It’s big news for the big lake. In case you haven’t heard, Indiana’s DNR announced they will suspend stocking chinook (king) salmon in Lake Michigan in 2017. The decision was made out of growing concerns there isn’t enough food in the lake.
Research has shown the numbers of prey fish in Lake Michigan stand at historic lows. The decision to reduce stocking king salmon is part of a multi-state plan to restore balance to the lake’s ecosystem and help preserve its multi-billion dollar sport fishery. Biologists hope the lake wide stocking reduction will allow populations of prey fish, primarily alewives, to recover.
The Lake Michigan Committee, the group responsible for cooperatively managing the fishery originally announced a 62 percent reduction in lake wide Chinook salmon stocking to take effect in the upcoming year. The committee is made up of biologists from Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin.
Since 2013, Indiana stocked 200,000 kings annually. The new plan originally trimmed Indiana’s quota to 45,000 for next year, which was a 20 percent reduction. However, given low fall Chinook returns and difficulty obtaining eggs from out of state partners, the DNR’s Lake Michigan Management Team decided to suspend stocking all together.
Other reductions include Illinois (36 percent), Michigan (12 percent) and Wisconsin (30 percent). Previously the Lake Michigan region stocked 3,327,500 kings annually. The 2017 plan would bring it down to about 650,000.
Brian Breidert, Indiana’s Lake Michigan biologist, says cuts are critical to survival of all gamefish that feed on alewives. “We only have two year classes of the forage fish,” he explained. “We are seeing similar signs here that occurred on Lake Huron before it lost all of its alewives.”
In the interim, the DNR will use free hatchery space to raise an additional 50,000 Skamania steelhead trout. They will also be held longer increasing their size and survivability rates. “We want to give anglers the best fishing opportunities possible,” said Jeremy Price, DNR Fisheries supervisor. Price is also the state’s representative to the Lake Michigan Committee.
“These steelhead will survive at a much higher rate than Chinook, rely less on alewives for food, offer fishing opportunities for boat, pier and stream anglers and give us complete control of our production cycle,” Price explained. “If prey fish abundance recovers to acceptable levels, we plan to add chinook back into the stocking mix.”
King salmon are voracious feeders that dine primarily on alewives. Coho salmon, steelhead and lake trout also eat the prey fish when they can find them, but they also feed on insects, gobies and shiners, which help take some of the pressure off the forage base.
But like most changes, the stocking reduction didn’t come without some controversy. Many salmonid anglers preferred the states cut lake trout stockings, which they believe eat a large number of alewives as well. But the Lake Michigan Committee did recommend states reduce 550,000 lakers from future plantings. “Chinooks eat way more alewives than lake trout,” Breidert explained. “We are not cutting to save money, we are just trying to protect the resource,” he added.
“It’s not as bad as some people think,” said Tony Hoffstetter, owner of Salmon Hunter Charters, who relies on the Lake Michigan fishery to earn a living. “It’s just going to be a tradeoff. We may have a few less kings but we’ll have an increase in steelhead.” Biologists also found there is roughly a 65 percent natural reproduction rate going on with wild chinook, so there will still be some king salmon available to anglers.
“Suspending the stocking of kings was certainly not a desired outcome,” said Breidert. “But nearly 70 percent of the Chinooks that boat anglers catch are wild, not stocked, so we will continue to have an open-water Chinook fishery in Indiana.”