The number of salmon stocked in Lake Michigan would be reduced sharply for three years under a proposal that experts say is necessary to maintain a balance between sport fish and their food sources and to protect a multi-billion-dollar fishing industry, the Lake Michigan Committee announced Monday.
The committee, part of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, wants to reduce by half the number of Chinook salmon released into the lake -- from 3.3 million to 1.7 million -- starting in the spring. More than half of the lake's salmon population already is reproducing naturally, but one of its major food sources, a tiny fish called the alewife, is at or near historic lows.
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"It's only right and good fishery management try to hone in on a stocking level consistent with what the ecosystem would support," said committee spokesman Marc Gaden. "We will see an ecosystem that is healthier and more in balance."
State fisheries divisions from Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin, and the Chippewa Ottawa Resource Authority must approve the recommendation. Michigan would make the biggest cut, stocking 1.1 million fewer fish, because its streams are where most of the natural salmon reproduction occurs. Wisconsin would reduce its stocking by 440,000 fish, Indiana by 25,000 and Illinois by 20,000.
Conditions in Lake Michigan are similar to those that led to the population collapse of forage fish species -- those eaten by larger fish -- in Lake Huron a number of years ago, said Gaden. Fisheries experts and anglers fear if that happens in Lake Michigan, it could lead to skinny, malnourished sport fish.
"We want to learn from history," said Gaden. He said it's unclear why the alewife population collapsed in Lake Huron, and why it has declined precipitously in Lake Michigan or if it will rebound. Salmon were introduced to the lake in the late 1960s to control alewives, an invasive species that proliferated quickly and displaced native species.
Even though the Lake Huron alewife population didn't bounce back, fishing there is improving as other forage fish populations, such as herring and smelt, increase to take their place. This has led to more natural reproduction among lake trout and salmon, Gaden said.
That might happen in Lake Michigan, too, he said, "but it takes time for an adjustment to occur and we don't know what that will look like."
Dan Thomas, president of the Elmhurst, Ill.-based Great Lakes Sport Fishing Council, said most knowledgeable fisherman agree with the Lake Michigan Committee's recommendation because they want "a good if not better fishery in the long-term."
Ian Stewart, a charter-fishing captain from near Chicago, said he supports anything that will ensure a healthy fish population, even if means having fewer salmon to catch.
"In three or four years, we'll find out if the scientists are correct," said Stewart, who averages six fishing trips a week and says the salmon seem healthy -- for now. "If they're right, we'll have very healthy fish. If they're wrong, it could really hurt what we do."