predators in the lake.

“If you do catch five salmon a day, you’ve had a phenomenal day.”

Declining numbers

The trouble is that overall catch numbers have been declining. Anglers reported fishing was sporadic in 2014. They caught fewer and smaller salmon than in 2013 — or 2012, when the fishery peaked. Charter catch figures for 2014 were not available yet, but the recreational salmon catch did creep up, said Tracy Kolb, fisheries biologist at the DNR.

“The recreational harvest actually went up from 72,000 chinooks to 73,000 in 2014,” Kolb said. “But it’s down from 2012, when we saw 186,000 (chinooks caught).”

That is a huge drop by any account. And fisheries managers are concerned more of the chinooks caught have empty stomachs.

“We saw a 15 (percentage point) increase in empty stomachs in 2014,” said Randy

Fifty percent of the chinook salmon caught had nothing in the their stomachs. Photo: Howard Meyerson

Fifty percent of the chinook salmon caught had nothing in the their stomachs. Photo: Howard Meyerson

Clarmunt, fisheries research biologist at the DNR’s Charlevoix Fisheries Research Station. “We found 35 percent of the chinooks had no content in their stomachs in 2013. That jumped to 50 percent in 2014.

“Our preliminary observations show the 2014 year class of alewives was not strong. Production was weak. 2010 gave us the biggest alewife year class in a decade, and so we had record catches in 2012. We had a moderate class in 2011 and 2012. It was very low in 2013. There are definitely fewer fish in the lake, and the million dollar question is why.”

Clarmunt said the effects from lakewide hatchery stocking cuts in 2013 will be seen fully in 2015. States bordering Lake Michigan reduced chinook stocking by 50 percent in 2013 in an effort to conserve the population of alewives.

On the bright side?

But natural reproduction has been climbing. Wild fish now constitute 66 percent the fishery, Eade said. That growing number blunts the effect of stocking cuts and continues to put pressure on the forage base.

Anglers might catch still fewer salmon in 2015, Clarmunt said.

“The question is whether the fishery is crashing or declining substantially because of too few alewives, or whether it is declining because of stocking cuts and having fewer fish,” Clarmunt said.

The dilemma raises another question: Do we still need to stock Lake Michigan with chinook salmon?

The opinions out there are varied on the question. It raises issues for various ports that benefit from stocking up and down the lake. Stopping also could affect salmon egg-take operations.

These and other similar tough questions are what state fisheries managers face this year.

Welcome to 2015. There will be a lot to talk about.

_______________________________

Appears in MLive Media Group newspapers and on MLive Outdoors.

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One Response to Michigan salmon catch limit remains five in 2015, but is that a good thing?

  1. Tom Hamilton White River Steelheader says:

    The fact wild fish now constitute 66 percent the fishery is good. That is very important for the White River watershed dependent on all natural reproduction for the salmon fishery. Sadly the most critical fishery habitat at the mouth of the White River at Montague is soon to be permanently destroyed. Salmon fishers can follow the local money and that will lead to the politicians responsible.

    Like

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