Lake Huron fisheries doing well overall
Written by Booth Newspapers   
Sunday, 20 March 2005 09:26
After nearly 40 years of salmon stocking, Lake Huron's sport fish community is beginning to again resemble what it was like before the salmon program began.

Perch and walleye populations are showing improvement, lake trout fishing is good and lake herring -- a fish that provides both recreational opportunity as well as a forage base for other fishes higher up the food chain -- is doing extremely well.

But state fisheries biologists warn that the Great Lake has changed in other ways.

"Some of the elements that used to be there are coming back," said Tammy Newcomb, the Lake Huron fisheries coordinator for the Department of Natural Resources. "But it's not going to look like it used to because of zebras and quaggas (mussels), gobies, water fleas and the other invasives that are there now."

Salmon fishing has been in decline in recent years despite a continuous stocking program.

"Right now, we have evidence that 80 percent of the chinook we've sampled have been wild-produced fish," Newcomb said. "It challenges our assumptions. We used to assume that something like 15 percent of the fish out there were wild and the rest were planted. Now we're seeing just the opposite."

Newcomb has no explanation for the increased catch-rate of wild fish, which are thought to be produced mostly in the rivers on the Canadian side of the big lake. And the only explanation for the poor salmon fishery seems to be a poor forage base. Alewives, the primary food of Great Lakes salmon, are in short supply in Lake Huron.

"There are still some in the lake, contrary to popular belief, but they are few and far between," Newcomb said. "Right now, they are suppressed at levels that we've not ever seen."

Although alewives are capable of producing big year-classes -- even when their populations are suppressed -- environmental conditions have been poor recently, Newcomb said. The lake produced a huge year-class in 2003, but a cool growing season followed by a harsh winter took them out.

"It's sort of like farming -- you never know what the weather's going to hold," Newcomb said.

But the fishing news isn't entirely bleak, according to Newcomb.

"We have very, very good reproduction of yellow perch from 2003 and 2004," she said. "We were hoping to see that 2003 year-class carry over -- it was something like 37 times greater than was previously ever recorded -- but we didn't see the carryover. This year also threw off a big crop of yellow perch, but they were small, too. So we're seeing good natural reproduction, which we haven't seen since the late 80s, but we haven't seen the big year-classes carry over. But this has been a mild winter, so we may see that 2004 year-class carry over. We're hoping.

"Walleyes are doing very well and they appear to be carrying over. Most of the data is from Saginaw Bay, but we've been hearing very good reports of walleye fishing up and down the coast."

What holds the most promise for the salmon fishery is the herring population.

"Lake herring, a native species which were pretty much ousted by alewives, are increasing and expanding in the places where they are found," Newcomb said. "Our hope is those populations will continue to grow and will fill that niche where alewives used to.

"Herring could provide a good forage base for salmon and they grow beyond the size that predators can use them, so that preserves the brood stock. They're good forage for lake trout, too."

Lake trout? Ever since officials have been treating the St. Marys River for lampreys, lakers have been on the comeback.

"That lake trout fishery has been tremendous," Newcomb said.

As for salmon, there's evidence, by the number of fish returning to the weirs, that there are more fish out there than anglers are catching, Newcomb said, though she's at a loss to explain why. Chinook salmon are known to travel up to 50 miles a day in the ocean and it could be the big fish are just roaming out of traditional fishing territories.

In 2003, 28 percent of the fish that were planted in Lake Huron and were caught had strayed into Lake Michigan, where the alewife population is in better shape.

"They're seeking out better forage," Newcomb said.

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