The Michigan Department of Natural Resources notes that Lake Michigan’s Chinook salmon population has steadily decreased since its peak in 2012, mainly due to a decline in its primary food source — the alewife.
“People were really worried in biology and management arenas that we could face a collapse in the next few years,” Michigan Sea Grant educator Dan O’Keefe said.
The alewife biomass was at its lowest last year since tracking began in 1973, O’Keefe said. That’s a situation where there are “too many mouths to feed” and not enough to go around, he explained.
“The managers wanted to do something to react and cut down on predators eating open-water prey fish such as the alewife,” O’Keefe said.
Experts hope to avoid a situation similar to what occurred in Lake Huron.
“Alewife really died off and, for all intents and purposes, disappeared in 2004,” O’Keefe said. “Areas of central and southern Lake Huron really took a huge hit.”
The plan being floated by the DNR would consist of a Chinook salmon-stocking reduction for spring 2017. The state agency is also reviewing Lake Michigan’s growing lake trout population, another top predator of alewives.
The Lake Michigan Committee — a workgroup that consists of agencies that manage Lake Michigan waters — crafted a proposal to reduce Chinook salmon stocking by 62 percent.
“The first proposal really met a lot of resistance,” O’Keefe said. “Some people have been really questioning this the last couple of months.”
Stakeholder feedback has led to a plan that also considers lake trout stocking reductions along with revised Chinook salmon stocking reductions.
Roger Belter, president of the Grand Haven Steelheaders, said the issue has “become a very hot subject” with a lot of different variables.
“It’s hard to tell what way to go,” he said. “It’s interesting, because some people don’t think there are any alewife, and some think there are lots of them. I’m 80 years old and have been in the outdoor industry forever. There’s always going to be a controversy of some kind.”
A closer look at the DNR’s plan
— The states of Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin will pursue an increase on the lake trout bag limit from two fish per day to three. This will align with Michigan's regulations of three fish per day in the south half of Lake Michigan.
— Michigan will pursue a possession season of "open all year" for southern Lake Michigan to align with Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin.
— Michigan will also pursue opening drowned river mouth lakes that currently have a closed season.
Chinook Stocking Reduction Alternative:
— A new proposal for a Chinook salmon stocking reduction would reduce stocking by 50 percent of current levels. Michigan's Chinook stocking would go from 560,000 to 300,000, a reduction of 46 percent.
— The total lake trout stocking in yearling equivalents averaged about 3.19 million in recent years. The proposal would reduce stocking to 2.54 million, a 21 percent reduction in lake trout lakewide. All reductions will be outside the 1836 Consent Decree waters until a plan for further lake trout reductions can be reviewed and approved by the consent decree Technical Fisheries Committee.
— The discontinuation of 550,000 fall fingerling lake trout stocking that was approved by the Lake Michigan Committee in 2015 and implemented in 2016.
— The Mid-Lake Reef Complex (Sheboygan, Northeast and Milwaukee reefs) will be reduced by 300,000, or 50 percent.
— Second priority lake trout stocking sites outside consent decree waters will be reduced 100 percent. This includes Grand Haven (20,000), Holland (40,000), New Buffalo (20,000), Michigan City (40,000), Sturgeon Bay (80,000), Kewaunee (20,000) and Wind Point (50,000).
The DNR notes that future lake trout stocking changes will depend on negotiations with the 1836 Tribal Nations. The agency will propose reductions in all second-priority stocking sites from Grand Haven to the north. If that plan is approved, the DNR could redistribute some lake trout to areas that were reduced 100 percent to maintain nearshore fisheries.
Additionally, the DNR notes that the Marquette State Fish Hatchery rears about 49,500 lake trout for Grand Haven, Holland and New Buffalo. They will continue to stock those fish, with New Buffalo receiving 12,500 and Grand Haven and Holland each receiving 18,500.
The Lake Michigan Committee will more formally include lake trout management in future stocking decisions to help achieve predator and prey balance in Lake Michigan, and also meet rehabilitation goals.
How you can have a say
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources has scheduled two public meetings in West Michigan next month to discuss Lake Michigan salmon-stocking proposals.
The meetings are set for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 7, at Ludington City Hall, 400 S. Harrison St.; and 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 13, at the Moose Lodge in South Haven, 1025 Wells St.
“We will send someone to the South Haven meeting,” Belter said of the Steelheaders group. “We have one member working on it right now.”