Chicago — With Chinook salmon stockings in Lake Michigan on course to be halved next year, it appears Illinois is on track to take the smallest reduction among the four states bordering the big lake.
Fisheries biologists hope to prevent the lake’s alewife population from crashing, and, among the lake’s fish species, Chinook salmon have the largest appetite for the members of the herring family.
The 3.3 million Chinook salmon stocked lakewide every year would be reduced to 1.7 million fish.
Under a proposal that each state still needs to approve, Michigan, which stocks the most Chinook salmon into the lake, would cut their stockings by 1.1 million fish. Michigan had been stocking 1.68 million Chinook salmon.
Illinois, which had been stocking 250,000 Chinook salmon per year, would cut that by 20,000 fish.
Indiana, which had been stocking 225,000 fish, would drop to 200,000 fish, while Wisconsin would cut 440,000 fish from the 1.64 million fish it had been stocking.
In recent years, fish biologists have realized that there are many more wild fish swimming in the lake than was previously thought possible. Wild fish are now believed to make up more than 60 percent of the Chinooks in the lake.
So stocking cuts, which have also taken place in 1999 and 2006, were once again necessary, as alewives are at historically low levels.
“They’re the experts,” said Bill Meier, who sat on a stakeholders committee coordinated by Michigan Sea Grant.
Asked if he’s seen under-nourished salmon this year, Meier said fishing this year has been better than anticipated.
“Some days we find fish with no bait in their stomachs,” he said. “But other days, they are full of alewives.”
Still, he’s not disputing the decline in alewives, and pointed to the fact that few fish over 20 pounds registered in the tournaments held by Salmon Unlimited of Illinois.
“I’m sure there are some out there,” Meier said. “But those fish aren’t easy to come by anymore.”
Meier said he trusts the state agencies are making the right call.
Illinois DNR fisheries biologist Steve Robillard recently said final decisions on how exactly to proceed are expected this fall.
Also on the table is a new system that would allow biologists to adjust stocking numbers quicker. In previous years, these decisions have come every five years.
But among the options floated to the public earlier this year was a new mechanism that would allow for adjustments every three years.
The other variations involved how much to cut, and which species. Under other scenarios, the states could have opted to cut, in different combinations, steelhead trout, coho salmon and lake trout stockings. The public was surveyed as part of the process, though Robillard had said while the survey results would be considered, the agencies would also lean on scientific data, including natural reproduction estimates and forage fish assessments, among other things.
The focus on Chinook salmon shouldn’t have come as a big surprise. Robillard said the Chinook, which are the largest of the salmonids swimming in the lake, are the main reason for the decline in alewives.
“We want a diverse fishery,” he said. “If there’s an increase in Chinook, why would you consider cutting brown trout?”