Big Lake salmon catch bigger, but fish smaller
Written by Muskegon Chronicle   
Monday, 10 January 2005 09:26
The number of chinook salmon anglers caught while fishing from Lake Michigan charter boats increased substantially in 2004, though the fish were much smaller than in the past.

Charter boats from all Michigan ports hauled in 68,051 chinook salmon last year, a 19 percent increase over 2003, according to the latest Michigan Department of Natural Resources data. The catch rate -- the number of chinook caught per angler for every five hours of trying -- increased at most ports, including Muskegon, Grand Haven and Ludington.

"It was just a great year for chinook," said Sarah Thayer, a DNR fisheries biologist who analyzed the data. "The other species were showing some different trends."

Thayer presented the preliminary catch data at a fisheries conference Saturday in Ludington. The data was only for charter boats; the number of fish caught by people fishing from private boats or piers has not been tabulated.

Chinook were the bright spot in a mixed year that saw charter boat anglers catch fewer lake trout and steelhead and hardly any brown trout. Most chinook caught last year were smaller than in the past; only seven qualified for the state's Master Angler award, given to people who land a chinook weighing more than 27 pounds.

Scientists believe salmon aren't growing as large because their favorite food source -- alewife -- are getting skinnier. Alewife are losing weight because zebra mussels have wiped out diporeia, a tiny shrimp-like creature that lives on the lake bottom and is a staple in the alewife diet.

"We had a phenomenal season for chinook; a lot of boats caught their limit," said Jim Fenner, president of the Ludington Area Charterboat Association. "If there's anything we're concerned about, it's that we caught chinook almost exclusively. If we have a bad year in the future with chinook, we could be in trouble."

Fenner said members of his group also are concerned about the lack of brown trout caught last year.

DNR officials share that concern, but have no answers about why the fish aren't surviving. The agency has planted brown trout earlier in the spring in an effort to increase survival, but the strategy hasn't paid off, said Tom Rozich, supervisor of the DNR's Central Lake Michigan Management Unit.

"We should have had some kind of brown trout fishery but it just wasn't out there," Rozich said.

The lake trout catch also has been steadily decreasing in recent years, Thayer said.

DNR officials will host a conference in April to explore an apparent shortage of chinook food in Lake Michigan. State officials and scientists also will discuss whether the DNR's 1999 decision to reduce the number of chinook planted in the lake, from 6 million to 4 million each year, has improved the fishery.

The near disappearance of alewife from Lake Huron has devastated its salmon fishery. The Lake Michigan charter boat fleet caught 10 times more fish in 2004 than their counterparts on Lake Huron, according to DNR data.

Some scientists fear Lake Huron's problems may be a preview of what's in store for Lake Michigan. The reason: the two lakes are connected and, essentially, one body of water.

A food shortage was linked to a fatal kidney disease that decimated Lake Michigan's chinook salmon population in the late 1980s.

The rate of BKD, bacterial kidney disease, in chinook has decreased significantly since the mid-1990s. The incidence of BKD in chinook shot up in 2003 but was back below 10 percent last year on all rivers where the DNR tests fish before collecting eggs to raise a new generation of fish, Rozich said.

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