Chinook, alewife out of balance
Written by The Journal Times   
Sunday, 10 April 2005 10:08
Benton Harbor, MI -- These are the good old days for anglers in Racine and other Lake Michigan ports, but the number of chinook salmon is dangerously close to being out of balance with the available forage base and stocking cuts may be necessary next year.

That according to biologists and fisheries managers at the Status of Chinook Salmon in Lake Michigan Conference held here Saturday.

"We've just gone through the three best years of chinook fishing that I've ever experienced," said Paul Peters, fisheries biologist for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. "So I may sound a little bit like Chicken Little, but we've got some warning signs that we need to watch very closely."

Chinook salmon play the key predator role in the lake's ecosystem and the alewife is the most important forage fish. Last year Wisconsin anglers landed 360,991 chinook, the most of any year since 1987, and the catch from 2002 to 2004 was 950,000, a three-year record.

Biologists pay close attention to the number of chinook and other top predators in the lake. Most are well controlled through stocking, but a wild card has entered the system - natural reproduction in Michigan streams.

About 4.4 million chinook are stocked lakewide, and perhaps another 5 million are naturally-reproduced in Michigan streams, said Randy Claramunt, fisheries biologist with the Michigan DNR.

Meanwhile, the population of alewife in Lake Michigan has dropped 75 percent in the last three years, according to data from the U.S. Geological Survey.

"That's not a good combination," said Claramunt. "The last time the number of chinook got out of balance with the number of alewife we had a crash."

To help a looming imbalance in 1998, anglers and fisheries managers agreed on a 20 percent reduction in chinook stocking. That cut is credited in helping to create the excellent fishing in the last several years.

"That's a pretty good track record to listen up again," said Dan Thomas of Elmhurst, Ill., and president of the Great Lakes Sport Fishing Council. Thomas and other sport fishing representatives were generally supportive of potential cuts as long as they are needed.

One-hundred twenty anglers, biologists, commercial fishermen and fisheries managers attended the conference, organized by the Lake Michigan Technical Committee of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission. The conference included a full day of presentations on predator and prey population studies, historical stocking levels and population models.

No changes will be sought for the 2005 stocking schedule, said Jim Dexter, a manager with the Michigan DNR and co-chair of the Lake Michigan Technical Committee, and any recommendations about future reductions won't likely come until this fall and wouldn't be implemented until 2006.

"It's too early to make a clear decision," said Dexter. "But if we get more red flags this year, we'll probably need to cut the chinook stocking quotas."

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