King salmon reign becomes more precarious on changing the Great Lakes
Keith Matheny, Detroit Free Press Published 6:00 a.m. ET Oct. 23, 2017 | Updated 10:23 a.m.
Fifty years of stocking chinook, or king, salmon in the Great Lakes helped spawn a multibillion-dollar sport fishery. But ripple effects of invasive species have left the fish's future less certain
It's the undisputed king sport fish of the Great Lakes — it says so right in its name.
For a half-century, the chinook, or king salmon — an ocean fish transplanted into the Great Lakes from the Pacific Northwest — has sent fisherman piling into boats every spring and summer, or queuing up on the banks of inland rivers every fall, its fierce fight on the line like a siren's song.
First stocked regularly in the Great Lakes beginning in 1966, the kings led a complete turnaround in the Great Lakes fishery, helping create a $7 billion economic impact. As recently as 2012, Michigan's Great Lakes fishing charters averaged 7.4 king salmon caught per trip.
It's unlikely it will ever be like that again.
Invasive zebra and quagga mussels have spread so pervasively throughout the Great Lakes, their filtration of nutrients from lake water has caused ripple effects throughout the food web. It's led to steep declines in the populations of another invasive species that is the chinook salmon's almost exclusive diet — the alewife, a silvery herring.
Trying to regain some balance between predator and prey — and to avoid a near-total vanishing of chinook as happened on Lake Huron following an alewife crash in 2003 — the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and fisheries managers from other states around Lake Michigan have taken action. Michigan stocked almost 1.7 million chinook into the Great Lakes in 2012. That number was slashed by more than two-thirds in 2013; and this year, the state's chinook stocking number was cut again, to 330,000 fish.
"You can still catch chinook salmon, but you are not going to catch chinook salmon like you used to previous to 2003," said DNR Fisheries Division Chief Jim Dexter.
"It's been invasive after invasive. We're dealing with a very different ecosystem. But even with that, we still have an excellent fishery. The intent is to maintain those diverse fisheries well into the future. (But) different species will be available in different proportions than people are used to."
That matters whether you like fishing or not. King salmon helped turn a moribund commercial fishery and spotty sport fishing into a rich enterprise. Shoreline communities from St. Joseph on Lake Michigan to Port Huron on Lake Huron have for decades seen the boon to their stores, bars, restaurants and hotels. And the wealth got spread inland, as fishermen also flocked to the banks of rivers in the fall, as an instinctive call leads the salmon to return to spawn in the rivers where they were first stocked a few years before.
Whether that continues to happen with the same cash-register-ringing enthusiasm with fewer kings to catch is a multibillion-dollar question.
"The salmon run is definitely our busiest time of year, for sure," said Aaron Russell, manager of Traks Bar and Grill in Brethren, a few miles from Tippy Dam on the Manistee River, where chinook salmon return upstream every fall to spawn, sparking some of the best king fishing in the state.
"It's mostly a lot of tourists — we pack the place. The locals will even stay away this time of year, because we're so busy with the tourists."
Lake Michigan-side fishing businesses aren't panicking. After a couple of seriously down years, fishing businesses noticed an uptick this year.
"It looks like the forage base is coming back," said Mike Boyd, owner and captain of Coldwater Charters in St. Joseph in the state's southwestern corner.
"This is the first year we've really seen an increase in the alewife population in awhile. Most every time we caught a fish, the fish we caught had alewives in them."
Fishing guide Jim Chamberlin of Mancelona offers Great Lakes and inland lakes charters, as well as river fishing excursions throughout the northern Lower Peninsula.
Fisheries assistant Stephanie Trapp carries young Chinook salmon to another tank where they will be suctioned up into a truck to be transported to their new homes in streams that feed Lake Michigan in April 2016 at the DNR Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery in Mattawan, Mich. (Photo: Julia Nagy, Lansing State Journal)
"The king fishing I saw this year was a lot better than the previous three years I've been out there on Grand Traverse Bay," he said.
