Walleye make a comeback
Written by Detroit Free Press   
Thursday, 23 March 2006 12:03

Walleye numbers in Lake Erie are back to the glory days of the late 1980s, and the quota for sport and commercial fishermen will be 70% higher this year. This week, the Great Lakes Fishery Commission set a total allowable catch of 9.886 million walleyes for 2006, thanks to a maturing 2003 year-class that has boosted the population.

Most of the catch will go to Ohio and Ontario -- 5.081 million to Ohio, 4.281 million to Ontario. Michigan's quota will be 524,000 walleye. New York and Pennsylvania don't have quotas.

The catch is allocated according to the lake surface area controlled by each state or province. The total estimated Lake Erie walleye population is 46 million fish that are at least 2 years old, and about 65 million of all ages.

The commission's liberal walleye allowance was criticized by some American anglers, who blame commercial netters from Ontario for the poor walleye fishing in recent years. The anglers say that 35 million of the legal-size fish in the lake today are from a single year-class -- 2003.

This season, the 2003 fish will reach the 15-inch minimum size limit in Michigan and Ohio waters. There is no minimum size for Ontario commercial netters.

But the commercial fishermen reply that they operate under the same science as the sportfishermen, and besides, the combined catch by anglers and netters hasn't come close to the total allowable catch since 1989.

"I was really disappointed to see that the 2004 and 2005 year-classes were so low," said Dan Thomas of Chicago, an angler who heads the Great Lakes Sportfishing Council. "We don't know what the 2006 spawning will be like because it's just starting. If we have another poor spawning year, that doesn't bode well for the future. We can't depend on just one year-class."

Dean Fritt of Cleveland, who belongs to an Ohio walleye club, expects fishing to be better this year on Lake Erie.

"Our quota in Ohio last season was about 3 million walleyes, but we only caught 610,000," he said. "There were so many undersized fish from the 2003 year-class that you could catch 50 that went 13 inches and not get one legal fish. It was so bad a lot of people just quit fishing by July."

Michigan, which controls a much smaller area of Lake Erie than Ohio, had a quota of 308,000 walleyes last year but took only about 36,000. In total, sport anglers on Lake Erie landed only about 20% of their allocation, largely because so few fish were of legal size in Michigan and Ohio. By contrast, Ontario took 2.9 million walleyes in 2005 -- 90% by commercial netters -- even though its quota was only 2.5 million. That's because fisheries scientists made an error when they came up with the average weight per fish in a conversion factor.

The Ontario representatives on the international commission said the province would correct the problem by changing the formula.

The Lake Erie catch was more than 6 million walleyes a year in 1984-89, with a record 10 million in 1988. The catch ranged from 4 million to 7 million in the 1990s, then declined drastically. Only 2.4 million walleyes were caught in 2002, 2.45 million in '04. That largely was the result of poor spawning success probably caused by adverse weather. The sportfishing effort in Michigan and Ohio declined along with the walleye numbers, and the result was that the Ontario netters have taken about 60-75% of the walleyes caught in Lake Erie in recent years.

Commercial fishing for walleyes is banned on the American side of the lake, but about 90% of the Ontario catch goes to commercial fishermen. Many American anglers say the Canadian commercial operations are poorly policed.

"Until the last year or so, enforcement of the commercial fishing laws in Canada was a joke," Thomas said. "What we need is a law that says the first time you're caught overfishing, you pay a big fine. The next time, you pay double that. The third time, you lose your license for good.

"Three strikes and you're out."

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