Striking a balance?

Alex Doty • Oct 13, 2016 at 8:00 AM

Changes are on the way for Lake Michigan’s Chinook salmon and lake trout stocking programs.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources says it will adjust stocking in the next two years to relieve predation pressure on alewives in Lake Michigan. The state will stock 300,000 Chinook salmon in 2017, which is down 46 percent from this year; and it will discontinue federally stocked lake trout in Grand Haven, Holland and New Buffalo in 2018.

“We received a considerable amount of comments from our advisory committee, sporting groups, anglers and the general public on how to address the predation issue,” said Jay Wesley, the Lake Michigan Basin coordinator for the DNR’s Fisheries Division. “The one common goal we all shared through the review process was to maintain our diverse fishery in Lake Michigan, with Chinook salmon as an important component of our multibillion-dollar sport fishery.”

The DNR 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. The hope is that by reducing predator fish, the alewife will flourish, preventing a crash in the predator fish population.

As part of the newly announced plan, the state will continue to stock 1.57 million coho salmon, 580,000 steelhead and 550,000 brown trout to maintain a diverse fishery. In the near future, Michigan will eliminate its own stocking of lake trout in Lake Michigan and replace these fish with steelhead.

Additionally, the state will continue to work with anglers and state, tribal and federal partners to collect and evaluate wild fish recruitment, charter boat and creel success rates, prey fish and predator abundance to determine when salmon stocking might be increased.

“Data on predator and prey numbers, salmon weight and salmon condition (health) are considered annually to determine when it is safe to increase stocking in the future,” Wesley said.

Making sense of the decision

Michigan Sea Grant educator Dan O’Keefe said it is important to keep in mind what the percentage reduction number really means.

“It just doesn’t mean there are going to be 46 percent fewer Chinook in Lake Michigan,” he said. “That’s not 46 percent of all Chinook salmon — that’s 46 percent of stocked fish.”

O’Keefe noted that while some could look and assume it could be a huge hit, the reality is that it may not. One of the reasons, he said, is because of increases in wild salmon reproduction.

According to the DNR, Lake Michigan’s Chinook fishery is supported by 60 percent wild fish that mostly are produced in Michigan’s rivers and streams.

“If ... wild reproduction is low, that (cut) could be significant,” O’Keefe said. “But if we see a return, it could be a drop in the bucket.”

According to O’Keefe, in 2015 volunteers with the Salmon Ambassadors program found that 74 percent of Grand Haven-area Chinook salmon caught were wild.

“It’s all about finding the right mix going forward,” O’Keefe said of the management plan.

A history of adjustments

According to the DNR, this is the fourth stocking adjustment to predator levels since 1999. Such adjustments are determined by a five-member committee made up from all state management agencies that border Lake Michigan and the Chippewa-Ottawa Resource Authority. 

The committee worked throughout the summer with anglers and constituents to amend a proposal that had substantially targeted only a Chinook salmon reduction to the latest recommendation to reduce a mix of species to achieve the same reduction in predation pressure in Lake Michigan while recognizing the importance of Chinook.

“We appreciate the robust engagement Michigan citizens brought to this issue,” DNR Fisheries Division Chief Jim Dexter said. “They learned more about the difficulty managing Lake Michigan and we learned more about their fishing preferences. In the end, we will still meet our biological goal to reduce predation pressure and continue to provide a world-class fishery.”

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