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Making Lake Trout Regulations a Balancing Act
September 15, 2010
Despite the vast size and diversity of the Great Lakes waters surrounding Michigan, trout and salmon fishing regulations are, for the most part, relatively simple and consistent. There is, however, one significant departure from that pattern: Lake trout regulations are widely variable.
Depending on where you're fishing in the lake, size and creel limits for lake trout -- the original alpha predator in much of the Great Lakes -- can vary significantly. In Lake Superior there are two sets of regulations, in Lake Huron there are three sets of rules and in Lake Michigan there are four different sets of size and creel regulations. And both lakes Huron and Michigan have different fishing seasons in different parts of the lake.
The rules are changing all the time, too.
In 2009, for instance, the recreational fishing regulations for state-licensed anglers pursuing Lake Superior lake trout were straightforward: lake trout had to be a minimum of 15 inches in length with a limit of three fish daily. Then beginning April 1 2010, the creel limit increased to five fish east of the Keweenaw Peninsula.
So what gives?
Fisheries biologist Steve Scott, the Lake Superior Basin Coordinator, said the regulations have a lot to do with maximizing recreational potential while protecting the resources and recognizing tribal fishing rights in the Treaty of 1836.
"For example, within those portions of the Great Lakes covered by the 1836 Treaty of Washington and the 2000 Consent Decree, there are safe harvest levels calculated for both the tribes and state-licensed anglers that result in what we call Total Allowable Catches (TACs)," Scott explained. "Given the variety of production levels, habitat, and other variables, not all TACs are the same."
When the 2000 Consent Decree was signed in 2000, the model used to project lake trout populations - particularly in the Munising area - showed populations were lower than what fisheries biologists thought they might be. And state-licensed fishermen exceeded their TAC. As a result, regulations had to be changed with cuts to the creel limit and increased size limits.
"As time when on, the model improved and more accurately represented the abundance of lake trout, especially around the Munising area," Scott said. "So over the last several years the TACs increased. Meanwhile fishing pressure and harvest in Lake Superior by recreational anglers have gone down. And last year, the fishery advisory committee noticed that the current harvest level was well below the TAC.
"We ran the model and found that we could increase the creel limit in all the areas east of the Keweenaw - so we did."
Populations to the west of the Keweenaw Peninsula are not as strong, Scott said.
"We decided it wasn't biologically prudent for us to increase the bag limit there," he said.
So how's it working?
"The anglers on the east side are definitely happy," Scott said. "The only complaint we've had is that anglers can't get their kids off the water - they want to stay until they get their five fish apiece. And to the west of the Keweenaw, they're OK with it. Once we showed the anglers the data, they agreed it wasn't prudent to increase the creel limit at this time."
Lake Huron's regulations changed from 2009 to 2010, too, with the implementation of a maximum size limit in the northernmost management area because too many big fish in the harvest caused recreational anglers to exceed their TAC by about 20 percent, explained Lake Huron Basin Coordinator Steve Hewett.
Instead of a 22-inch minimum size limit, anglers are restricted to fish a maximum of 27 inches with the exception of one fish longer than 32 inches. This regulation protects fish from 27 to 32 inches, guaranteeing a population of adults for spawning.
In addition, recreational fishermen in the four most southern zones (Harrisville south) had their season expanded; lake trout season opens Jan.1 now instead of May 1.
""We did that to allow more fishing," Hewett said. "We didn't see any reason not to."
Hewett does not anticipate any changes for the 2011 season.
"Sometimes with long-lived species such as lake trout, it takes five to 10 years to evaluate changes."
Lake Michigan has the most complex set of regulations with a minimum size limit in some areas, a maximum size limit in another, and a combination of both minimum and maximum size limits in yet another.
In the northernmost zones, there's a 24-inch minimum size limit. In the Leland to Frankfort zone, there's a 23-inch maximum size limit with the exception of one fish in excess of 34 inches.
In the Grand Traverse Bay area, there's a 20-inch minimum with a 25-inch maximum with the exception that anglers may keep one fish in excess of 34 inches.
And from Arcadia south, it's a simple 20-inch minimum length limit.
Meanwhile, the fishing season for lake trout begins Jan. 1 north of Leland, May 1 south of Leland and closes Sept. 30 in all areas. State fisheries officials have held a series of meetings to discuss standardizing the season lake-wide.
Discussions of size limits for lake trout are proceeding as well.
"No decisions have been made at this point," said Lake Michigan Basin Coordinator Jim Dexter, "but they will probably be made in September so we can have any regulations changes in effect by April 1, 2011."
Whatever happens, there will continue to be variable lake trout regulations from lake to lake and within lakes as well.
"We get a lot of complaints about the complexity of the regulations," Scott said. "But a lot of it is because the health of the populations varies greatly between and within lakes, which requires we use a variety of regulations to protect and rehabilitate those populations."
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