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Sunday, 22 June 2014 22:00

Watershed year? Lake Michigan charter fishery braces for uncertain future amid ecological changes, industry challenges

Written by  John Wiegand
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Watershed year? Lake Michigan charter fishery braces for uncertain future amid ecological changes, industry challenges PHOTO: MICHIGAN SEA GRANT

This summer could be a telling season for the salmon fishery in Lake Michigan and the lakeshore economy that relies on the industry for tourism.

While scientists predict catch rates will remain similar to last year, the fishery faces its share of uncertainty related to an imbalance in the predator-prey relationship in the lake that’s led fisheries managers to halve their plants of the prized chinook salmon.

Moreover, anglers could also have a harder time accessing the fishery in the coming years as the aging population of charter boat captains looks to retire or sell their operations amid rising costs and a dearth of new fishermen taking up the business.

“I’ve been doing this for 30 years and we were all pretty young (when we started),” said Denny Grinold, state and federal affairs officer for the Michigan Charter Boat Association and owner of Fish-N-Grin LLC, which operates out of Grand Haven. “That was because the fishery was developing. You just don’t see the young guys anymore.”

Charter captains last year experienced a tougher time putting their clients on fish as catch rates hit a five-year low in Lake Michigan. In 2013, anglers caught about seven fish per trip, including all species of salmon and trout, down from a peak of 11 fish per trip in the prior year, according to data provided by Michigan Sea Grant.

Although catch rates declined, the size of the salmon in the catch increased. While not a single chinook salmon qualified for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Master Angler program in 2012, anglers submitted 125 specimens caught last year in Lake Michigan or its tributaries, according to a Michigan Sea Grant analysis. To qualify, anglers must catch a chinook salmon measuring at least 39 inches or weighing a minimum of 27 pounds.

Seeking sustainability

While it may sound counterintuitive for fishermen, declining catch rates serve as a welcome indicator for scientists, said Dan O’Keefe, the West Olive-based southwest district extension educator for the Michigan Sea Grant, a cooperative effort by the University of Michigan and Michigan State University under the National Sea Grant College Program.

“Last year, catch rates (went) down, but catch rates have been at record highs for years,” O’Keefe said. “It was a positive thing from a fish management point of view. We are seeing them going down to more sustainable levels.”

The sustainability of the Lake Michigan offshore fishery is a particular concern for the lakeshore communities that have come to rely on fishing as part of their tourism industry, said Kathryn Maclean, president of the Ludington & Scottville Area Chamber of Commerce.

With 1,445 trips last year, Ludington was the second busiest port for charter fishing behind Grand Haven, which had 1,583 trips, according to DNR reports.

“We’re thankful for the large fleet that we have here,” Maclean said.

Charter captains made 11,875 trips on Lake Michigan overall last year, down nearly 3 percent from 12,236 excursions in 2012 after four consecutive years of growth coming out of the recession.

The charter fishing industry generated approximately $15.3 million in total economic output and $6.5 million in personal income in the state’s coastal communities along Lake Michigan in 2013, according to a charter fishing economic impact calculator developed by Michigan Sea Grant. It also created more than 316,370 employment hours in businesses ranging from charter fishing operations to area restaurants and hotels, the report stated.

“It wasn’t until I started with the chamber that I understood how big of an industry it was,” Maclean told MiBiz. “It has a huge impact on our economy, especially on our restaurants and gas stations and marinas, and it also brings in summer residents who run the charters.”

Rough seas for captains?

But the charter industry continues to face a series of headwinds. High marine fuel prices (typically averaging 50 cents to $1 more than gasoline at the pump), rising equipment costs and increased regulations have strained an industry that is already experiencing significant attrition, said Grinold, a veteran charter captain.

The industry must also rely on fewer out-of-state clients from states as far away as Missouri and New York, he said. From 1985 to 2009, the number of out-of-state anglers taking charter fishing trips in the state plummeted 77 percent, according to a recent Michigan Sea Grant study.

