Charter boat captains and small businesses along the lakeshore are bracing for potential rough seas this year in Lake Michigan’s $16 million charter fishery.
The reason stems from a predator-prey imbalance in the lake that’s materialized over the last several years amid plummeting populations of alewifes, a key food source for chinook (or king) salmon — the main species that recreational fishermen target. To avoid pushing the fishery into a freefall similar to what happened in the early 2000s in Lake Huron, the states bordering Lake Michigan slashed their plants of the predatory chinook salmon, leaving even fewer fish for anglers to catch.
Facing an uncertain future, the charter fishermen and the communities that rely on them for tourism dollars have started to develop contingency plans if the salmon fail to show up in large numbers again this year, as some early surveys have already suggested.
“We won’t know until we go out there and start fishing,” said Greg Wehler, captain of Code Blue Charters who runs trips out of Muskegon. “I’m always optimistic that it will be good.”
Code Blue has continued to book more trips each year despite the uncertainty over the chinook salmon numbers, Wehler said.
“They certainly haven’t painted a pretty picture for us, but we’ll do what we have to do and try to find (the fish) and make adjustments,” he said. “I don’t think they’re gone completely yet, but they’re going to make us work for it.”
Mitigating the impact of the declining chinook salmon fishery is important for communities along Lake Michigan, where charter fishing generated approximately $16 million in economic impact and resulted in 324,842 employment hours and nearly $7 million in personal income, according to Michigan Sea Grant data from 2014, the most recent year available.
Overall, charter captains took 12,193 trips on Lake Michigan in 2014, a nearly 2.7 percent increase from the previous year, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) reported.
However, Denny Grinold, owner of Fish-N-Grin LLC, a Grand Haven-based charter service, said he’s experienced a decrease in the number of return customers this year.
“I can think of a number of instances where customers who have booked charters for a couple days at a time last year and now I haven’t heard from them,” he said. “Maybe it’s a factor of the economy or the election year or whatever, but it appears at this time that the bookings are down.”
“We have to see what happens. It has a domino effect and everyone is going to suffer as a result,” said Grinold, who also serves as the state and federal affairs officer for the Michigan Charter Boat Association.
While the data are “not all gloom and doom,” research on the salmon population thus far paints a rather disappointing picture for 2016 on Lake Michigan, said Dan O’Keefe, southwest district extension educator at Michigan Sea Grant.
Last year, Lake Michigan fishermen caught approximately 2 million pounds of chinook salmon, a record low and a sharp decline from the 7.5 million pounds in 2012, according to data from Michigan Sea Grant.
“It doesn’t mean the future is going to be bleak, but it does mean that this year is going to be pretty rough,” O’Keefe said.
The reason for the decline can be traced to dwindling alewife populations, the primary food source for chinook salmon. The alewife population in Lake Michigan has hovered near historical lows since 2004, and early trawls this year have again shown very few of the baitfish are present in the lake, O’Keefe said.
Exact causes of the declining alewife population remain unknown. However, scientists often point to an influx of invasive species such as quagga mussels, which have altered the Great Lakes food chain by drastically reducing alewives’ food sources.
In an effort to avoid a collapse of the fishery, officials from the four states bordering Lake Michigan cut chinook salmon stocking by 50 percent. The Michigan DNR cut its plants by 67 percent, meaning local ports will feel the most impact from the cuts.
Additionally, O’Keefe said anglers are unlikely to bag many 30-inch-plus chinook salmon this year. The reason: Last year’s catch had few medium-sized salmon that would have grown into trophy-class specimens this year, he said.
Anglers reported just 12 chinook salmon last year that measured at least 39 inches and qualified for a Master Angler award, a DNR program that recognizes large fish. That’s one more than anglers submitted in 2014, but well off the 125 reported in 2013, according to DNR records.
Scientists and fishermen in West Michigan hope to avoid a crash in chinook salmon populations similar to what occurred in Lake Huron in 2004, which hurt small businesses in coastal communities on the east side of the state as fishermen spent their dollars elsewhere.
So far, the declining chinook salmon population hasn’t impacted economic activity in Ludington, one of the busiest ports on Lake Michigan for charter fishing. Total room sales — of which fisherman make up a large part — reached $12.5 million in 2015, up from $11.9 million the prior year, said Kathy Maclean, president of the Ludington & Scottville Area Chamber of Commerce.
However, her organization and the Ludington Convention and Visitors Bureau are in the process of developing a plan to manage economic repercussions should the declining chinook salmon population begin to cause hardship for area businesses.
“We want to be proactive,” Maclean said. “One of the things we’ve talked about is focusing more on recreational boating and taking advantage of the harbor as well as the fishing aspect.”
Likewise, charter captains are developing contingency plans if the chinook salmon fishery falters this year. Code Blue’s Wehler said he might need to motor farther offshore and cover more ground to increase the chances of finding salmon, although that would eat into his business with higher fuel expenses.
Charters and communities could also promote the fishery for other species along West Michigan ports, said Marci Cisneros, executive director of the Grand Haven Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, which sponsors the annual Salmon Festival each September.
The abundance of other species has already played out this season as fishermen have successfully targeted brown trout and coho salmon in the lake. In fact, some anglers have reported the typically smaller coho salmon have been larger than the chinook salmon they’ve caught so far, O’Keefe said.
Beyond targeting other species or covering more ground, other captains are using the decline in the chinook fishery as a catalyst to change how they market trips to potential customers. According to Grinold, some charter operators now promote the overall experience on the water rather than emphasize the possibility of taking home a cooler of fish.
“The entire experience is what counts,” he said. “What drives most people is to get out on the water with family and friends and experience the camaraderie of the boat, and catch a few fish to boot.”
CASE STUDY ON LAKE HURON
Scientists note that if there is any silver lining to the situation in Lake Michigan, it’s that they were more prepared for a chinook salmon population decline and that the numbers have not crashed overnight.
While Lake Huron’s chinook salmon population “went off a cliff” in 2004, Lake Michigan’s fishery has been in a state of steady decline, giving communities time to prepare, O’Keefe said.
Between 2002 and 2011, the number of charter fishing trips taken on Lake Huron decreased 51 percent as chinook salmon all but disappeared, resulting in a loss of 51,531 employment hours per year for coastal communities on Lake Huron, according to a report by Michigan Sea Grant.
The collapse also caused numerous charter captains to either close their operations or move to Lake Michigan. The remaining Lake Huron charter fishermen have since switched their focus to other species such as lake trout and walleye, O’Keefe said.
“I think the question is, ‘Where does it go from here?’” he said of the Lake Michigan fishery. “Does it stay bottomed out like Lake Huron or will it recover a bit and bounce around until finding a new equilibrium? It’s hard to imagine it will go back to the heydays of the ’80s, but that doesn’t mean it will be as low as what we saw in Lake Huron.”