Big returns for subsidized fish (Part 2)

Aug 24, 2011

Part 2 of a 3 part series -

Fishing in the Great Lakes would not be what it is today without stocking Pacific salmon in the lakes.  But it costs a lot of money.  Michigan fisheries managers say it’s worth every dime.  In the second report of the series 'The Collapse of the Salmon Economy," we look at the economic benefits of subsidizing salmon fishing in the Great Lakes.

In the 1960s, the state of Michigan first put salmon into the Great Lakes.  It was a gamble to create world-class recreational fishing. 

Michigan spends about $8-million a year stocking salmon and other types of fish.  But the Department of Natural Resources doesn’t really know how many fish we’re catching for those millions of dollars.

Gary Whelan is in charge of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources fish hatcheries. 

“I wouldn’t say we have no idea.  I think we have a ballpark.  We don’t have a great estimate.  We would like to have a lot better estimates than we have now.  I would absolutely agree with that.”

A Michigan Watch analysis found the cost for each fish caught in Michigan waters ranges from a couple of dollars to $150 per fish caught, depending on species and depending on year.  We use catch estimates used by some other Great Lakes states.

The Michigan DNR’s Gary Whelan questions those estimates and our calculations.

And… he says besides, we’re looking at it all wrong.  It’s not about the cost per hatchery-raised fish caught; it’s about what those salmon mean to Michigan’s economy. 

“You have lots of people, for example, who are catch-and-release fishermen who will never take fish home.  But, they’re spending a lot of money to go fishing for this fish or the opportunity to fish for them.”

And stocking Pacific salmon does attract anglers from all over.

Depending on whose estimate you want to use, recreational fishing contributes between $1.5-billion to $4-billion each year to Michigan’s economy.

And it’s the anglers’ license fees and federal excise taxes they pay when buying boats and bait that pay for stocking the fish.  Whelan says it’s a really good return on investment that’s funded by the excise tax dollars and fees of the people who want to catch those fish.

But, the same reason Michigan and other Great Lakes states really don’t have a good numbers on the value of fish caught causes other problems.  They’re not really clear about how many fish they need to raise in hatcheries to make sure there’s enough fish for the anglers… without putting too many fish into the lakes. 

Michigan and other states are now getting some help from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  They’re marking and tagging every fish that’s released this year. 

We caught up with that operation at a federal fish hatchery on Lake Superior.

Converted horse trailers are filled with equipment that puts a tiny wire tag on about 60-thousand fish a day.

Allen Lane is the Fish and Wildlife Service agent prepping things here.

“By tagging every chinook salmon, we’re able to determine how much natural reproduction is going on.”

Not knowing has caused some problems.  In Lake Huron, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources has been releasing about 1.4 million chinook salmon each year, but had no idea how many chinook salmon were reproducing naturally in the lake.

Dave Spratt is a journalist with Great Northern Outdoors –dot—net. 

“These chinooks were going into all these un-dammed Canadian tributaries of Lake Huron and multiplying like fiends.  I mean, it was clearly way more than the lake could support.”

The Michigan DNR now estimates that natural reproduction in Canada could have been adding 10-million to 15-million chinook salmon each year on top of those being stocked by Michigan.

Lake Huron couldn’t handle all those salmon at the top of the food chain.  And at the same time the bottom of the food chain was collapsing because of invasive species such as the quagga mussel filtering out plankton in the lake.  The salmon fishery in most of Lake Huron has now collapsed.  That’s had huge repercussions for the businesses and communities that came to rely on salmon fishing.

Tomorrow, a look  at the collapse of the salmon fishery in Lake Huron… and concerns the same thing could happen in Lake Michigan.

- Research assistance for this series came from Bridget Bodnar