The struggle to find customers coupled with an environment of rising costs has convinced many captains to leave the business, Grinold said. Combined with an aging population of captains, the industry is bracing for decline in the coming years, he said.

The number of active charter captains has decreased across the Great Lakes basin from the industry’s peak of 3,304 captains in the 1980s to 1,904 in 2011, according to the Great Lakes and Mississippi River Interbasin Study from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Of those surveyed, 21 percent of charter captains in 2011 stated they planned to leave the business in the next five years, up from 18 percent in 2002.

Crash avoidance

The charter fishermen that remain in the business must also operate in an era of increasing uncertainty pertaining to the fishery. In particular, the stability of the alewife population, a primary food for chinook salmon, remains a key concern for fishermen and scientists alike.

The Lake Michigan alewife population has hovered near historically low levels since 2004, with 2012 setting a new record low, according to Chuck Madenjian, a fisheries management biologist at the U.S. Geological Survey Great Lakes Science Center (USGS), which surveys baitfish populations in the lakes in collaboration with the DNR and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Fishermen and scientists would like to avoid a repeat of the alewife population crash on Lake Huron in 2004, which devastated salmon populations and the charter fishing industry, sources said. Last year, chinook salmon made up just 5 percent of the overall catch on Lake Huron, compared to 46 percent in 2004, according to a Michigan Sea Grant study. Charter fishing excursions fell by 49 percent over the same period.

“We are seeing marinas on the other side of the state that used to have permanent dockage — like Alpena and Rogers City — that just can’t fill their slips anymore,” Grinold said. “That was due to the king salmon collapse in Lake Huron.”

Now, captains worry that a similar fishery collapse could significantly hurt the industry in Lake Michigan.

“If we see that over here, it could have a cataclysmic domino effect,” Grinold said.

Maintaining balance

There’s no smoking gun as to what caused the Lake Huron crash, and scientists are equally puzzled about what’s causing Lake Michigan’s alewives population to plummet.

A recent study in the Journal of Great Lakes Research links the harsh winter of 2002-2003 to the steep decline in alewives in Lake Huron. With the 2013-2014 winter setting a record for ice cover on Lake Michigan at 93.29 percent, scientists have reason to be concerned, O’Keefe said.

Other theories attribute the collapse to a predator-prey imbalance resulting from either a reduction in plankton — a key food source for alewives — because of competition from invasive mussels or an overabundance of predatory fish, namely chinook salmon.

As a result of concerns over the predator/prey levels, a committee of fisheries managers from all four states bordering Lake Michigan agreed to slash chinook salmon stocking by 50 percent overall starting last year. The Michigan DNR cut its plants by 67 percent because many of the tributaries in West Michigan support natural reproduction, which contributes significantly to the salmon population in the lake, the agency said in a statement.

In any given year, roughly one-half to two-thirds of salmon in Lake Michigan are naturally produced, and the majority of them come from Michigan streams, according to the DNR.

A more diverse fishery

While the effects of the cuts should not be noticeable until 2015, the move has not been popular with many charter captains. Biologists, on the other hand, contend they are needed to create a more sustainable, balanced food chain in the lake.

Scientists are also quick to point out that those captains have other species to target in addition to chinook salmon. Anglers can expect a resurgence of brown trout and lake trout as well as a particularly good year for steelhead, said Randy Claramunt, a Great Lakes research biologist with the DNR. Additionally, the nearshore fishery — in the harbors and from the many breakwaters along the coast — should also produce strong results, he said.

Still, lakeshore communities across West Michigan will take a wait-and-see approach to this year’s fishery.

“We are a long way away from the levels in Lake Huron,” said Madenjian of the USGS. “Maybe it can continue like this for another decade, but we are on the edge. A large hatch of salmon could tip it.”

MiBiz Managing Editor Joe Boomgaard contributed to this report.

Read 9513 times Last modified on Wednesday, 13 August 2014 10:41

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