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The Michigan Department of Natural Resources suspended all egg-take operations for prized game fish like steelhead, walleye and muskellunge, which means hatcheries will go without a year class of the species. Above, angler Chris Schnell of Portage shows off a steelhead. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources suspended all egg-take operations for prized game fish like steelhead, walleye and muskellunge, which means hatcheries will go without a year class of the species. Above, angler Chris Schnell of Portage shows off a steelhead. MIBIZ PHOTO: JOE BOOMGAARD

Michigan coronavirus prevention measures could mean fewer fish in years ahead

BY Sunday, April 12, 2020 06:51pm

series of measures intended to curb the spread of the coronavirus could have implications for Michigan’s recreational fishery in the coming years. 

As a result of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-home order and general social distancing guidelines, the Department of Natural Resources had to cancel its spring egg-take operations that supply stock for its fish hatcheries. In particular, the move affects hatcheries that raise prized game fish species including walleye, muskellunge and steelhead, a variety of rainbow trout that provides a sport fishery in both the Great Lakes and many tributaries across the state.

As a result, the DNR hatcheries will be left without a hatchery year class of those species, said Jay Wesley, the agency’s Lake Michigan Basin Coordinator. 

That lack of a year class could affect the quality of Michigan’s $2.3 billion recreational fishing industry over the next two to three years or so. 

“As much as I’m distraught that this had to occur, I don’t believe that the ecosystem is going to crash as a result,” said Dennis Eade, executive director of the 6,000-member Michigan Steelhead and Salmon Fishermen’s Association, commonly known as the Michigan Steelheaders. “It will reduce the size of the runs coming back to rivers in 2-3 years, but I don’t think we’re going to be dramatically harmed by the decisions that were made.”

Wesley said about two-thirds of the DNR’s staff are working from home, with only hatchery personnel considered as essential under the state’s stay-home order. That limited personnel, coupled with social distancing guidelines that recommend people remain 6 feet apart at all times, led the DNR to call off egg-take operations for steelhead at the Little Manistee River Weir near Manistee, as well as for walleye on the Muskegon River near Newaygo and on Little Bay De Noc in the Upper Peninsula. 

In the case of the Little Manistee River, the weir — a low-head dam where grates are lowered in place to block the passage of fish — was reopened on March 30 to allow all steelhead to migrate up the river. Sections of the river opened to fishing April 1. 

“Having those fish go upriver and spawn is important because that’s our future broodstock,” Wesley said. 

Nearly all hatchery steelhead stocked in Michigan waters originate from eggs harvested from the Little Manistee River. The remainder are a strain of steelhead called Skamania that are planted in the Manistee River near Wellston. The Skamania strain, which run up the Manistee River in the summer as opposed to the fall or winter for most Michigan steelhead, are sourced in a trade with Indiana’s fisheries division. 

Wesley said that trade was cancelled this year, meaning the Manistee River will not get a plant of Skamania steelhead. He said the DNR adjusted its stocking by planting additional Michigan hatchery steelhead in the St. Joseph River, which flows through Southwestern Michigan and into Indiana. 

While the DNR’s actions with steelhead are “certainly not desirable (and) likely to be felt negatively in some places in the future,” Michigan Trout Unlimited Executive Director Bryan Burroughs hopes the state “can learn something valuable from it.”

“Perhaps the upside, long term, is a better understanding of where we are at with wild fisheries, their capacity, and better understanding of just how important it is to stock certain ones,” Burroughs said in an email to MiBiz. “While the downsides are real, perhaps in 5 years or so, maybe this along with other research might help focus steelhead management further.  I can only hope for the upsides of them having to do this.” 

Mitigation efforts

Currently, the DNR has no backup plan to source eggs or hatchery stock from another location. 

“We’ll have to figure out if we can do something like that,” Wesley said. “On Lake Michigan, we have predator caps, and we mix and match species to stay within that cap, so we could stock extra chinook salmon. There are ways we could mitigate (the lack of a year class of steelhead).

“One thing with steelhead is that some of our rivers are not stocked and get 100-percent wild runs, and where we do stock, about 30 percent of the runs are a result of natural reproduction. Every run also has fish from age 2-6, so there will still be some year classes available. … We often see year-class failure because of lake conditions or river conditions. Yes, this is widespread, but a lot of these rivers have poor year classes anyway. Nature adjusts and we might not even notice a missing year class.”

