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Fishing captains’ nerves rattled by Lake Michigan salmon catch

Chinook salmon have been the bread and butter of Lake Michigan’s sport fishing industry for nearly 50 years, but the popular fishery now faces many of the same threats that wiped out Lake Huron’s salmon fishery a decade ago.

The similarities between Lake Michigan’s salmon fishery and the Lake Huron salmon fishery in 2003 — the year before it crashed — are striking.

One of the most alarming parallels: Lake Michigan anglers caught fewer Chinook salmon this year but the fish were much larger than in recent years, despite a dwindling supply of fish food in the lake, according to charter boat captains and state officials. That mirrored conditions in Lake Huron in 2003, the last good year of salmon fishing there.

A combination of invasive mussels disrupting Lake Huron’s food chain, too few alewives (the primary food source for Chinook salmon) in the lake, and too many salmon resulted in the Chinook population eating its way into oblivion.

“Some of the charter boat captains on Lake Michigan are scared,” said Terry Walsh, president of the Michigan Charter Boat Association. “These captains know what they’re doing but many were only getting two to three salmon per trip this summer. That’s scary because last year they were getting limit catches.”

Walsh experienced a similar scenario a decade ago, when he was running salmon fishing charters on Lake Huron. “In 2003, I was getting limit catches and the next year I caught six salmon all season,” he said.

Denny Grinold, who has run a charter boat on Lake Michigan for more than 30 years and is one of the region’s most respected leaders in the fishing community, said anglers are concerned about the future of Chinook salmon fishery.

“We caught a lot less fish this year but they were considerably larger,” Grinold said. “If we are seeing the same issue next year — big fish but fewer fish — I’ll be very concerned.”

Michigan and the other states surrounding Lake Michigan have dramatically reduced the number of salmon stocked in the lake in recent years in an effort to prevent the Chinook from eating all the alewife, and then suffering a population collapse.

Despite those efforts, scientists have documented trends in Lake Michigan that are similar to those in Lake Huron a decade ago. Consider:

• Zebra and quagga mussels that invaded the Great Lakes in the 1980s now consume vast amounts of nutrients at the base of the food chain in lakes Michigan and Huron, leaving much less food for the non-native alewife and other bait fish.

• Chinook salmon, an introduced species, are eating alewives in Lake Michigan faster than the baitfish can replenish its population. The result: Fewer alewives in the lake, and the fish are younger and smaller.

In a good year, scientists would find as many as eight different year classes of alewives in Lake Michigan, or fish ranging in age from 1-year-old to 8-years-old. Last year, researchers found just four different year classes of alewives, and 80 percent of those were 2-year-old fish, said Todd Kalish, acting Lake Michigan basin coordinator for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

That finding suggested that Chinooks are wiping out the older alewives and are now eating their way through groups of younger fish. Barring a change, the phenomenon could be a recipe for a population crash — for alewives and salmon that depend on them for sustenance.

“We’re seeing this truncation of age classes of alewives and that’s what we saw in Lake Huron before the crash of alewives,” Kalish said. “There could be an alewife crash but there are things we can do to minimize that risk and that’s what we are doing. I’m confident that we can manage a sustainable Chinook fishery for the long-term.”

The shift in Lake Michigan’s salmon catch from 2012 to 2013 points to biological instability in the lake, said Dan O’Keefe, a Michigan Sea Grant educator who studies fisheries.

“When you go from being unable to catch many 20-pound salmon last year to catching 30-pounders this year it makes people nervous,” O’Keefe said. “We can’t be certain we are going to have a good salmon fishery for the foreseeable future.”

Grinold said it’s important to remember that Lake Michigan’s salmon fishery is still world-class, despite problems with invasive mussels and a dwindling supply of fish food. He said the number of Chinook caught in Lake Michigan per hour of angler effort remains one of the world’s highest.

It’s also important to note that Chinook salmon isn’t the only species of sport fish in Lake Michigan. Anglers routinely catch Coho salmon, steelhead, brown trout and lake trout.

Some anglers have said they hope the alewife and salmon populations crash, so that native fish species could play a more prominent role in the Lake Michigan fishery.

“It’s important for anglers to remember that we are managing for a diverse fishery,” Kalish said. “It’s an amazing fishery because you have that diversity of species out there.”

But Chinook salmon remain the number one attraction for most Lake Michigan anglers. There’s a reason the fish are nicknamed “Kings” — they are the biggest, strongest salmon in the lake and put up a terrific fight when hooked.

Tens of thousands of anglers take charter-fishing trips on Lake Michigan every summer, which generates millions of dollars for coastal communities. In Grand Haven alone, 7,640 anglers booked charter-fishing trips in 2012, according to state data.

The plight of Chinook salmon in Lake Michigan is more than a fish story. A sagging salmon fishery would hurt tourism-dependent communities up and down the coast.

The collapse of Lake Huron’s Chinook salmon fishery sent a shockwave of economic pain through the region’s coastal communities — many anglers sold their boats and numerous marinas, gas stations, bars and restaurants that catered to anglers went out of business.

Fishing pressure on Lake Huron dropped by 75 percent after the Chinook salmon vanished, which translated into a $19 million loss of economic activity in port communities, according to state records.

“It had a huge effect on us,” said Alpena Harbormaster Don Gilmet. “We have 150 slips in our harbor and these days we are half full, at best. After the salmon fishery crashed a lot of guys went over to Lake Michigan, or sold their boats.”

Still, all was not lost in Lake Huron. Walleye, lake trout and other native fish species have staged dramatic recoveries in the absence of Chinook salmon, and Saginaw Bay now has one of the world’s best walleye fisheries, according to state officials and veteran anglers.

“The walleye fishing is off the charts, but they don’t generate the fishing activity that salmon did,” Walsh said.

Salmon fishing is an integral part of West Michigan’s tourism industry.

Grand Haven, which is home to one of the busiest charter fishing ports on Lake Michigan, has hosted a Salmon Festival every September since 2004. The festival attracts thousands of people and generated more than $600,000 in economic impact in 2009 alone, according to a Michigan Sea Grant study.

“The focus of the festival is to celebrate the fall migration of the salmon and to bring attention to the importance of our natural resources,” said Marci Cisneros, the festival’s director and executive director of the Grand Haven Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

This year, the festival attracted about 7,000 people,

“Charter fishing is part of the fabric of our community,” Cisneros said. “It brings folks from all over the world here to fish for Great Lakes salmon; we’re fortunate to have it.”

Grinold said many of his charter fishing customers return year after year, and gladly spend hundreds of dollars, even if they don’t catch salmon.

“The strength of this fishery is its diversity,” he said. “I tell my customers that they’ll have a great day on the lake, even if the fishing is slow.”

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