2012-09-20 / Outdoors


But will they slide?
By Alan Campbell of the Enterprise staff

CLEVELAND TOWNSHIP resident Ben Shimek shows a chinook caught earlier this season off Leelanau County aboard Watta Bite Charter. CLEVELAND TOWNSHIP resident Ben Shimek shows a chinook caught earlier this season off Leelanau County aboard Watta Bite Charter. Waters off the shoreline of Leelanau County this season have yielded the best salmon fishing in memory, although individual fish seem a bit on the small side.

As did Lake Huron in 2003, the year before the salmon population plummeted. It’s never recovered.

There are many similarities between the fisheries of Lake Michigan today and Lake Huron a decade ago, although a fish biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources believes the odds are slim that the salmon population will collapse in the coming years.

But he sees the possibility. That’s the main reason that Michigan has joined other states connected to Lake Michigan in agreeing to cut salmon stocks by 50 percent next season. Still, approximately 1.65 million chinook salmon are expected to be planted in the lake in 2013. Stockings of coho and lake trout would be unaffected.

Natural reproduction is estimated to account for approximately 50 percent of the adult chinook salmon population in Lake Michigan.

“I would imagine that catch rates would come down some, because we are really trying to reduce the salmon population,” said Jay Wesley, the Lake Michigan basin manager for the DNR. “But if we do that, we should see a stabilization of the fish so they won’t continue to get smaller.”

And if the DNR’s calculations are off?

“If we are absolutely wrong and we reduce stocking, then the remaining salmon should grow like crazy,” said Wesley.

Success of the lake’s salmon fishery actually has little to do with the salmon themselves, and everything to do with another fish species introduced to the Great Lakes, alewives. DNR surveys — a boat out of Charlevoix dragged a net in waters out of Leland and up and down the coast to determine alewife numbers — show that the amount of prey fish in Lake Michigan has remained depressed for several years, and may be on the verge of crashing.

If the Lake Michigan fishery undergoes another dramatic change — there have been many in the past century — it will come after a long warning. Adult alewives have been found at nearhistoric low numbers for eight years. Past surveys have turned up nine year-classes of alewives; only six year classes have shown up recently, and 80 percent of them came from a 2010 year class that’s being gobbled up quickly by salmon. After finding no evidence of recruitment in 2011, an average year for reproduction was detected this year.

Charter captains, who would normally be in favor of more rather than fewer salmon plants, recognize the growing problem, according to Bill Winowiecki of Cedar.

Winowiecki owns Watta Bite charters, and is a member of the Lake Michigan Citizens’ Advisory Committee, which went a step further in recommending that all salmon stocks be halted until the amount of prey fish had a chance to rebound.

Wesley said computer models show a 14 percent chance that the Lake Michigan alewife and salmon populations will crash. Winowiecki is worried.

“Right now, quite honestly, I don’t like what I see,” said Winowiecki. “I don’t want to throw that out there because I hope I’m wrong. We’re trying to prevent it. I know the DNR is very scared. We’ve got big problems in the lake.”

Salmon are plentiful and hungry, willing to chase spoon as far as it takes in hopes of a meal. But that’s because schools of alewives have been rare.

“I boated one 20 pound fish this summer. I don’t think (charters out of Fishtown) boated any between them. We have major, major issues out there. It’s not good. We’re at a point where our salmon fishery could crash. It could end up like Lake Huron,” Winowiecki continued.

The problem goes deeper than the most discussed aspect of the lake’s fishery, according to lifelong commercial fisherman Bill Carlson. Zebra and quagga mussels native to Europe’s Caspian Sea have taken over the lake bottom, making a living on small invertebrates and freshwater shrimp. They’ve cleaned up the water — and also taken a chunk out of an important food source for prey fish. With less food available, the total poundage of prey and predator fish was bound to decrease.

Included are fresh-water chubs, whose population has collapsed. The chubs were once a prime catch for commercial fishermen.

“Now there aren’t enough chubs to fish for them, and we don’t want to put any additional stress on their population,” said Carlson. “We’ve seen stocks of fish disappear before. Smelt have gone down to a little bit of nothing. So it can happen, and has happened,” he said.

He, too, supports a cut-back in salmon stockings. “It probably isn’t a bad idea to cut back on the plants. I saw what happened in Lake Huron, and it happened in only two years. My feeling is it’s better to be safe than sorry. The fish look healthy. There are a lot of young fish out there, so even if we cut back we won’t see a change for a couple years,” Carlson continued.

The Michigan Natural Resources Commission approved the cuts last week, although the DNR has yet to decide where they’ll take place.

“Leelanau doesn’t have as much stocking, but we do stock in Grand Traverse Bay and farther south in Manistee,” said Wesley. “You have a lot of wild fish there that move around ... they truly do mix in the lake throughout their lives.”

Winowiecki would rather be safe than sorry.

“It’s better to cut the plants and be wrong, then to not cut the plants and have the fishery crash and have it not come back,” he said.

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