2008 coho stock cut may not be necessary
Written by Booth Newspapers   
Sunday, 09 July 2006 06:24

Department of Natural Resources hatchery employees are in the process of transferring the coho salmon they plan to stock next spring from their indoor facility to outdoor raceways. It's an annual event; when the raceways are emptied of 1 1/2-year-old stockers, they're cleaned and readied for the next year-class.

The difference this year is that there are a lot fewer fish going into those raceways. Faced with a multi-million dollar deficit, fisheries officials opted to scale back coho production for two years in an attempt to save money. The fisheries poobahs planned to stock about a million fewer coho in Lake Michigan in 2007 and 2008 than usual.

The cut did not sit well with lots of folks, especially anglers from Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin, who benefit tremendously from the coho plants.

As the cohos are moved from indoors to outdoors, the fish are inventoried; fisheries managers always hatch out more than they need, in case of unforeseen problems.

Excess production is used in other ways -- as feed for other fish in the hatchery system, for instance, or sent to other states with unused hatchery capacity.

This year, however, neighboring state hatcheries are all at capacity. And Jim Dexter, the biologist in charge of Lake Michigan, guesses there may be 100,000 excess fingerlings in the system.

Dexter estimates it would cost around $8,000 to raise those fish for another year, money that is not in the budget.

But a group of sportsmen from out of state, organized by an activist Indiana angler, has announced plans to send a check to Michigan to cover the cost of rearing those excess 100,000 cohos.

So the question becomes: If we start right now, can we find the money to eliminate the 2008 cut?

The coho fishery is extremely important to southern Lake Michigan. Although many of the fish Michigan plants are caught out of northern Indiana ports, a large portion of them are taken from Michigan waters by anglers fishing with Michigan licenses.

Many anglers complain that the southern Lake Michigan fishery was unnecessarily jeopardized and, by the way, didn't we just spend $20 million rebuilding our hatcheries? Isn't cutting production sort of like having a certificate of deposit mature, but instead of rolling it over, you just sort of stuff the money in your mattress?

Fisheries officials will tell you my analogy is overly simple, that reducing the output from the hatcheries could have other benefits -- more robust fish, perhaps, because they are less crowded. And they are not entirely sure how much effect the cut will have; in years past, hatchery problems -- early mortality syndrome, for instance, or the huge die-off a couple of years back when an alarm system failed at a new hatchery -- have not ruined the spring fishery.

Perhaps they are right. But this reduction is massive; the only Lake Michigan stocking planned for the next two years is in the Platte River, where the DNR wants to maintain the run for future brood stock. The 100,000 fish the sportsmen chipped in to buy is hardly a million and we won't know how the fishing plays out until spring 2008 -- shortly before the next year-class is scheduled to be stocked and too late to do anything about it if the fishery totally collapses.

This is a huge gamble and, as out-of-state sportsmen have shown, it may not be totally necessary.

Were I running the state's fish operation, I'd take eggs this fall with the notion that the stocking cuts may not have to be as large as planned. Sportsmen came up with a tidy little sum in a short period of time to make the 2007 cut a little less draconian.

Given a whole year to work on the problem, well, who knows what they might be able to accomplish?

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