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Discussions continued Thursday evening after the information meeting and public forum, hosted by the Michigan City Charter Boat Association, with Indiana DNR staff.Credit: Dale Bowman

Take on state of Lake Michigan: Post-meeting pondering

SHARE Take on state of Lake Michigan: Post-meeting pondering
SHARE Take on state of Lake Michigan: Post-meeting pondering

MICHIGAN CITY, Ind.–I had forgotten how precipitous the collapse of the salmon fishery on Lake Huron was until Ben Dickinson’s PowerPoint presentation Thursday evening at Skwait American Legion.

The bad thing about the graph put up by Dickinson, assistant Lake Michigan fisheries biologist for Indiana, was the similarity to the graph of current conditions on Lake Michigan.

More questions than answers came at the information meeting and public forum, hosted by the Michigan City Charter Boat Association, with a bevy of Indiana Department of Natural Resources staff, including fisheries chief Brian Schoenung.

Some of the questions/suggestions struck me as off the wall, but when staring over the precipice, maybe thinking needs to be daring enough to dent a pending disaster.

Two major themes came from the gathering.

Foremost is how first zebra mussels and now quagga mussels have shattered the food web on Lake Michigan. Second is that at least some fishermen think lake trout are the favored sons and a federal conspiracy behind the incredible shrinking Chinook fishery.

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The state of the food web on Lake Michigan in the 1980s.

Credit: Dale Bowman

First the food. In the 1980s, the base of the food web was phytoplankton, which were eaten by zooplankton, which were eaten by bait fish, which eaten by the top predators (salmon).

Zebra mussels arrived a couple decades ago and have already faded on lake Michigan. More recently quagga mussels quite dramatically have overtaken the lake, even in deep water.

“They are the evil twin of zebra mussels, basically siphoning out all of the phytoplankton in the water column,’’ Dickinson said.

The lower end of the food web is nearly gone (75 decline in phytoplankton) because of the invasive mussels, which arrived via the dumping of ballast water from ships.

When Dickinson talked about “historically low levels of bait fish right now,’’ he meant only three viable classes of alewives (2010, ‘11 and ‘12).

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A pyramid of the food web on Lake Michigan in 2015, a food web out of whack.

Credit: Dale Bowman

“Mussels are choking the lake from the bottom up,’’ Dickinson said. “That is the big take home.’’

The best questions came in response to the impact of mussels.

Can phytoplankton be stocked? (Not feasible on that scale.) Does anything eat mussels? (Yes, lake whitefish, round gobies, freshwater drum.) Can mussels be poisoned? (Not effectively, especially not on the scale of Lake Michigan.) What about stocking redear (shellcrackers) to eat the mussels? (Dickinson said they are a shallow-water fish that would probably only be in one percent of the lake.) What eats [quagga mussels] out deeper? (Lake whitefish.)

The sticking point with a lot of fishermen is the laker stockings pushed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Many in the room of 80 concerned fishermen wondered why lakers were being pushed so hard while Chinook are struggling.

One fisherman put it simply, “Why are we being jammed with lakers?’’

Jeremy Price, northern fisheries supervisor, pointed out that Lake Michigan is managed cooperatively with multiple agencies, who make lakewide decisions.

Fisheries staff made it plain they understand the dissatisfaction with the amount of laker stocking while Chinook stockings have been reduced several times.

There are multiple reasons for the focus on laker stockings, not the least of which is treaty agreements, and that lakers are a native fish and Chinook are not.

I think it is almost inevitable that there will be more reductions in stocking of Chinook. The catch now is 68 percent wild. I do not see how you can look at what happened on Lake Huron and not think there will need to be more reduced stocking.

Somebody asked, “Is it inevitable that Lake Michigan follow the same path [as Lake Huron]?

“I am concerned as everyone in this room?’’ said Brian Breidert, Lake Michigan fisheries biologist for decades.

LAKE HURON READING: Here are two takes on the Lake Huron fisheries.

Click here for a take by the Great Lakes Fishery Commission.

Click here for a take by the Michigan Sea Grant.

OTHER NOTABLES: A few things were of note on other fisheries.

There’s concern and bafflement about the late return of steelhead this summer. Mike Ryan, head of the Northwest Indiana Steelheaders, said there were two years with such late returns for steelhead, including one where they came back in October and overlapped with Chinook and coho.

“It is not the latest, but it is up there,’’ Breidert said. “As a biologist, it has me concerned.’’

On a good note, Breidert said the nutrients from floods this summer may have helped yellow perch. Trawls this summer found nearly 10,000 young of the year in four hours (second highest since 1983), compared to only eight last year.

“That bodes well for yellow perch,’’ Breidert said. “Crossing our fingers it bodes well for alewives. We are encouraged by what we are seeing. Don’t want to say this is the savior, but it is encouraging.’’

TIDBITS: I thought a few tangential notes and questions were of note.

  • One oddity is that returning fish have been swinging and going up the West Branch.“We are baffled by why this is happening,’’ Breidert said.
  • “If we are losing salmon, can we jack up steelhead?’’Dickinson said such exchanges are not an “even exchange,’’ but it is certainly something that is on the table.
  • Salmon Ambassadors, citizens keeping precise records for the season of their salmon catches, sound like an interesting program to be involved in. Contact Dan O’Keefe, Southwest Extension Educator, at okeefed@msu.edu or (616) 994-4580.
  • Breidert said the off-shore discharge for the BP refinery may end up being a positive when it comes to fishing.
  • “Are perch forage for salmon and trout?’’Generally not, except for young of the year. The young of the year perch are being found in the bellies of big fish in recent weeks.
  • Another oddity is a captain who has found 12-inch salmon in two large fish he caught in recent weeks.
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