Fishing, primarily for Chinook (king) salmon, is a billion-dollar industry on Lake Michigan — and 2010 was a banner year for salmon fishing locally, with more and bigger fish caught than in previous years.
That makes the recent proposal by fisheries managers to cut salmon stocking by 30 to 50 percent rather hard to swallow.
Take a closer look at the reasons behind the proposals, however, and you'll see that these cuts need to be made — or we risk seeing a major collapse in this priceless natural resource.
The balance of life in Lake Michigan is extremely tenuous. The fish that anglers now target — namely salmon and steelhead — are not native to the Great Lakes.
They've been planted here in part to deal with another invasive species — the alewife — and in part to create a fishery for anglers to enjoy.
A century ago, lake trout was the dominant predatory fish in Lake Michigan. Unfortunately, the lake trout population was decimated due to the invasion of the sea lamprey and reckless commercial fishing in the 1940s and '50s.
When alewives arrived in Lake Michigan in the 1950s — brought here in the ballast tanks of cargo ships — there were not enough predator fish to control their numbers. Alewives quickly exceeded the carrying capacity of the lake, resulting in massive die-offs that littered beaches with millions of dead fish.
As a way to control the alewife, lake trout were planted in Lake Michigan in 1965, followed by plantings of Chinook and coho salmon the following year. These fish are native to the Pacific Northwest, and for a long time did not reproduce in Lake Michigan. The only way for their numbers to remain stable was by stocking.
Today, about 2.5 million hatchery-raised Chinook salmon are released into Lake Michigan annually.
The salmon have done a fantastic job of curbing the alewife numbers. In fact, they’ve been too efficient, according to experts, who fear that the balance between predator and prey in Lake Michigan is off-kilter. They fear that salmon, which are now beginning to reproduce naturally in Michigan rivers, are becoming too numerous for the number of alewives in Lake Michigan.
This same situation occurred in Lake Huron during the past decade. Fisheries managers there were too slow to realize the problem, and what was once a world-class salmon fishery has collapsed. A year ago, anglers caught 3,200 salmon out of 10 Lake Huron ports — a record low and a 95-percent drop from the annual catch reported from 1986 to 2003.
In comparison, Lake Michigan anglers caught more than 203,000 king salmon in 2010.
To avoid the same fate that befell the Lake Huron salmon, Lake Michigan fisheries managers are proposing massive cuts in the number of salmon stocked in Lake Michigan. We support those proposals wholeheartedly.
Some will feel that these cuts are too drastic and that the science behind the proposals is all speculation.
Salmon fishing is big business here in Grand Haven. It draws countless numbers of visitors to our city each summer, either to fish on their own or to head out on one of the dozens of local charter boats.
When it comes to protecting this valuable resource, no move is too drastic.
A Lake Michigan stocking survey is currently available online at miseagrant.umich.edu. Anyone concerned can log on and vote, and we encourage you to do so.
A 50-percent reduction may sound drastic, but a drastic move now is better than a devastating collapse of the fishery in the future.