2013-05-09 / Front Page

Diversity Marks Fishery Rebound

Lake Huron Research
By Paul Gingras


Anglers catch an Atlantic salmon near DeTour. Atlantic salmon are making a comeback and are considered by some anglers to offer the best offshore sports fishing in a now more-diverse and abundant Lake Huron fishery. This photograph was taken approximately two years ago. (Photograph by Bob Gross) Anglers catch an Atlantic salmon near DeTour. Atlantic salmon are making a comeback and are considered by some anglers to offer the best offshore sports fishing in a now more-diverse and abundant Lake Huron fishery. This photograph was taken approximately two years ago. (Photograph by Bob Gross) “Frankly, I never thought I’d see this in my lifetime,” said fisheries research biologist James Johnson, describing the recovery of native lake trout now flourishing in Lake Huron, an aquatic environment that has changed dramatically in recent years, yielding a more diverse and abundant offshore fishery that is likely to require less human intervention to remain sustainable for anglers.

Mr. Johnson spoke at the Lake Huron Fisheries Workshop Thursday, April 25, in Cedarville. As station manager for the Alpena Fisheries Research Station, he represented the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in an update on offshore fish communities at the Les Cheneaux Sportsman’s Club, a meeting packed with anglers, people interested in northern Michigan’s maritime tourism industry, and the general public.

Prospects for the new dominant species for recreational anglers, including rainbow trout (known as steelhead) and Atlantic salmon, are exceptional, Mr. Johnson explained, and likely to improve as 2013 spills over into next year.

The overall rise in fishing success from the Les Cheneaux Islands to the DeTour area, noted in an increased catch of recreational anglers in Lake Huron, is the result of a combination of successful stocking, control of double-crested cormorants and sea lampreys, a crash in the population of invasive alewives, and better management of fishing by state and tribal authorities through agreements such as the 2000 Consent Decree, he said.

“Not all the above factors were involved in improvement of every species (for example, lamprey control was important to lake trout but not perch; cormorant control was important to perch but not lake trout, and of course we don’t stock perch), but in combination they caused…improvement since 1996. In general, fishing success has much more than doubled,” Mr. Johnson told The St. Ignace News.

As far as steelhead go, “We’ve never seen the catch rate so high.”

In 1996, the steelhead catch rate amounted to one fish per 100 hours on the water, a factor that does not include species such as chinook harvested at the same time. Now, anglers catch an average of 2.3 steelhead per 100 hours on the water, mostly by trolling.

“This trajectory is very steep,” Mr. Johnson said. “2013 may be even better.”

The DNR’s steelhead data reaches back to 1986, revealing that more stocked steelhead survive and grow in Lake Huron. For the past two years, the DNR stocked 400,000 young steelhead at sites stretching from the thumb to Sault Ste. Marie. All stocking sites report strong steelhead survival rates, he said. The recovery has also been confirmed at inland rivers, notably the AuSable River, where anglers catch mature steelhead that swim into tributaries to spawn, he explained.

Wild steelhead numbers have also risen, an exciting prospect that means Lake Huron is becoming a more self-sustaining fishery that requires less help from hatcheries, Mr. Johnson said.

Augmenting fishing prospects further, Atlantic salmon stocking efforts doubled in 2011, owing to a DNR project that added to Lake Superior State Univ ersity’s established stocking effort by 30,000 fish. New stocking by the DNR began downstate in 2012, at areas like Alpena and Oscoda, which could further increase the abundance of the fishery, especially in northern Lake Huron, and species’ survival rate is good.

For years, the harvest of Atlantic salmon came in at a modest 400 fish per year. In 2012 it shot up to 1,400, and “I anticipate it will continue to rise nicely in 2013,” Mr. Johnson said.

Ninety percent of Atlantic salmon harvested in the Great Lakes are caught in northern Lake Huron. Further, Atlantic salmon have appeared in especially high concentrations near DeTour, making the area the best lake fishing for Atlantic salmon in Michigan, Mr. Johnson said.

“For stream fishing, hotspots include the St. Mary’s River at Sault Ste. Marie and the St. Marys rapids in Ontario,” he added.

As the word of the Lake Huron fishery recovery spreads, Mr. Johnson expects a new flurry of Atlantic salmon angling on Lake Huron. This is good news for the fishery in general, owing to a sharp decline in offshore fishing when chinook declined as the dominant sports fish.

When the chinook’s primary food source (invasive alewives) crashed, the salmon did not adapt to other food sources. Since then, “the perception has been ‘no chinook, no good fishing,’” he said.

“Angler turnout has been low,” he explained, “but the fishing has been great.”

In Mr. Johnson’s opinion, Atlantic salmon now offer the most exciting offshore sports fishing in the state.

“They’re kind of acrobatic,” he said. “They hit hard and jump. In my book, nothing compares to them.”

The early signs of success of Atlantic salmon gratifies DNR members who worked on the project.

“We still have fingers crossed” about the trends, Mr. Johnson told The St. Ignace News. “Early signs are good, but there could be unforeseen complications.”

