Salmon Ambassador volunteers had mixed success for Chinook salmon in 2016 on Lake Michigan

Research shows wild salmon made up the majority of the catch in most regions.

Results from around Lake Michigan show that wild fish make up the majority of the catch, especially in Michigan ports near high-quality tributaries like the Manistee River and Pere Marquette River.

Results from around Lake Michigan show that wild fish make up the majority of the catch, especially in Michigan ports near high-quality tributaries like the Manistee River and Pere Marquette River.

The Salmon Ambassadors program is an angler science project led by Michigan Sea Grant and Michigan State University Extension, and funded in part by Detroit Area Steelheaders. Anglers who volunteer for the program share information on their season’s catch with one another—and with biologists. Since 2014, anglers around Lake Michigan and northern Lake Huron have been collecting data on stocked and wild Chinook salmon.

Volunteers measure the length of each Chinook salmon caught over the course of the fishing season and look for a clipped adipose fin that indicates a stocked fish. At the end of the season, volunteers complete a short survey and return their data sheets. Results from 2016 were released this week and are now available as fact sheets posted on the Salmon Ambassadors web page.

Increased angler satisfaction in Wisconsin

Overall angler satisfaction among volunteers increased in 2016. On a scale of one to five (five being the highest), average satisfaction with fishing experiences increased from 2.4 in 2015 to 3.1 in 2016. While this was encouraging, most of the increase was due to improvements in fishing on the west side of Lake Michigan, and in Wisconsin in particular.

In Wisconsin waters, angler satisfaction increased from 2.5 in 2015 to 4.2 in 2016. This coincided with big increases in catches of Chinook salmon, coho salmon, brown trout, and steelhead reported by Wisconsin DNR (lake trout catch decreased in Wisconsin waters in 2016).

In Michigan, anglers did not fare so well – perhaps in part due to weather patterns that kept cool water along the Wisconsin shore for much of the summer. Angler satisfaction for Salmon Ambassadors fishing Michigan waters of Lake Michigan remained relatively low (2.4 in 2015; 2.5 in 2016).

Lake Huron anglers fared better, with volunteers in the northern part of the lake reporting that angler satisfaction increased from 2.3 in 2015 to 4.6 in 2016. The number of fish caught by Lake Huron volunteers also increased dramatically, from only 35 Chinook salmon in 2015 to 159 in 2016.

Wild salmon still dominate catches, particularly in Michigan

Since the lakewide program began in 2014, wild Chinook salmon have outnumbered stocked in all areas of Lake Michigan. In Michigan waters, the percent wild has consistently been highest at ports such as Manistee and Ludington, which are located at the mouths of rivers that offer excellent spawning habitat to migrating salmon.

Results from Michigan waters in 2016 found:

  • 83% wild in Manistee (including Onekema)
  • 86% wild in the Ludington area (including Pentwater)
  • 68% wild in the Grand Haven area (Whitehall to Saugatuck)
  • 67% wild in southwest Michigan (South Haven to St. Joseph)

In Wisconsin, stocked fish made up a slightly larger portion of the catch. This is probably due to a combination of factors including the lack of good spawning rivers in Wisconsin, higher number of stocked Chinook salmon in Wisconsin waters, and higher survival rate for Chinooks stocked in Wisconsin waters.

Results from Wisconsin waters in 2016 found:

  • 59% wild in Door Peninsula (including Kewaunee to Washington Island)
  • 60% wild in southern Wisconsin (including all ports form Sheboygan south to the state line)

Volunteers in Illinois and Indiana found that 70% of Chinook salmon in their catches were wild, while those fishing northern Lake Huron from the Mackinaw Straits to Rogers City found that only 33% of their catch was wild. This is likely due to the good number of mature ‘kings’ being caught in Rogers City as they returned to the Swan River in late summer.

Narrow margin of support for Lake Michigan stocking cuts

A proposal to reduce Chinook salmon in Lake Michigan was announced in June 2016. While the vast majority of anglers were supportive the 2013 stocking cut, the 2016 proposal was met with mixed reactions. Opponents of the proposed 62% Chinook salmon stocking reduction called for additional cuts to lake trout stocking.

Salmon Ambassadors were asked about their support for, or opposition to, a revised proposal that included a 21% reduction to lake trout stocking and a 50% reduction to Chinook salmon stocking. Volunteers expressed strong opinions on both sides of the issue, and many offered insightful comments regarding the state of the fishery and the need to adjust to a rapidly-changing ecosystem.

All in all, 51% of volunteers who responded to the survey (N=55) supported the revised stocking proposal. For Wisconsin and Michigan anglers, state of residence did not have a significant effect on support or opposition. Volunteers from Wisconsin and Michigan demonstrated similarly high knowledge of Great Lakes fisheries biology, and anglers from both states were also similar in their moderate level of trust in the ability of science to reflect actual conditions in Lake Michigan.

Volunteers trusted “percent wild” calculations more than other fisheries statistics, perhaps because of their own involvement in collecting this data. On a scale of 1 to 5 (with 5 being the highest), volunteers rated their trust in “percent wild” at 4.0 as opposed to 3.5 for general trust in fisheries science and 3.0 for trust in estimates of alewife biomass. Most anglers agreed or strongly agreed that participation in Salmon Ambassadors made them more aware of what is going on in the Lake Michigan fishery (average 4.7 on the five-point scale).

Due to the success of this program and the support of anglers, fishing clubs, and natural resource agencies the Salmon Ambassadors program will be expanded and continued in 2017. See the MSUE article “Fishing for Answers” for more details.