Ludington, Mich. — Lake Michigan managers revised planned cuts to chinook salmon stocking this year and broadened the impact to other species after anglers and charter captains voiced objections to early proposals.
Michigan DNR Lake Michigan Basin Coordinator Jay Wesley presented the newest stocking plan, which is devised through the multi-jurisdictional Lake Michigan Committee, at a Michigan Sea Grant fisheries conference in Ludington last month.
In June, the committee proposed a 62-percent reduction in chinook salmon stocking lakewide for 2017, prompting an overwhelmingly negative response from angler groups and public feedback from around the lake. The move, aimed at balancing dwindling alewife populations with Lake Michigan prey fish, was revised in August to include a 50-percent cut in chinook plants, as well as a 20-percent cut to stocked lake trout. The second proposal continued to draw disagreement from Great Lakes anglers who attended public meetings last fall.
Wesley said the plan now is to broaden the cuts to include chinook, lake trout, brown trout, steelhead and coho salmon, and to implement a “pulse stocking” strategy that will alternate chinook stocking locations in Michigan from year to year.
“Most of our public feedback is they didn’t want to see as drastic of a reduction in chinook salmon because it’s been reduced so many times” in recent years, Wesley said, adding that lake trout stocking, has remained stable.
Alewife populations in the lake have steadily declined from a peak of 960 kilotons in 1969 – when Michigan’s salmon stocking began – to 210 kilotons in 2012. In 2015, Lake Michigan alewives hit a historic low of 36 kilotons, Wesley said.
“We cannot sustain a good chinook fishery without the alewives,” he said. “The goal is to maintain a safe abundance of alewives.”
Data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s mass marking program shows as much as 70 percent of Lake Michigan salmon are naturally reproduced, and lake managers have focused cuts on chinook because they eat mostly alewives.
The most recent proposal will eliminate the same amount of predation as the initial proposal by spreading it out over several species, but it’s expected to take longer to realize the results because the other species eat a more varied diet and remain in the hatcheries much longer than chinook.
Lakewide, the Lake Michigan Committee will cut chinook plants by roughly 24 percent, from about 1.8 million in 2016 to 1.35 million this year. Lake trout stocking will be cut about 18 percent, from 3.1 million to 2.54 million. Brown trout will also face a 24-percent cut to about 1.10 million fish, while steelhead will be reduced by 3 percent to 1.45 million and coho by 2 percent to 2.25 million.
In Michigan, chinook stocking will go from 559,000 fish last year to 330,000 this year, and federal officials who stock lake trout will reduce stocking in the mid-lake reef from 600,000 to 300,000.
“In Michigan waters, we will eliminate all the federal stocking from Grand Haven south, and that equates to 80,000 lake trout,” Wesley said. “The other states also eliminated their near-shore lake trout stocking.”
Michigan will stock about 560,000 brown trout, 540,000 steelhead and 1.47 million coho in 2017.
With the exception of the Little Manistee River – the source for most of Lake Michigan salmon and steelhead eggs – Michigan will use a pulse stocking approach to ensure each site receives between 33,000 and 50,000 chinook every other year, though the exact figures and schedule are not finalized, Wesley said.
“With 330,000 (chinook) we felt like we needed to keep a least 33,000 to 50,000 per site to have good survival,” he said, adding that the 330,000 total prevents officials from reaching that threshold for every site every year. “It turned into an every other year stocking event so we can double the number of sites we can stock.”
George Freeman, board member with the Ludington Charter Boat Association, told Michigan Outdoor News his group and others advocated against any cuts to chinook stocking in 2017, though members are encouraged that lake managers adjusted the initial proposal.
“Lake trout are OK, but the number one fish people want to catch is king salmon,” Freeman said. “We were 100 percent against the initial cuts. We’re glad they’ve taken the feedback and changed what they’re going to do,” he said.
Most Lake Michigan anglers and charter boat operators understand that reducing predation in the lake is critical to avoiding a collapse similar to Lake Huron in 2004, but many “feel the efforts to save it have been somewhat misguided at the expense of the king salmon,” Freeman said.
“We find the current plan is more acceptable than the initial plan, not that we like it,” he said, adding that chinook caught last year were healthy, unlike unusually small fish caught in Huron before the crash.