Thursday, February 2nd, 2023
Thursday, February 2nd, 2023

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Emergency rule limits Lake Superior laker harvest in Wisconsin

Madison, Wis. — The Wisconsin Natural Resources Board has adopted an emergency order that reduces lake trout bag limits for sport fishermen in the state’s eastern portion of its Lake Superior waters.

At its Dec. 10 meeting, the board approved a bag limit for the 2014-15 season of two lake trout, of which one fish can be 20 to 25 inches and one fish may be longer than 35 inches.

Previously, the bag limit was three lake trout daily with a size limit of 15 inches, and only one fish longer than 25 inches was allowed in the bag.

The rule will take effect in Lake Superior waters known as WI-2, east of a line running north and south from Bark Point in Bayfield County, and including the Apostle Islands area.

Lake trout regulations in WI-1, or the western portion of Wisconsin’s Lake Superior waters, remain unchanged, with a three-fish bag limit and a 15-inch size limit; one fish longer than 25 inches is allowed.

“The reason is that lake trout numbers have dropped dramatically over the past eight to 10 years,” said Terry Margenau, DNR Lake Superior fisheries supervisor.

Margenau said the dilemma is how to reduce the harvest and yet allow sportfishing. Commercial quotas already have been reduced.

The DNR held a public meeting in Ashland, Wis., earlier this month to obtain comments. However, written information provided to the board by a Lake Superior guide claimed the meeting was poorly advertised and that stakeholders were not informed.

In a handout at the board meeting, Lacey Hill-Kastern, of Mason, Wis., wrote that nothing was said at that meeting indicating the proposal was to be on the agenda for the NRB’s Dec. 10 meeting.

She also claimed that it is commercial fishing that is the cause of the decline of lake trout.

Margenau said in a later interview that more than 80 people attended the meeting, including business owners and guides.

Records show that more than half of sport anglers in this portion of Superior don’t catch a lake trout during an outing, and about one-fourth will only catch one lake trout.

Looking at the length of laker catches from open water and during ice fishing, most fish are in the 15- to 25-inch range. Thus, the DNR proposed increasing the size limit in order to continue to allow sport anglers to fish.

The new rule is expected to keep the catch within the quota.

“We understand this is not an ideal situation,” Margenau said. “I’m a sport angler myself, and I love to fish lake trout in the winter and summer.”

Margenau said he realizes that anglers and guides are frustrated, but the DNR intends to protect the resource.

Board members had been contacted by fishermen who had concerns about the changes. Greg Kazmierski, board member from Pewaukee, asked whether it was feasible to have different rules, such as just two small fish.

Margenau said this would not reduce the harvest enough.

Bill Bruins, board member from Waupun, asked if the reduction in quota was equal for commercial and sport anglers.

Margenau said everyone saw a reduction in harvest. But the answer to Bruins’ question was complicated by of the way allotments are set up. The DNR made trades of fish quota between the state and tribes. The DNR traded 6,000 fish to tribal fishermen in return for no commercial fishing in Chequamegon Bay.

Margenau said the 2005 agreement was made when lake trout were plentiful, and at that time trading the 6,000 fish was not a big deal. But as the population has decreased, those 6,000 fish have become a higher proportion of the quota and are more important to sport anglers.

Bruins also asked about incidences of illegal fishing. Margenau said that wardens are doing the best they can.

Bruins was concerned about an ongoing illegal take, as there is a federal investigation currently under way.

Terry Hilgenberg, board member from Shawano, suggested the DNR should negotiate on the 6,000-fish tradeoff when the agreement ends in 2015.

“This is not an easy situation, because you have three user groups that are after the same resource, and compromise comes into play,” Margenau said. He acknowledged the DNR has the 6,000-fish trade on its radar when the agreement expires.

Jane Wiley, board member from Wausau, asked if some flexibility can be given for ice-fishing guides in the Apostle Islands area. 

Margenau said ice fishing for lake trout can be highly variable. Good ice conditions can result in several thousand fish being harvested.

He confirmed that the change can be significant, but rather than shut down the harvest or limit just one group specifically, the DNR wanted to make the reductions fair to everyone.

“I think this regulation is fair to everyone across the board,” Margenau said. “I know it is not ideal, but we are in a situation with population numbers where we have to do something pretty seriously.”

Margenau said sport anglers have taken about 15,000 fish, on average, from Lake Superior, and this change would take the catch down to about 8,000 fish. A good ice year could allow ice fishermen to get 3,000 to 5,000 fish, which could require the DNR to shut down open-water fishing.

“This proposal is not perfect, but it allows everyone to continue to fish,” Margenau said.

He believes there may be several stronger year-classes coming into the 15-inch size limit that may help boost the population in future years.

The open season for recreational lake trout harvest in Lake Superior is Dec. 1 through Sept. 30. The season for commercial lake trout harvest is Nov. 28 through Sept. 30.

Wiley tried to get the board to offer some allowance for ice anglers, especially because many drive from Illinois, and they may not visit given the restrictions. The suggestion was rejected.

Hilgenberg said the concerns voiced by Margenau were valid, and due to concern for the resource, the restrictions should be made.

Bruins noted that this was an emergency order that only relies on reducing the quota. He wanted to see the DNR increase its enforcement activities to be sure everyone is playing fair and to get the maximum benefit for the emergency order.

Kazmierski compared it to deer: “You can’t have more unless you harvest less.”

The board voted unanimously to approve the emergency regulation. The regulation now goes to Gov. Scott Walker for approval before it goes into effect, which is expected to be by Jan. 1.

The lake trout harvest quota is established by a committee composed of DNR biologists, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists, and biologists from the Red Cliff and Bad River Reservation. They derive a quota that is split among tribal commercial fishermen, state commercial fishermen, and sport anglers.

The lake trout fishing agreement runs from 2005 -2015, and establishes quotas for commercial and sport fishermen and Chippewa commercial fishermen.
A new agreement will be hammered out next year.

Margenau said that when they begin, the quotas are split 50-50, but then trades are made during negotiations. 

With the approval of the emergency order by the NRB, the goal is to reduce the total harvest, sport and commercial, to 50,000 fish.

The state quota (sport and licensed commercial fishermen) is 11,700 fish. From that, sport anglers get two-thirds, or 7,800 fish. That leaves about 3,900 fish for state commercial fishermen.

The remainder of the quota for Chippewa commercial fishermen is 36,300 fish, with the Bad River tribe getting 17,000 fish and Red Cliff getting 19,300 fish.

The remaining 2,000 fish in the quota are for state netting assessment surveys.

The actual catch each year varies, but the average for sport fishermen is about 15,000 each year. But with this new regulation Margenau expects it to come down to about 8,000 fish. Commercial fishermen are issued tags, and Margenau expects them to fill their tags and quota each year.

People may be upset to see the high quota for tribal fishermen, but Margenau emphasizes that quotas begin at a 50-50 split and then in negotiations changes are made.

“Sport anglers need to realize that nobody is going to get everything they want,” he said. “Compromise is tough sometimes.”

Fewer fish available results in fewer fish for the various user groups, and commercial fishermen also have a reduced quota. Commercial quotas were reduced for this season and last season.

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