Lake Michigan ports hit hard by salmon cuts

Lansing — A revised state plan for stocking 1 million fewer chinook salmon in Lake Michigan next year is drawing the ire of some anglers who are claiming to have been misled. State fisheries officials recently met with sport and charter fishing organizations and announced the port-specific cuts for 2013. 

“I am upset we were not told the truth from the beginning. If I had known where this was going, I would have fought a lot harder,” said Jim Bennett, president of the Michigan Steelheaders southwest chapter in St. Joseph, where stocking will be cut by 92,000 fish. The port will get 48,000 chinook spring fingerlings rather than 140,000, a 65.7-percent reduction. 

“People are upset about it, but they don’t want a bad relationship with the DNR,” Bennett said.

He and others are concerned about the fall fishery. Stocked fish return to rivers and ports as spawning adults. Absent those fish, anglers expect the fishery to drop off dramatically.

State officials announced earlier this year that chinook salmon stocking on Lake Michigan would be reduced by 50 percent lake-wide to conserve alewife forage, and that Michigan, one of the four states cutting back, would plant only 559,000 salmon in 2013, a 66.9-percent reduction from 1.6 million fish. The lion’s share was to have come from northern ports where natural reproduction contributes substantially to the offshore fishery.

But there were tough choices to make, according to Michigan DNR fisheries staffers.

“That was the plan,” said Jay Wesley, the DNR’s southwest Lake Michigan unit manager. “We knew we had more natural reproduction in the northern Lower Peninsula and thought we would be able to reduce stocking there more, but it’s become more of an equal distribution (of cuts) to all ports.”

The change occurred when an internal DNR fisheries division committee reviewed the list of port-specific cuts, he said. They decided to continue to stock fish at Medusa, near Charlevoix, where coded wire-tagged salmon were showing up well in the open-lake fishery. Protecting the Little Manistee River broodstock also was a priority. The DNR collects salmon eggs there for its hatchery program.

“Then we wanted to keep net pens going and there wasn’t anything left to cut,” Wesley said. “We are cutting more than a million fish, so we had to take them from a lot of places.”

Denny Grinold, a charter captain who operates out of Grand Haven, said he can live with the situation, but isn’t pleased. The port will get only 59,000 fish next year rather than the 175,000 that has been the norm. It is located on the Grand River, where upstream stocking will be cut completely, down from 75,000 fish a year.

“It’s a much larger cut than I expected,” Grinold said. “Am I happy? No. But that’s the way it is. It was a difficult decision. I’m sure it will hurt the fall fishery at Grand Haven.”

Farther north, at Ludington, Jim Fenner said he is “comfortable with the whole scenario.” Fenner is the past president of the Ludington Charter Boat Association. The Big Sable River there will get only 38,000 fish, not 120,000 as it has in the past.

“We know we have terrific reproduction out of the Manistee and Pere Marquette river systems,” Fenner said. “The fishing was fabulous this summer, the best we have seen. No one has made a big deal about it. We all have our fingers crossed.”

Southern port returns will be scrutinized closely, according to Wesley. The plan is to retain the cuts for three years, but the stocking decision is flexible. All stocked fish will be marked and monitored, he said. Anglers and charter captains are being encouraged to turn in fish heads so coded wire tags can be assessed. The tags tell researchers when and where the fish were planted.

If the average weight of 3-year-old chinook salmon climbs above 19.8 pounds, suggesting they have plenty to eat, stocking will be increased by 30 percent. If their weight drops below 15.4 pounds, stocking would be cut by 30 percent.

“We’re going to have to watch ports from the Muskegon River south,” Wesley said. “Those are the ports that have the least amount of natural reproduction. The center of the state, from Muskegon (north) to Medusa should be fine. The northern part of the Lower Peninsula should be fine, and the open-lake fishery should be fine for everyone.

“If we find in the central part of the lake that a lot of fish coming back are wild, we may not have to stock 150,000 at the Little Manistee and they could be used elsewhere.”

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