In recent years, Chamberlin said, his bay charters would catch one or two chinook in the morning. This year, it was two to six kings per trip, he said.
"When you cut stocking to the degree it was cut, and you have better fishing, that tells me the DNR know what they are doing," he said.
Chamberlin has changed what he does, with the changing dynamics of the lakes.
"I kind of adjusted my business plan away from the salmon," he said. "It was so up-and-down for a couple of years. People get frustrated. I felt like it was my job to take them to the fish that were available to catch. I'm more of a mixed-bag fisherman, anyway. I like a couple of trout, a couple of salmon, a few whitefish and some steelhead. I think that's higher-quality fishing than just going out and bashing a few salmon."
Then-Michigan DNR Fisheries Division Chief Howard Tanner wanted to create "the world's greatest freshwater fishery" when he introduced chinook salmon to the Great Lakes, grown from eggs received from Washington state in 1964. (Photo: Detroit Free Press archives)
"Do something big."
That was the mandate Howard Tanner received, as the aquatic biologist and Michigan State University graduate returned from a dozen years in Colorado to serve as the chief of the Michigan DNR's Fisheries Division in 1964.
Tanner was returning to something of a mess. Great Lakes' native lake trout populations were dwindling, over-fished by commercial fishermen and preyed upon by invasive sea lampreys, an eel-like fish with a sharp-toothed suction mouth that looks like something straight out of the "Alien" movie. Lampreys latch onto the trout and suck their blood, weakening or killing them.
Meanwhile, an invasive type of herring, the alewife, had, like sea lampreys, made its way from the Atlantic Ocean, up the St. Lawrence Seaway and Welland Canal, and was thriving on the Great Lakes — too well. Frequent die-offs of alewives, as they ate themselves out of food, would blanket shorelines with tens of thousands of their rotting, stinking carcasses.
Tanner had an idea, sprouted from his time out west: bringing chinook salmon from the Pacific Ocean to the Great Lakes.
Now 94, Tanner bristles at the notion that chinook stocking was brought to the Great Lakes to rectify the alewife problem.
"It's like saying we put cows on the range to make the grass shorter," he said. "We were going to introduce salmon and create the world's greatest freshwater fishery. We had all of the ingredients: we had the water, we had the forage base and we had fishermen who were hungry for it."
Tanner got a call from his counterpart in Washington State that a surplus of chinook eggs was available in 1964. The hatchery-bred chinook fingerlings were stocked in the Great Lakes in the spring of 1966. By the end of the summer in 1967, the kings exploded on the scene.
"We got fish into 30 pounds in that first year," Tanner said.
The Great Lakes were like a paradise to the kings, who could eat their fill of abundant alewives.
"The pieces suddenly fell into place," he said. "It was like the tipping point. It was time to change from commercial fishing to sport fishing, in terms of public value.
"We had a fishing population that had maybe dreamed about a salmon trip to Alaska or the West Coast. But there were probably not one in 1,000 who had ever caught a salmon. People went nuts."
Now living in Haslett, Tanner has a book in the works on his pioneering of chinook stocking in the Great Lakes.
Though alewife and king salmon stocks have dropped, the fishery — including the kings — remains strong, Tanner said.
"There's a major, major increase in natural reproduction of chinook," he said. "Yes, we would like a lot of natural reproduction, but it's very difficult to account for and manage."
Another now-prevalent invasive fish species in the Great Lakes, the round goby, is offering a new food stock for many types of sport fish, including lake trout, steelhead and Atlantic salmon. King salmon remain reluctant to try the gobies as a food source, but that may change over time, Tanner said.
"In redundancy there is security," he said. "The management with several species is highly desirable. Witness the original situation, where you had only the lake trout. When the lake trout crashed, you had nothing left.
