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Lake Erie Walleye in Crisis? Understanding the Lakes Walleye Population

Over the winter Lake Erie’s walleye had been on a lot of angler’s minds. A sub-par icefishing season in Ohio and Michigan has made things tenuous among anglers and charter captains. Angler and Captains alike waited and speculated, if the limit was going to be cut, or a closure of some type will be put in place for the 2011 season. Everyone seemed to have a source of knowledge by which they knew what would happen, but we wouldn’t be able to claim a prognosticator of the year until all data had been counted.

This year the MiDNR is joining Ohio in setting it’s walleye limits and starting the season on the same day. The season info was announced via a press release.And what a shocker it was the limit went up! There was all kinds of talk about 3 fish limits and the lake was getting very close to the crisis level.The limit for Michigan this year was set at 6 fish which puts it in line with Ohio’s limit for walleye.

So how did we get to this stage were Lake Eire the Walleye Capitol of the world, was being talked about as having a level so low in walleyes that we thought it was nearing the crisis zone? Who would be to blame for this and how do we stop it from happening again?

Before we can even start pointing fingers at any one group we have too understand the breeding population within the lake. The majority of spawning happens in a few areas; the Maumee River, Sandusky River, Detroit River, and the reefs out in the lake in Ohio and Ontario waters. Smaller river systems in the western basin also see smaller runs of walleye in the spring. Through a few different study methods, fishery managers feel that the bulk of the population spawn on the reefs. Some people feel that number is as high or higher then 75%.

At first glance many people may think that Lake Erie’s breeding population stays and lives in Lake Erie all its life. Normally that thought process works, but that isn’t how it is on Erie. Biologists from Michigan, Ohio, Ontario, Pennsylvania, and New York have been doing tagging studies for some time now on Erie Walleye. In 2005 thru 2007, an expanded tagging program had taken place. The Walleye Task Group(WTG) which is made up of multiple states and Ontario, started using Passive Integrated Transponders(PIT) as an alternative to using jaw tags to estimate walleye population and travels. PIT tags, which are in bedded in the fish, has helped them collect even more data on the walleye movement vs the jaw tags. In fact it has doubled the amount of data they have been able to get. In 2005 to 2007 more than 31,000 walleye were PIT tagged in the study. What has been found is quite incredible, the bulk of the breeding walleye in Lake Eire are very migratory. Fish that have been tagged in Lake Huron have been recovered all the way down and around the spawning reefs in Ohio.The tagging and tracking of walleye is taking another step towards gaining further understanding of how these walleye move around. See my blog “Walleye worth $100”

A Group called the Lake Erie Walleye Task Group(WTG), is charged with collecting data on the lake’s walleye population. The WTG uses that data to run population models. Those models are just one of the many factors that the Lake Erie Committee (LEC) uses to determine what a safe level of harvest is for that year. The LEC sets the lake-wide Total Allowable Catch (TAC). The LEC is made up of one Lake Erie administrator from each state and Ontario, each having a seat within the committee. It is also worthy to note that the TAC is not just a majority vote within the 5 LEC members, it is a consensus that each member of the LEC must agree to before it is accepted. That quota set by the LEC is then split up among each unit in the lake. The units are basically state and international borders for the most part.

 

How the group determines how much of the quota a unit gets is pretty straight forward. What they do is calculate the percentage of walleye habitat within that unit. Those numbers come out to 5.83% for Michigan, 51.11% for Ohio, and 43.06% for Ontario. New York and Pennsylvania are not assigned quotas, but they do watch their annual total harvest. Out of all the parties involved Ontario is the only one that has a commercial fishery for walleye.

For the past 5 years sport fishing and commercial fishing has taken under its quota granted to them by the LEC (TAC units). See the chart below.

One of the biggest factors for the Lake Erie walleye population is the weather. Walleye are what is called broadcast spawners. They do not build nest like bass and panfish do. They deposit eggs over an area of favorable bottom. How the weather affects it, is that if we have too much wind the eggs can become covered in sediment, which chokes out the eggs and limits the hatch for that year. Wind also affects them again, once they hatch. When the fry hatch and swim up, they depend on currents to carry them into warm, productive nursery areas near shore. If the prevailing currents take them to cooler, less productive areas then their chances of survival decline. Weather conditions, lake conditions, and the timing of weather events all come together to determine each year’s hatch.

Take 2003 for example, we saw just and unreal spawning success. Nearly 59 million walleye survived to age 2. Generally a walleye has reached or is close to reaching legal size by that age. But in 2004, 2005 , 2006 we had only 6.3 million reach that, combined. Those years we had winds that covered the eggs or pushed the fry to colder waters. In 2007 we had more favorable winds and almost 27 million fish entered into the system.

I hope I was able to give you a basic understanding of this whole process. I also hope, I have been able to give you the info, so that you can form you own opinion and views on this topic. The LEC does a great job in trying to find a balance between what we as anglers want,and what our resource needs. It is a tough job, and they will never make everyone happy but they really do take everything into consideration and make the tough decisions.

But who is to blame? The commercial fishing, the biologist, or is it you, the angler?Right now I feel strongly that a slot limit needs to placed on the commercial fishermen and maybe even on us sport anglers. To protect the prime breeding fish in the system. Many people feel that there is no way the angler and commercial numbers are has close to each other has the report says they are. People feel that the commercial catch is larger then what is being reported presently.

But what I really feel has  happened here of late is almost a perfect storm of factors. This whole debate we had this winter should really give us pause when it comes to our fisheries and our natural resources general. Too many fishermen fall victim to what I call “Fisherman Greed.” I talked a little about this in my stunted fisheries article.

So what ever happens in the  years to come with the walleye limit, we should remember to try and understand what is going on out there, and that the fish we grow here travel and affects other bodies of water not just Lake Erie.

2011 Walleye Regs

 

I would like to thanks Travis Hartman Fisheries Biologist with Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of  Wildlife for his help with this article and taking the time to talk with me on the phone.Also if you would like to read the report I sited click here for it.

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  • Colin

    Justin, this article rocks. Catching walleye is always fun.