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DNR shares fisheries survey findings from 3 sports fishing areas

An extensive survey on the condition of the three major sports fishing areas on the Great Lakes — Lake Michigan, Lake Erie and Saginaw Bay — was released by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on Wednesday.
The results of the 2022 Fisheries Survey highlight population trends among walleye, yellow perch and other species and factors such as angler intensity and the presence of forage fish, according to MDNR Fisheries Chief Jim Dexter in a Wednesday press release.
“Regular surveying of Michigan waters tells us things about state fisheries that we’re not going to learn through other means, and that data helps us make sound, informed choices for different regions,” Dexter said in the release. “Our research crews and biologists, along with state and federal partners, do an incredible job of collecting and analyzing information that’s essential to these three regions.”
Lake Michigan
The MDNR’s survey vessel Steelhead and vessels from two other agencies traveled the waters of Lake Michigan in August, sampling key forage fish populations critical to the health of salmon, steelhead and lake trout, and found forage fish numbers to be improving.
Photo provided/MI Dept. of Natural Resources
The 2022 hydroacoustic survey involved 26 “transects” spanning nearshore and offshore regions around Lake Michigan, according to the MDNR in the release.
“A transect essentially is a predetermined line, from point A to point B, that determines the survey route,” the MDNR wrote in the release. “The Steelhead completed 13 of these transects in cooperation with the U.S. Geological Survey research vessel Sturgeon (eight transects) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service research vessel Baird (five transects).”
“The work was completed in late summer in spite of midseason shipyard repair delays that gave the survey vessel Steelhead a later-than-normal start,” Dave Clapp, Charlevoix Fisheries Research Station manager, said in the release. “Thanks to the crew’s hard work and favorable weather, though, the Steelhead was able to complete the largest number of annual survey transects since this survey began in 2004.”
While final survey results are not compiled as of this writing, the MDNR provided several “noteworthy” observations:
In recent years, forage fish abundance was much greater in nearshore areas than further offshore. But, unlike previous years, midwater trawl catches and apparent fish densities were higher in the northeast nearshore than in the southeast nearshore where fish abundance is nearly always greatest.
The largest catches in midwater trawls were yearling and older rainbow smelt, alewife and bloater. Yearling and older rainbow smelt have rarely been encountered in recent years, so the large catches mark a sharp departure from recent surveys.
The size distribution of the alewives captured in 2022 was also very different than in recent years. Smaller size groups have dominated the catch, but this year’s alewife catches included a much broader range of sizes from 4-8 inches and included some large ones greater than 8 inches in length. And very few alewives less than 4 inches were captured. The results may indicate that 2022 was a low recruitment year for alewives, but also that predation and other mortality were low, allowing some to survive in larger sizes.
Acoustic density estimates and midwater trawl catches of bloater have been increasing in recent years; 2022 survey results suggested that densities of bloater continue to remain high and may be increasing regionally in Lake Michigan.
Photo provided/MI Dept. of Natural Resources
Saginaw Bay
Based on the 24 trawl tows and 16 gillnet lifts conducted in September by two MDNR research vessels, initial findings indicate few changes to the Saginaw Bay fishery, according to the MDNR in the release.
Photo provided/MI Dept. of Natural Resources
A total of 24 different species were collected by trawling and 27 different species were collected by gillnetting, with no new species collected.
“Overall, walleye continue to dominate Saginaw Bay and its fish community, while efforts to improve yellow perch continue to struggle with that component of the fishery and forage fish numbers are generally stable,” David Fielder, research biologist for Alpena Fisheries Research Station, said in the release. “We expect the Saginaw Bay fishery will continue to look similar to 2022 for the next few years.”
Walleye abundance appears strong, and there are large year classes being documented from 2021 and 2022, according to the MDNR in the release.
“The mean catch of larger walleye in gillnets (36.6/net) was slightly higher than the average (33.8/net) since 2003,” the department wrote in the release. “The mean catch of young-of-year walleye in trawls was the highest since 2009, and the second highest ever, indicating young walleye production remains very high.”
“Yellow perch appear to continue to be very depressed in numbers and may be nearing record lows,” the department continued.
Additionally, initial forage fish numbers appeared to have declined for the second straight year. And were below the long-term mean but slightly above the last 10-year mean.
Lake Erie
Lake Erie is one of the most popular fisheries in the state outpacing all the other lakes with 31% of the catch, a catch rate three times the other Great Lakes waters combined, according to the MDNR in the release.
Photo provided/MI Dept. of Natural Resources
The MDNR conducted two surveys using a research vessel to get information from Lake Erie’s “complex fisheries community,” according to the department.
“Walleye populations remain near the all-time high, with trawling indicating that recruitment continues to be very strong,” the MDNR wrote in the release. “The age-0 walleye catch rate in the bottom trawl (14 fish caught per 10-minute trawl tow) was comparable to the past two years, coming in above the nine-year average of 11 fish per 10-minute trawl tow. Walleye reproduction during the past seven years has been strong, with multiple large-year classes beginning in 2015.”
More information on the larger adults is set to be gathered this winter when the fish are aged.
Additionally, yellow perch populations were found to be “holding their own” in Lake Erie, according to the department.
“Even though bottom trawling shows that forage catch rates were down, driven by a decrease in age-0 white perch and age-0 yellow perch, anglers shouldn’t be concerned about their favorite target species running out of food,” the department wrote in the release.
“These collections are on the low end of the range of forage catch rates observed during the last nine years,” Todd Wills, Lake St. Clair Fisheries Research Station manager, said in the release. “This doesn’t mean that there is a lack of forage in the lake, as our trawls only sample fish that live near the bottom. Walleye health, as measured by visceral (stomach) fat, is very good.”
To learn more about how the MDNR manages fisheries in Michigan, visit Michigan.gov/fishing.

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