Other fish stocking adjustments took place at the federal level, Wesley said. In recent years, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has had good results stocking native lake trout at various mid-lake reefs in Lake Michigan by using its vessel, the Spencer F. Baird, to transport the fish for planting. Given the coronavirus mitigation measures, using the Baird was not an option this year, so the USFWS instead opted to stock the lake trout plants at the port closest to the reefs, albeit miles away from their intended locations. 

The DNR also has had to put on hold its annual survey efforts during the course of the stay-home order, Wesley said. Typically, the agency starts conducting creel surveys in April that help estimate fish harvest and catch rates on the Great Lakes, as well as conducts a spring lake trout population survey. It also called off various inland lake studies across the state. 

Michigan United Conservation Clubs, the state’s largest conservation organization, said it was “disappointed” in the cancellation of the spring egg-take operations while “we simultaneously understand the challenges that come with a mandated stay at home order for non-essential business,” Ian FitzGerald, policy and special events assistant at MUCC, said in an email to MiBiz

“Ultimately, it is the department’s responsibility, and in their best interest, to protect the health of their employees,” FitzGerald said. 

According to Wesley, reactions to the DNR’s efforts have been a study in “polar opposites.”

“Some people are really accepting and appreciate what we’re trying to do given the circumstances, and then you have some people saying ridiculous things like the DNR doesn’t like steelhead or it was done to save money or that they’d volunteer to do the egg take and get it done,” Wesley said. “Some people are throwing out all kinds of nasty stuff, and it’s been tough on certain members of our staff.”

Get outdoors

One silver lining resulting from the recent crisis has been the number of people across the state who are getting out fishing, Wesley said. The stay-home order allows only essential people to leave home to go to work, but makes an exception for people to leave for recreational purposes, including fishing. 

“It’s crazy: We have more people fishing right now than we’ve had in years,” he said. “We just need people to remember to spread out.” 

That lack of adherence to social distancing guidelines led the state to shut down the popular Tippy Dam Recreation Area on the Manistee River, where anglers flock every spring to try for steelhead on their spawning run. The site is closed until further notice, with violations resulting in civil infractions and fines up to $500.

Wesley said DNR conservation officers continue to monitor heavy-use sites around the state and give warnings when people are not practicing proper social distancing, although they often “bunch back up” soon afterward. 

“Then you get people taking pictures of all these people not following the guidelines and they send it to politicians telling them to do something about it. And then we get political pressure to stop all fishing,” Wesley said. 

Other states that have instituted stay-home orders have restricted sport fishing. For example, Washington banned all fishing activity during its order, and the state of Illinois closed all of its Department of Natural Resources access points to fishing. 

Wesley said the goal is to avoid having those scenarios play out in Michigan, but keeping fishing open requires people to comply with state orders. 

“We’re doing our best to get people to spread out, but it’s really a waste of first responder resources,” Wesley said.

Pain ahead?

Another step taken as a result of the coronavirus also affected a key project that aims to protect the Great Lakes from the spread of invasive species.

In a move supported by a bipartisan coalition of state Legislative leaders, Whitmer also used line-item veto powers in a supplemental budget bill to direct $150 million to the coronavirus response. That included an $8 million budget item to support a beefed up barrier to block Asian carp at the Brandon Road Lock and Dam near Joliet, Ill., as MiBiz previously reported

The funds would have gone toward Illinois’ share of state matching funds needed for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a preliminary analysis and scoping of the project. Illinois had budgeted $2.5 million for its portion of the match.

MUCC’s FitzGerald warned that additional budget cuts as a result of the coronavirus response and loss of state revenue were likely to affect every state department. He called on the DNR to “reassess the top priorities within divisions of the department” along with groups like MUCC “to determine what method will be best for the resource moving forward.”

While acknowledging that the Great Lakes and tributary fisheries will not be decimated by the hatchery reductions, Eade at the Michigan Steelheaders said he was worried about the effect fewer fish could have on fishermen who rely on harvesting a part of their catch, as well as charter fishing operations’ ability to attract customers.

He’s also concerned what could happen if the current social distancing guidelines and stay-home order remain in effect during this year’s Lake Michigan fishing tournament season, which often helps fuel tourism travel to various ports up and down the lakeshore. 

“These measures may require those tournaments to be closed, restricted or in some other way impacted. This is where our local chapters make their revenue,” Eade said, noting the Grand Rapids chapter “took a serious financial hit” with the cancellation of the Ultimate Fishing Show in Grand Rapids last month. “The economic impact of this is yet to be understood.”

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