"Let the biologists do what they are doing, managing for a stable fishery that goes on without extreme variation from year to year. We're in no way at a crisis situation."
Technicians from the Michigan DNR stock juvenile Atlantic salmon at Lexington State Harbor in 2014. (Photo: Jeffrey M. Smith, Port Huron Times Herald)
A funny thing happened once biologists were able to track the salmon they stocked. They stopped showing up.
For the past 15 years, Great Lakes fishery managers have been marking salmon and other sport fish they stock. For king salmon, a notch is made in their adipose fin, the small fin on their backs between their large, dorsal fin and their tail. And an automated system tags each juvenile salmon with a tiny, coded wire, just over a millimeter long, in their snout. The code includes numbers that tell biologists in which hatchery a salmon was raised and in what river it was stocked.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Green Bay, Wis., office runs the Great Lakes Mass Marking Program. Biotechnicians attend fishing tournaments, conduct surveys at cleaning tables when the salmon are running on a river in the fall, and accept fishheads at drop-off locations. Their mission: Figure out from where the caught salmon came.
"Our biotechnicians on Lake Michigan are handling about 20,000 fish a year," said Matthew Kornis, a fish biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service's Mass Marking Program. "It gives us the sample size we need."
The data is in, and the numbers are surprising. Of the chinook salmon caught in Michigan waters the past three years, 68% to 74% were naturally born in the lakes — no fin clipping; no snout tag.
"It's astounding how consistent the numbers have been," said Mass Marking Program coordinator Charles Bronte.
Fish stocked in Michigan are only 6% to 7% of the catch in the state.
"The fish move around a lot after they are stocked," Bronte said. "Their stocking location doesn't have any real bearing on where they are caught, except in the fall, when they are caught near the rivers where they were spawned."
Michigan spends about $10 million a year to operate six hatcheries statewide, raising a mix of species including walleye, muskie, pike, sturgeon, trout and salmon. Three-quarters of the funding comes from hunting and fishing licence fees, with the remainder from a federal excise tax on sporting equipment and certain gas taxes, Dexter said.
Chinook cost the DNR about 43 cents each to raise, compared to 93 cents for coho salmon. That's because chinook need only about 4 months of hatchery time, compared to coho's 16 months, Dexter said. Inland, brook, and brown trout are all even more expensive to raise, he said, around $1.50 each.
A joint U.S. Geological Survey and Michigan State University study, reviewing various models of forage base on the Great Lakes, found that chinook stocking could be cut by an additional 50% with little resulting difference in overall salmon numbers. But Michigan Charter Boat Association surveys show vast majorities of participating charter captains oppose salmon stocking cuts.
"If we reduce our stocking by another 50%, we might end up with more fish," Dexter said. "But our anglers have great angst over that. That's why we work with them. We're public trust managers of their resources."
The idea of stocking is to build a natural population, Chamberlin said.
"Michigan doesn't stock for put-and-take," he said. "When they stock fish, they want to see the fish naturally take hold and reproduce."
Chinook Salmon smolts before being released at the northern branch of the Clinton River in Sterling Heights in May 2014. (Photo: Jessica J. Trevino, Detroit Free Press)
The immediate future for the Great Lakes won't see any additional sport fish added for Lake Michigan, said Jay Wesley, the DNR's Lake Michigan basin coordinator.
"Where we are at right now, there's no room for new predators," he said.
On Lake Huron, however, experimentation continues as managers try to rebound the lake from the rock-bottom it hit about a dozen years ago. Atlantic salmon, coho, lake trout and cisco are all on the rise, said Randall Claramunt, the DNR's Lake Huron basin coordinator.
"Where's it all headed? Follow Lake Huron," he said. "I really think that's going to be the paradigm shift; diversifying both the predators and the prey."
Contact Keith Matheny: (313) 222-5021 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @keithmatheny.
Read the story online at: http://www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/2017/10/23/king-chinook-salmon-great-lakes-fish/780231001/