Milwaukee River walleye stocking?

Mequon, Wis. — At a time when there is increased emphasis to re-establish native fish and wildlife populations, it might seem ironic that the biggest obstacle to bringing back a once naturally reproducing walleye population in the Milwaukee River and harbor might be the popularity of non-native salmon and trout.

A brainstorming session was held July 14 at the Mequon Nature Preserve to gauge interest and assess the possibility of creating a walleye-stocking program on the Milwaukee River somewhere in Ozaukee County.

Attendees included Mike Arrowood, Tom Koepp, Jerad Wagner, and Craig Rohde, all from Walleyes for Tomorrow; DNR fish biologists Brad Eggold, Will Wawrzyn, Predeep Hirethota, and Anthony Young; Cheryl Nenn from Milwaukee Riverkeeper; Andy LaFond from the village of Thiensville; Andrew Stuck from Ozaukee County; and several other interested parties.

Arrowood, WFT chairman, said it was WFT’s desire to create a run of walleyes in the Milwaukee River. They would do that by placing a portable walleye egg-hatching trailer along the river.

WFT volunteers would net walleyes from the Milwaukee River or harbor to collect eggs for the mobile hatchery. River water would be used during incubation. When the fry are big enough, they would be released into the river.

Arrowood said some fry would stay in the river and others would move into the lake. When those walleyes mature, they will return to the river.

“We would fund the entire process at no cost to the DNR,” Arrowood said. “We have been doing portable hatcheries for 19 years; we are pretty good at it.”

Eggold said establishing a walleye run in the Milwaukee River is part of the DNR’s Lake Michigan Integrated Fisheries Management Plan (2015-24). A draft plan was released July 15.

Wawrzyn presented a history of walleye-stocking efforts in the Milwaukee River and harbor.

From 1986-92, walleye fry, yearlings, or extended-growth fingerlings were stocked in several locations around the harbor. Starting in 1995 and continuing through 2007, small fingerlings and extended-growth fingerlings were released in the Milwaukee River below the former North Avenue dam.

Initial releases used walleyes obtained from regular walleye stocks. Starting in 1998, stocking was done with walleye strains from the Wolf River, Winnebago system, Fox River, and Lake Puckaway. It was thought that these strains would have better survival and would be more likely to move upstream when mature and spawn in the river.

All walleye stocking ceased after 2007 when viral hemorrhagic septicemia was discovered.

Stocking did produce a viable walleye population in the lower Milwaukee River, but spawning assessments conducted from 1998 to 2003 showed few ripe males or females capable of reproduction.

Arrowood said WFT wanted to stock fry in the river years ago, but backed off after Great Lakes fishing groups opposed the effort. He said salmon anglers thought walleyes would prey on salmon smolts. Arrowood said it was ironic that anglers targeting non-native species opposed reintroducing walleyes that are native to the Great Lakes.

Eggold said sampling in 1996 and 1997 assessed the impact of walleye predation on salmon smolts. Walleyes did prey on salmon for a couple of days after the smolts were released. In 1998, the salmon-stocking location was changed and the procedure was modified. After that, walleyes had no impact on smolts. The consensus was that it will be important to start a dialog early with Great Lakes anglers to help them understand that creating a walleye population in the Milwaukee River will not impact salmon.

Eggold urged people to attend meetings on the plan and to be persistent in their support of stocking walleyes.

Eggold was concerned that WFT might not be able to net enough ripe walleyes to harvest eggs for a “walleye wagon.” He cited the low number captured in the DNR survey.

Arrowood said WFT volunteers are skilled at netting fish. He said they would buy special nets to use in the harbor or river, if needed.

If there are not enough ripe walleyes in the Milwaukee River and harbor from which to harvest eggs, the project would be more difficult, but not impossible, he said. One option would be for WFT to place the trailer at another body of water where eggs could be collected. After the eggs are fertilized and secured in containers, the DNR could move the trailer to the Milwaukee River where the eggs could mature and fry could be released. Arrowood said WFT does not have permits to move fish, but the DNR could.

Eggold said that is a possibility, but for now the best-case scenario is to start stocking with fingerlings from the Wisconsin Walleye Initiative. He has requested 18,000 extended-growth fingerlings for stocking in the river in 2016.

LaFond said there has been interest in Thiensville for past sturgeon-stocking efforts, and for removing fish barriers in the river. He is confident enough volunteers will step forward to take over a walleye-hatching trailer from WFT after the initial setup.

Nenn said volunteers from Riverkeeper also would help with the stocking effort.

Getting approval for WFT to start will not happen quickly, but the wheels are now in motion. A lot will depend on the results of public meetings on the draft plan.

The times for those four meetings will all be 6-8 p.m. They will be held Aug. 4, in Green Bay at the DNR office; Aug. 5 at Cleveland, Lakeshore Technical College; Aug. 7 at Milwaukee, UW-Milwaukee; and Aug. 7 at the Peshtigo, DNR office.

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