Has Lake Michigan's King Salmon Fishery Collapsed?
Salmon eggs via Wikimedia CommonsIn a nutshell, this year's fall run of king salmon most places in Lake Michigan was impressively dismal. Streams that historically hosted returns of multiple thousands of fish may not have gotten even a thousand fish. Streams that historically host hundreds of fish had runs of just a few dozen.
The poor run echoed the generally poor fishing success for king salmon up and down the lake all season. But worse, since each state’s cold water hatchery system requires hundreds of thousands of fertilized eggs to fill their tanks and raceways to meet set production goals, getting enough eggs became problematic.
Double trouble came as a result of interagency agreements between the states made years ago. Historically, the state of Michigan had more mature king salmon than it would ever need. Indiana always had enough steelhead returning to the places they could be caught and used for brood-stock than it could use. It made sense for the two states to each do what they did best and swap fertilized king eggs for ready-to-hatch steelhead roe.
Deals only work when both parties working the deal have ample resources. In this case, the Michigan DNR’s healthy surplus of king salmon eggs turned out to be less than healthy. Stocking cutbacks in made 2013 certainly lowered the number of kings returning as mature fish this year. At the time, it was hoped and expected that natural reproduction would buoy up the runs, but Mother Nature can throw curve balls that would make any MLB pitcher envious.
Last year’s (2014) less than stellar salmon run was viewed as warning of things to come. Last year, Michigan barely met their needs and the surpluses to send elsewhere.
Indiana got most of their king salmon eggs this year from this weir on the Root River in Wisconsin. Photo: Author
In 2015, creel reports from the summer fishing, early returns to spawning stream and other monitoring techniques foretold of the preceding year’s problem repeating, or worse. Early-on, Indiana and Illinois DNRs were warned to start looking elsewhere for the eggs they need for their own hatchery programs because Michigan may not have enough to share or fulfill their commitments.
This proved to be the case. Fall egg harvests for Michigan hatcheries produced only 3 million eggs in 2015, enough to fully stock Michigan’s needs but there were no eggs available to fill the Indiana and Illinois facilities.
Indiana does have the capability of gathering eggs from fish passing through the fish ladder on the St. Joseph River at South Bend. A fish trap was engineered into the design of this ladder when it was built but typically it’s only used to capture Skamania steelhead. A few years ago a lamprey barrier was installed in Trail Creek, one of Indiana’s two major tributaries to Lake Michigan. It’s possible to harvest spawning run kings at this weir, as well.
Illinois has no tributaries to Lake Michigan so the IL DNR has no homegrown source of king salmon (or other salmonid) eggs. When MDNR spread the word, Illinois went shopping.
Indiana’s fall run of king salmon turned out to be as poor as Michigan’s or worse. They went shopping, as well.
The relative bright spot on the lake was the king salmon spawning runs on the Wisconsin side were quite strong, compared to the returns posted by the other three states. Although the 2015 spawning run in Wisconsin was somewhat later than usual in 2015 and fish numbers were down as expected because of the 2013 stocking reduction, Wisconsin DNR fisheries staff at the Strawberry Creek Chinook Facility in Sturgeon Bay met their goal of 1.5 million eggs needed to produce the approximately 810,000 fish planned for Wisconsin’s spring 2016 stocking.
The Root River, in Southeast Wisconsin has an egg-taking facility usually used only for steelhead and coho salmon. Wisconsin fisheries workers opened the facility and invited a team from Indiana to come up to harvest enough eggs to fill their needs. Illinois eventually obtained their target number of eggs from a Wisconsin DNR facility in Kewaunee.
By working together instead of as rivals, Lake Michigan’s king salmon production facilities are now at capacity. That’s great news for now.
We’ll just have to wait to see what next year brings.
Michigan DNR says future 'not awesome' for king salmon
News: Indiana recieves king salmon eggs from Wisconsin
Wildindiana: Fish On! Tactics for king salmon
External links: Mike McKee, The Michigan City News-Dispatch-
Info learned about lake Chinook