Salmon catch grows, but fish shrink
Written by Green Bay Pres-Gazette   
Thursday, 09 March 2006 09:57

When Lake Michigan fishermen someday look back at the heyday of chinook salmon fishing, odds are the focus could be on the early years of the 21st century. "These last four years have been absolutely phenomenal," said Paul Peeters, a state fisheries biologist based in Sturgeon Bay. "It's hard to believe we can keep this kind of fishery going at such a high level."

Anglers caught an estimated 418,918 chinooks, a state record, in 2005. That topped the previous best, from 1987, by more than 20,000.

The four-year total of more than 1.4 million chinooks smashed the previous high, set in the mid- to late 1980s.

Even more remarkable, the record-setting catches have come despite two substantial salmon stocking cuts, one in 1991 and the other in 1999. A third is set to start this spring. Wisconsin will be stocking fewer than half as many chinooks as it did in the mid-1980s.

Stocking peaked at more than 2.7 million chinooks a year three times between 1984 and 1989. However, all those salmon almost ate themselves out of their favored food; the alewife, an oily, exotic forage fish.

Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois and Michigan began stocking salmon in the late 1960s to control exploding alewife populations. But when alewife populations declined in the late 1980s, chinooks began dying of bacterial kidney disease.

Fishery managers cut chinook stocks to 1.5 million to 1.7 million fish a year beginning in 1991, then to 1.4 million to 1.5 million in 1999.

The reduction in the number of salmon produced at hatcheries meant better conditions for fish: more room, better water quality and less competition.

Those fish have been able to feed on a large year class of alewives produced in 1998. A number of state records have since been set, including the coho salmon and brown trout leaders.

But declining salmon body weights in recent years have biologists again concerned that salmon are having a hard time getting enough to eat.

Chinooks averaged 13 pounds in 2001, according to creel census clerks; last year, that figure dropped to 8.6 pounds. Smaller-than-usual salmon are winning fishing contests.

Peeters said the average weight of a 30-inch chinook fell to its lowest level last year at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources' Strawberry Creek egg collection facility.

Peeters said an increase in natural reproduction on the Michigan side of the lake makes it difficult for fish managers to keep salmon numbers in line with the forage base. Also, a decline in alewives in Lake Huron in recent years resulted in an unknown number of salmon migrating into Lake Michigan.

Last year, fishery officials from the four states surrounding Lake Michigan agreed to collectively decrease chinook stocking again by 25 percent. Wisconsin's share of the decrease is 21 percent, or about 300,000 fish. Michigan will take the biggest cut, 30 percent.

"Alewives appear to be just kind of holding their own at a low level," Peeters said. "That's why I think it's important that we took action to cut back on the number of salmon we stock into the lake."


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