After a multi-year evaluation, the department will be able to declare whether the project is a fullscale success, he explained.

The department began stocking in 2011, leading Mr. Johnson to expect a modest rise in 2012, but nothing like what occurred. With prospects looking even better, the DNR is committed to continued stocking.

“There’s no reason to change,” he said.

The catch rate for all major species harvested by recreational anglers, combined, is 28 fish per 100 hours spent on the water. This includes, for the most part, Atlantic salmon, steelhead, lake trout, chinook salmon, coho salmon, and pink salmon.

The DNR gathers offshore fishing data by interviewing anglers at major access sites. The highest catches locally appear at St. Ignace, Mackinaw City, DeTour, Cedarville, Hessel, and the St. Marys River, the latter four receiving the highest success rates.

The upward trend in the new dominant fish populations “is only going to help Upper Peninsula access sites,” he told The St. Ignace News.

Since the greatest increases have been noted in the northernmost portion of the lake, local economies supported by anglers are likely to receive a boost, especially at DeTour, however, Atlantic salmon are found “all the way over to Mackinac,” he said.

Native lake trout, still too young to appear in numbers like steelhead and Atlantic salmon, are expected to rebound just as strongly, Mr. Johnson said.

“Lake trout are our true, native, Lake Huron trout,” he said, “We’ve been trying to restore them, and we’ve recently seen indications of a strong recovery.”

Lake trout comprise about 20% of offshore fish caught recreationally, and all indications reveal this percentage is likely to rise. This means 40 years of effort to restore the lake’s native trout are finally paying off, owing to collaborative efforts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the DNR, the Chippewa Ottawa Resource Authority, and the government of Ontario. The crash in the invasive alewife population, successful control of sea lampreys in the St. Marys River, regulations that curbed overfishing, and restoration efforts at the Drummond Island Refuge, established in 1985 to provide safe waters for lake trout, “have all contributed to rising levels of natural reproduction of lake trout,” Mr. Johnson explained.

For the past 40 years, most lake trout caught have been hatchery fish, but more and more wild trout are turning up and are likely to comprise the majority caught in three to four years, Mr. Johnson said.

Perhaps the biggest factor in the recovery was the crash in alewives, fish which invaded the Great Lakes in the 1930s and became prominent in Lake Huron, owing to the prevalence of sea lampreys and overfishing, which had decimated predator fish, leaving the lake wide open for alewives to flourish.

To make matters worse, lake trout that fed on alewives became sterile because the invasive food source caused trout to develop a serious thiamine deficiency, Mr. Johnson said.

Several years ago, poor results from efforts to help lake trout recover from the 1970s onward led Mr. Johnson to question the wisdom of continued stocking. In 1995, alewives were discovered to be the culprit in native trout decline, but that changed in 2004 when a crash in the alewife population triggered a domino effect.

An angler and long-time Michigan resident, Mr. Johnson vividly recalls massive alewife die-offs at beaches along lakes Huron and Michigan, where rotting alewives littered the shore and stunk. The invasive fish had caused trouble both for anglers and shore-based tourism.

“There was no way you’d walk barefoot,” he recalled.

The introduction of chinook and coho salmon amounted to “a desperate measure to control the alewives,” he said, “and they did their job.”

The move transformed Lake Huron into a highly desirable chinook sports fishery. They flourished on a diet of alewives, but the rise of competitive predators as well as zebra and quagga mussels changed the balance in the lake. The loss of both chinook and their prey meant conservation workers had to prop up the fishery with two methods, fish hatcheries, and sea lamprey control.

With more hatchery fish surviving and wild fish establishing a fin-hold, the need for hatcheries should begin to fall, but sea lamprey control, at a cost of about $15 million a year, will have “to go on forever,” Mr. Johnson explained.

Mr. Johnson calls sea lampreys “vampires from the Atlantic” that made their way into the Great Lakes in the 1920s. The large, parasitic creatures attach to fish. About half of lake trout attacked by lampreys die.

Sea lamprey control is “near and dear to the U.P.” because it wasn’t until 1998 that effective control of the pests occurred by targeting the St. Marys River.

The Great Lakes Fishery Commission provided funding used by U.S. Fish and Wildlife to target sea lampreys with an arsenal of control mechanisms, including traps all over the Great Lakes to remove the creatures, but the most effective control has been treatment in the St. Marys and tributaries using a chemical toxic to sea lampreys that leaves other species unharmed, he said.

“The state of Michigan kicked in a million dollars per year for three years during the late 1990s to help the St. Marys River treatment. The balance of funding was the Great Lakes Fishery Commission (federal funds). Federal funds support nearly 100% of lamprey control. The Michigan contribution was an exception to that pattern,” he added.

Taking all of these aquatic matters into account, no area of the Great Lakes has seen more dramatic changes in recent years than Lake Huron.

“What anglers lost to the decline in alewives and chinook,” Mr. Johnson said, “they have regained in a diverse fishery.”

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