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Keeping Pacific salmon in Lake Michigan

Jun 14, 2016

50 years ago, officials put Pacific salmon into the Great Lakes to eat an invasive fish called the alewife, and a huge sport fishery was born.

These days, you can still catch both coho and chinook salmon. But people are worried there's not enough food in Lake Michigan for chinook salmon.

The kings

Chinook salmon can get big: 20 or 30 pounds.

People call them "kings."

“On a scale of 1 to 10, catching a king is 10,” says Dennis Eade. He’s executive director of the Michigan Steelhead and Salmon Fishermen’s Association.

“I think sport fishing in the Great Lakes is really dependent on a premier sport fish to draw anglers to the sport, so we’ve got to protect the king salmon fishery at all costs,” he says.

Making sure there's enough food to go around

But chinook love to eat alewives, and the alewife population in Lake Michigan isn't doing well.

"The problem is that the forage base, or the fish that the salmon are eating, are at historic lows," says Marc Gaden, communications director for the Great Lakes Fishery Commission. "So it means there's basically nothing at the buffet when the salmon go out and look for food."

A group called the Lake Michigan Committee (it's made up of tribes and the states that border Lake Michigan) wants to put fewer baby salmon in the lake.

Jay Wesley is the Lake Michigan Basin Coordinator with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

"There's basically nothing at the buffet when the salmon go out and look for food."

“We’re looking at reducing chinook salmon from about 1.8 million in Lake Michigan to about 690,000 which is about a 62% reduction for the lake,” he says.

Wesley says chinook are doing a good job of reproducing on their own in the lake.

"The population can support itself with wild reproduction," he says. "So the fact that we are reducing stocking isn't necessarily a bad thing. We have a lot of wild fish that are reproducing on their own, and they don't need that hatchery support anymore."

He says the proposal will be open for public comments this summer, and the committee will meet to finalize a plan this fall.

Avoiding another crash

They’re trying to keep the salmon population from crashing. That happened in Lake Huron more than a decade ago.

Captain Denny Grinold is with the Michigan Charter Boat Association.

“For most folks, we don’t want to end up like Lake Huron, where the chinook fishery collapsed altogether," he says. "There’s a lot of charter operations and a lot of recreational fishermen that have moved their operations or their fishing excursions over to Lake Michigan as a result of that dropoff.”

He says some fishermen don’t like the idea of putting fewer salmon in the lake, but he says most understand something has to be done.

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