Fisheries managers witnessed firsthand the devastation caused to coastal communities around Lake Huron when the population of chinook salmon abruptly crashed in 2004.
Docks, once brimming with charter boats, stood vacant as fishermen looked elsewhere for the prized sportfish. The series of events served as a wake-up call to arm fisheries managers with powerful tools for tracking gamefish such as salmon and lake trout to avoid future crashes in the Great Lakes.
Now, 13 years after the chinook salmon population crashed in Lake Huron, fishery biologists credit those same tools with helping avoid a similar fate on Lake Michigan, despite growing pressures on the ecosystem.
Whether they have those tools at their disposal in the future remains in question, however.
The federal programs that fund those fisheries resources landed on the chopping block as the Trump administration seeks to divert money from the Great Lakes to increase defense spending and border control measures by $54 billion. In his initial budget proposal to Congress, President Donald Trump suggested slashing the entire $300 million Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) as part of a larger 31-percent budget cut leveled at the Environmental Protection Agency.
Most recently, President Trump proposed an immediate $50 million cut to the GLRI in the current fiscal year.
Eliminating the GLRI funding would cut numerous programs focused on cleaning up polluted waters and combating invasive species in the Great Lakes. However, biologists and fisheries managers interviewed for this report expressed particular concern over the prospect of losing important fish-tracking tools they rely on for population modeling.
“Without having good information going into the models, we’re kind of flying blind,” said Dan O’Keefe, southwest district extension educator at Michigan Sea Grant. “We’re going to have less ability to predict what’s going to happen and how our activities might impact that without this kind of a project. We just (won’t) have an understanding to really know the risks.”
Specifically, O’Keefe and others point to the sportfish mass-marking program, an initiative started in 2008 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that has been fully funded by the GLRI since 2011.
The program marks hatchery-raised fish by clipping their rear adipose fin and inserting a small coded-wire tag in their snouts, allowing biologists to determine the number of stocked salmon in an ecosystem. Biologists use hatchery catch data in population modeling to decide how many fish to stock to maintain a proper equilibrium between predators and prey fish in the Great Lakes.
“Scientists really need good information to make informed decisions on what to do with the situation at hand,” O’Keefe said. “This is where this mass-marking program comes in.”
A RISKY BUSINESS
Biologists contend that the mass-marking program, which costs roughly $1.5 million annually to administer, directly contributes to protecting the $7 billion in economic activity generated by the Great Lakes.
Locally, biologists argue that maintaining the tracking program is critical for Lake Michigan — now more than ever — as pressures on the ecosystem have pushed the chinook salmon population to the brink of collapse in recent years.
Catches of chinook salmon in Lake Michigan have declined since 2012 as the result of dwindling populations of its primary food source, the invasive alewife. Populations of the baitfish have hovered near historical lows since 2004. In 2016, an annual trawl on Lake Michigan again showed a record low number of alewife, said Chuck Madenjian, a research fishery biologist with the Great Lakes Science Center, a division of the U.S. Geological Survey.
For its part, the USGS is also facing a 12-percent budget cut under the draft budget. While the final budget is still unknown, Madenjian believes it could “put in jeopardy” the bottom trawl survey biologists rely on to understand the lake’s food chain.
Modeling the food chain plays a key role in stocking decisions for hatchery-raised salmon in Lake Michigan and the rest of the Great Lakes. Likewise, biologists also need to know how many wild salmon are naturally reproducing so they avoid tipping the balance in favor of the predators.
That’s where the mass-marking program comes into play, as the population of wild, or naturally reproduced, juvenile salmon can vary between 1 and 17 million a year, said Randy Claramunt, Lake Huron basin coordinator for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, who previously worked in Lake Michigan.
“If we don’t know how many wild fish are produced … then we could add to the stress of the prey base in one year and have it collapse,” Claramunt said, adding that “there’s not a lot of room for error.”
While the program may seem like a scientific indulgence to some, biologists point to the 2004 chinook salmon population collapse on Lake Huron as an example of what can occur when they lack reliable data.
For years, fisheries managers in Lake Huron had miscalculated the numbers of naturally reproducing chinook salmon in the lake, causing them to overstock it with hatchery-raised fish. With too many salmon in the ecosystem, the alewife population crashed, taking down the salmon and the lake’s once-vibrant fishery.
“There were all these wild salmon coming into the lake that weren’t accounted for when managers were figuring out how many fish to stock,” O’Keefe said. “The result was way too much predation on alewife.”
All told, charter fishing trips declined 51 percent between 2002 and 2011 in Lake Huron, resulting in a loss of 51,531 employment hours per year among coastal communities, according to a report from the Michigan Sea Grant, a nationwide collaborative of 33 universities that Trump’s budget would also eliminate entirely, according to reports.
To this day, the salmon fishery in Lake Huron hasn’t fully recovered, sources said.
Although numerous factors contributed to the population collapse, had biologists known the full extent of the salmon population in Lake Huron, they may have been able to act differently, Claramunt said.
“What we’ve learned is when the system becomes extremely out of balance and the prey fish decline, it can take a decade or more before you see populations recover,” Claramunt said. “The threat is real and significant, and it’s not something you can bounce back from in a year.”
With one of their most important resources facing the budget axe, fisheries managers and biologists are searching for alternate funding for the mass-marking program.
“We’ve already started to look at ways we can fund mass marking with sportfish dollars in the event that this gets cut, but we’re a long way from being able to do that,” Claramunt said. “It’s that important that we’re already trying to figure out how we can react if it comes true. It would involve not funding something else, but it’s that important.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spends nearly $1.5 million annually to support the mass-marking program, according to a report presented at a Great Lakes Fisheries Commission meeting of various state, provincial and tribal departments of natural resources.
In comparison, $1.5 million would fund around 2 percent of the cost for one F-35 joint strike fighter aircraft, or roughly $200,000 less than the cost of a single air-to-air missile.
Biologists have tagged approximately 22 million chinook salmon and 40 million lake trout throughout the Great Lakes since tagging began under the program in 2010, according to the report. Fisheries managers stopped tagging chinook salmon in 2017 to focus on other gamefish, but would like to expand the program to include more species, sources said.
In addition to tagging, the funding also supports collection of the fish caught by anglers, research and other functions.
“There’s a whole team there,” O’Keefe said. “Without the GLRI funding, I don’t know how you would possibly plug all the holes.”
A representative of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined to comment on the impact of budget cuts on the mass-marking program or other GLRI initiatives, citing changes in the agency’s media relations policies under the Trump administration.
Sidebar: Moving inland
In addition to supporting coastal projects, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) also provides supplemental funding to programs that benefit inland rivers and streams, the source of wild salmon and trout that migrate to the lakes to mature.
“Most of the Great Lakes fisheries are maintained and supported by the rivers in West Michigan,” said Bryan Burroughs, executive director of Michigan Trout Unlimited. “Lake Michigan wouldn’t have the fishery it does if it weren’t for the rivers.”
In particular, Burroughs credits the GLRI with significantly expanding the funding available under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Midwest fish passage program.
TU leverages that program to remove small dams from waterways, install culverts under roadways and many other projects that support the fisheries on Michigan’s rivers.
“There are a ton of communities where a big portion of their economy is based on the fishing in those rivers,” Burroughs said. “When you start heading north and look at the Pere Marquette (River) and the Manistee communities, they’re sustained off salmon, steelhead and trout fisheries.”
— Reported by John Wiegand, MiBiz