Few chinooks returning to French River hatchery

Field Editor

Duluth, Minn. A paltry return of spawning chinook salmon to the
French River Hatchery on Lake Superior may portend an eventual end
to the DNR’s stocking program.

Fisheries workers captured 106 chinooks in the French River this
fall, of which 66 were 3-year-old Lake Huron-strain salmon. The DNR
began rearing salmon from eggs collected at Lake Huron in 1999,
when returns of Lake Superior-strain fish dwindled to a level that
would not maintain a hatchery program.

Fish managers need at least 75 pairs of disease-free adult
salmon to provide enough eggs for the hatchery. In 2002, the
hatchery received just 27 pairs of fish, which will led to
diminished stocking in 2003. Evaluation of the salmon stocking
program will be based on returns to the French River from 2003 to
2006.

Chinook salmon are released from the hatchery as yearlings. They
spend three to five years feeding in Lake Superior before returning
to the French River or another tributary to spawn and die. They
typically grow to between 10 and 20 pounds.

Minnesota began stocking chinooks in the 1970s and developed a
popular fishery during the 1980s. Salmon catches and returns to
hatchery declined during the 1990s, leading the DNR to consider
ending the stocking program. The decision proved controversial
among anglers, leading the DNR to continue the program with Lake
Huron strain fish.

Don Schreiner, DNR Lake Superior fish manager, says the agency
is again entering an evaluation stage for the chinook stocking
program. In 2003, Lake Huron-strain salmon from two stockings
should return to the French River as 3- and 4-year-old adults.

Schreiner says that lakewide, most of the chinook in Superior
are wild fish that are believed to be produced in rivers in
Ontario, Michigan, and Wisconsin. However, Minnesota DNR creel
surveys show that 35 percent of the salmon caught in state waters
are from the French River Hatchery. Another 10 percent of the catch
comes from stockings in other states and Canada.

If the state ceases salmon stocking, will angler catch rates
fall by a third or more? Perhaps, says Schreiner, but the gap could
be filled by wild salmon.

“The trend is toward more wild fish in the lake,” he says.

Since the DNR was able to get adequate numbers of eggs for the
stocking program from Lake Huron, why not continue with that
source? Schreiner says that in public meetings held to discuss the
salmon program, a majority of anglers wanted the stockings to be
self-sustaining from Lake Superior-strain fish.

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