With stocking cuts, hopefully, less is more
Written by Booth Newspapers   
Saturday, 17 September 2005 19:22
State fisheries officials have a lot of political clout with anglers right now. Five years ago, they bet the farm that stocking fewer chinook salmon in Lake Michigan would help prevent the kind of catastrophic collapse that occurred after bacterial kidney disease was detected in the salmon population the late 1980s.

Anglers were skeptical.

In retrospect, state biologists were more right than they thought. Less turned out to be more. Lake-wide chinook plants were cut by 27 percent, but fishing now -- in terms of catch rates -- is better than it was before the stocking cuts were made.

So when the high priests of the fisheries division approached anglers with evidence that there were some warning flags appearing in the fishery once again, anglers were inclined to listen.

But not entirely.

Fisheries officials asked anglers, through the Lake Michigan Citizens' Advisory Committee, to put their imprimatur on another 25 percent stocking cut. And the anglers did, but somewhat reluctantly.

Many of the committee members wanted to postpone making the decision until spring, after fall forage assessments were completed by the U.S. Geological Survey. If fall trawling showed that the alewife population was on the upswing, then the stocking cut might not be necessary.

State fisheries poohbahs say they doubt fall trawling results will show significant improvement. But even if they do, the fisheries division doesn't believe it has enough political capital to pull it off.

By postponing the decision, Department of Natural Resources staffers would have to collect, fertilize and hatch enough eggs for a full compliment of fingerlings. And if the decision is made in the spring to go ahead with the reduced plant, that could mean the state could be sitting on upwards of 500,000 excess fingerlings.

What would be done with them? Landfill them?

You can imagine the outcry. The state is already in tough financial straits. There would be a chorus of angry chants about wasting taxpayer money -- even though not a dime of it is. Heads could roll. It's happened before.

But the bigger question becomes how much political capital Michigan, which has always been the leader in salmon management, has among other states.

Assuming the four Lake Michigan states agree to cut lake-wide chinook plants by 25 percent, the next question becomes how to get there. And you can rest assured that someone from one of those other states will suggest that Michigan take the whole cut.

Why? Well, Michigan already stocks roughly 2.2 million of the 4.3 million chinook fingerlings planted. In addition, Michigan has the best rivers for natural reproduction -- in fact, recent studies suggest that reproduction might equal the total number of fish stocked.

There's also an added dimension -- Michigan has already decided to cut half of its coho plants in 2007 and 2008. And the bulk of those fish wind up in livewells of anglers in the other three states. Those anglers are already not very happy about that decision.

But the coho-reduction decision wasn't based upon lake biology. It was based on the budget. And the decision is no longer as certain as it was just a few months ago when it was made.

Since the Natural Resources Commission approved that money-saving measure, the federal government has passed a massive transportation bill that includes putting a larger percentage of the taxes paid on motor boat fuel into state natural resources coffers. There may be enough money there to restore the coho program.

That could give Michigan an additional bargaining chip when the states get together to divvy up the pain.

But, bottom line, it's likely that the chinook plants in Lake Michigan will take a healthy slash beginning next spring.

And about all we can do about it at this point is hope that, once again, less is more.

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