Commercial fishermen want to start netting lake trout on Lake Michigan

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Commercial fishers have stepped up efforts to establish a commercial lake trout harvest in the Wisconsin waters of Lake Michigan.

Although the idea has been discussed since 2016 and in February a formal request was made by commercial interests, fisheries managers from the Department of Natural Resources have not come forward with a proposal to authorize the nets for the species. .

As a result, the Lake Michigan Commercial Fisheries Council, at two meetings this year, has again emphasized its strong desire to take action on the matter.

In a statement released at its Sept. 22 meeting, the council said “we now require an immediate scope statement” to allow a commercial harvest of lake trout.

The council also indicated that establishing a lake trout quota for the commercial fishery was its No. 1 priority for the coming year.

“It is absolutely time (for a lake trout trade rule to be implemented),” said Charlie Henriksen, a Sturgeon Bay commercial fisherman and chairman of the board. “I mean there’s just no reason why it can’t happen.”

The lake trout population in Lake Michigan has increased in recent decades

After being decimated in the mid-20th century by invasive sea lampreys, Lake Michigan’s lake trout population has grown in recent decades due to intensive stocking efforts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, lamprey control efforts and protective regulations for sport fishing.

Fishing is prohibited, for example, on and around major spawning reefs. And until recently, the sport season was closed for several months during the lake trout spawning period and the bag limit was two fish per day.

Although the lake trout rehabilitation project has not been deemed complete by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, significant natural breeding of the species is now observed in Lake Michigan.

In recent years, partly due to the observed increase in natural lake trout spawning and partly due to a DNR accommodation for anglers and business owners who prefer Chinook salmon, the lake trout season has been lengthened and the daily limit has been increased. The season is now open year-round and the daily bag limit is five lake trout.

But the sport harvest is still well below the annual limit of 82,000 fish set by the DNR. From 1969 to 2000, the sport harvest averaged 49,401 lake trout, according to MRN data. In 2020 (the most recent year’s data is available), there were about 38,000 fish.

Commercial gillnetters would therefore like to take advantage of what Henriksen calls a “harvestable surplus”.

The LMCFB would like to see an annual commercial quota of 40,000 lake trout on Lake Michigan.

Changing business rules takes about two years

To start a commercial lake trout season, MNR would have to modify the administrative rules. The process should begin with a scope statement, essentially describing the potential effect of the proposal.

Due to Law 21 of 2011, which gave more power to the legislature and complicated and lengthened the rule-making process, an administrative rule change takes about two years.

The DNR did not say if or when it would introduce a scope statement.

In February, Todd Kalish, MNR’s deputy director of fisheries, said the agency would review lake trout population models and consider demand from commercial fishers.

At the time, Kalish said the agency did not have the information it needed and did not engage in conservations with “all stakeholders”.

Allowing commercial gillnetters to target lake trout would be controversial among many in the sport fishing community.

Bob Wincek, president of the Wisconsin Federation of Great Lakes Sport Fishing Clubs, said his group opposes commercial lake trout fishing in Lake Michigan “until the DNR and USFWS can prove that it may be viable to allow a small commercial enterprise to harvest.”

Bycatch in commercial nets, particularly of salmon and other trout species, is a concern for sport fishers.

Researchers at Michigan State University’s Qualitative Fisheries Center have developed two models for Lake Michigan lake trout, including one that predicts population under various harvest and stocking scenarios.

QFC’s work is expected to inform decisions about potential commercial harvesting rules.

In a statement, the LMCFB said the lake trout sport harvest is less than half of the annual quota and that “a reasonable commercial harvest will not jeopardize lake trout rehabilitation.”

But with no response to their request, trade council members said they could look to lawmakers for a solution. It would also be possible, although less common, to establish commercial harvesting by altering state status.

“We’re a bit at the end of our rope,” Henriksen said. “If we have to go to lawmakers to do that, that’s what we’ll do.”

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