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DNRE Fisheries Research Stations Provide Answers to Management Questions
November 22, 2010
Most anglers understand that the Fisheries Division of the Department of Natural Resources and Environment not only manages the fish populations of the state's waters and protects and improves fish habitat but also helps build fish populations by stocking lakes and streams with fish produced in the hatchery system.
But a somewhat lesser known job of the Fisheries Division is simply keeping tabs on what's going on in the state's waters and trying to understand why.
Fisheries Division's research section tries to get a snapshot of current fish populations, and, by comparing those pictures to past pictures, draw conclusions about what direction those populations are headed. When fisheries managers change regulations, for instance when the length limit on bass was raised from 12 inches to 14 inches, researchers often follow with surveys designed to figure out how the change impacted the fisheries.
The DNRE maintains a number of research stations across the state dedicated to answering questions about fisheries. There are stations located in all four of the state's major watersheds ? the Great Lakes of Superior, Michigan, Huron and Erie quotas though sometimes the responsibilities of the station transcend watershed boundaries.
The fisheries research station located on Lake St. Clair, for instance, not only monitors the Lake St. Clair fish community, as well as the lower Great Lakes sturgeon population, and the Lake Erie walleye population, but it surveys the Saginaw Bay fish community, too. The research station's vessel, the Channel Cat," is the station's "primary work platform," explained fisheries biologist Mike Thomas.
"We know, because of the tagging studies that (fisheries research biologist) Bob Haas started back in the 1980s, that walleye that spawn in Lake Erie tributaries are migratory and contribute to fisheries as far north as Saginaw Bay," Thomas explained. "The management implications of that kind of migration of that sort of species, sought by both recreational and commercial fishermen, are very large.
"That knowledge has fostered the collaborative approach to managing these fisheries among the various agencies that have jurisdiction over these waters," Thomas continued. "If we all had decided to go ahead and do our own thing and ignored the migratory nature of these fish, it could result in a catastrophic impact on these fish."
Anglers can remember a few years back, when Lake Erie's walleye population was at a low point, the seasons were changed and creel limits were cut. The idea was to leave enough fish to be able to repopulate the lake, Thomas said.
"Monitoring year-class and recruitment strength has provided managers with the information that allows managers to make wise decisions," Thomas said. "That's why we manage Lake Erie by quotas."
Phil Schneeberger is the station manager/ biologist at Marquette Fisheries Station.
"We have a lot of responsibility on Lake Superior, but we have the northern shores of Lake Michigan and some projects in northern Lake Huron, too," Scheneeberger said. "And we do more work on inland streams and lakes than other Great Lakes station; that goes way back to when we first stared this station and we hired biologists who had that kind of expertise."
Schneeberger said classifying inland streams and working on lake sturgeon reproduction are a couple examples of the station's inland work.
"On Lake Michigan, we've had a project going on since the late 1980s that looks at walleye, yellow perch and, more recently, the near-shore fish populations with a lot of the focus on the Bays de Noc," Schneeberger said. "And Lake Superior is the focus of our large vessel program, the Lake Char, and that works mostly on lake trout."
Lake trout research on Lake Superior has led to the recent changes in recreational lake trout creel limits and has a lot to do with how the treaty waters are managed.
"And I work with commercial fisheries and collect data on whitefish in northern Lake Michigan and all of Lake Superior," Schneeberger said.
Biologist Jim Johnson runs the research station at Alpena, which researches Lake Huron and the St, Marys River.
"The main thrust of this station is to evaluate our restoration and sport fishery enhancement efforts," Johnson explained. "It's a thread that runs through everything we do.
"Right now were assessing lake trout recruitment," Johnson continued, "which is a serious concern since the alewives disappeared. There's not as much prey out there as there used to and we know the fish are not growing as large and as quickly as they used to."
The Alpena Great Lakes Fishery Research Station is also working on new stocking regimens for both trout and steelhead. The old stocking strategy ? putting in the trout when they're young and small ? isn't working because of predation by walleye.
"We have a big investment in the fish that come out of our hatcheries," Johnson said. "We're trying to make sure we're getting the most we can out of that investment."
One unusual project out of the Alpena shop is trying to determine if lake herring, a native species that has been decimated, can be rehabilitated and will it serves as a prey base, as well as a fishery, in a future.
Biologist Dave Clapp, who heads the Charlevoix Research Station, runs a number of projects that have implications well beyond its Lake Michigan base.
The Coded Wire Tag program involves tagging young Chinook and rainbow trout (steelhead), then retrieving tags from harvested fish. The coded wire tags gave the DNRE the data to show that many Chinook salmon planted in Lake Huron were caught in Lake Michigan.
The Charter Boat Survey tracks charter boat fishing on all of the Great Lakes and Lake St. Clair. The Statewide Angler Survey collects catch, harvest and participation rates for recreational anglers on key Great Lakes tributaries and inland lakes.
As with the other research stations, the Charlevoix facility in headquarters for a large research vessel (the R/V Steelhead). But the Charlevoix station also conducts small-boat surveys, including a cisco survey at Elk Rapids and near-shore lake trout trawling.
Inland, the Charlevoix station is working on a lake trout travel study in Elk Lake and a muskellunge travel study on the Antrim chain of lakes.
In short, the research stations are in charge of assessing fisheries resources and determining which management practices can enhance them. They are a vital cog in managing Michigan's fisheries resources.
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