Monday, January 30th, 2023
Monday, January 30th, 2023

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No ‘easy button’ to push on Lake Michigan yellow perch

Milwaukee — It’s usually about the money, and it was again recently when a public meeting on the problems confronting the Lake Michigan yellow perch fishery was convened in Milwaukee, sponsored by the DNR and the Conservation Congress.

The meeting, at UW-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences complex, mostly produced promises to meet again to discuss ways to develop a management program that might begin to restore some of the fishery’s past glory. But there were no guarantees voiced, and several speakers alluded to the substantial cost, without providing figures, of such a venture.  

As many know, the big lake’s perch population collapsed after its heyday in the 1980s. Overharvest was one reason, but the larger cause seems to be the appearance of invasive quagga and zebra mussels, which first appeared in the lake in 1989, the result of oceangoing freighters discharging ballast waters here that contained the mussels. Now there are trillions of them estimated to cover the bottom of the lake. What they do effectively is compete for food with very young perch, and this has been blamed for a devastating effect on the fish population.

The four-hour-long meeting allowed several speakers to go over material that has been discussed before, including reports on the current status of the perch fishery, which is considered to be stable but barely surviving, spawning habitat on the Wisconsin side, which is rocky and considered better than other areas of the lake, a perch population that tends to move from the southwestern part of the lake to the north and east, and a catch rate for perch, which in Wisconsin waters is the lowest of the four Great Lakes states.

But there wasn’t much practical talk about how to revive the fishery.

Richard Barbiero, a limnology professor at Loyola University, of Chicago, said offshore nutrients, necessary for sustained perch survival, had declined precipitously in the past 30 years. Pradeep Hirethota, a Wisconsin DNR fisheries biologist, reported the perch catch rate per effort has been very low here, and evidence of the shrinking supply of perch was clear from the daily bag limit that has dropped from 50 before 1995 to five perch a day now, and the DNR’s closure of the Wisconsin commercial harvest in 1996.

Fred Binkowski, a senior scientist and UWM faculty member, said producing stockable fish is easy enough in the laboratory, where water temperature and light intensity can be manipulated to produce a batch every month, but the cost of constructing facilities large enough to do the job envisioned by advocates would be considerable. He gave no estimates, except to say there were reports of commercially raised 3- to 4-inch fish costing up to 83 cents each. A UWM colleague, John Janssen, said a fish-holding area – such as the 14-acre Juneau Park Lagoon in Milwaukee County – might be useful for such a project, since young fish stocked in a natural environment like the Milwaukee Harbor or the Milwaukee River’s estuary could be swept out into the open lake and might not sustain an effective survival rate there.

Paul Smith, outdoor editor for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, reviewed the history of recreational perch fishing, noting that the lake’s piers were once jammed with anglers, and that the economic impact of the fishery – if it could be returned to anywhere near its previous size – would dwarf that of all other fishing activity on the lake.

John Dettmers, senior fisheries biologist with the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, said an annual harvest of 100,000 yellow perch (8,900 was the estimate of the Wisconsin sport harvest last year) would probably require stocking about a million fish.

Ron Bruch, Wisconsin DNR Fisheries Bureau chief, said a perch stamp to finance a stocking program would require legislation, in answer to a question. He added that while he was interested in further discussion about such a program, he had no idea where the money might come from or how much it would take; there have been unofficial estimates in the millions of dollars.

Dale Maas, of Fox Lake, chairman of the Great Lakes Committee of the Wisconsin Conservation Congress, who was in attendance at the meeting, took away positive thoughts. He said in a later phone interview he believed the question needed to be looked at more closely, and, with the help of the DNR, examined as a possibility, perhaps on a scale that used one of the river estuaries to develop a workable program. He said there certainly was public interest in such a near-shore fishery in the southern part of the lake in Milwaukee, Racine, and Kenosha counties. At the same time, he said, there is only so much food for all the lake’s species, and one of the hurdles that must be solved is getting any young fish past the fry stage. And, like some others, he also mentioned funding.

Increased funding for the entire fisheries management program, including those for yellow perch, has been a topic of conversation for some time. One idea was to combine inland trout and Great Lakes trout and salmon stamps, and, in place of them, require a single permit of all anglers. That question was asked at last spring’s fish and game hearings. It received overall approval of 3,300-2,265, and by county, passed 60-9 with ties in three counties. If the single permit idea, at $5, for example, was approved, it would bring in close to $7 million, compared with about $2.7 million now derived from the sale of the two fishing stamps combined at $10 each.

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