Ohio's Lake Erie fisheries managers seem to be caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to their proposed remedies for the lake's ailing walleye population.
Some western-basin charter skippers are contending that more restrictions in the walleye catch proposed for 2004 are too strict and will further hurt their spring business.
But a spokesman for a group of central-basin anglers at Cleveland is saying that the Ohio Division of Wildlife, which made the proposals, isn't being nearly strict enough.
The division has proposed to set a minimum keeper length of 15 inches for walleye, year-round, for Lake Erie and its tributaries, and to reduce the daily creel limit from four to three in March and April. The limit would remain at the current six for the rest of the year.
Last spring the Lake Erie Committee of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission announced that walleye are in dire need of help via a drastic reduction in annual lakewide quotas. The committee, in sounding an alarm over a downward spiral in walleye numbers and poor to non-existent hatches in 2000 and 2002, called for an overall 40 to 60-percent reduction in annual catches.
Each of the lake's political jurisdictions - Ohio, Ontario, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York - is left to individually decide how to achieve its share of the reductions in catch.
Michigan, for instance, is planning to match Ohio's 15-inch-minimum proposal, and cut its daily creel limit from six to five fish, year-round, plus close the Erie walleye season in April and May.
The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources is supposed to huddle with its giant commercial netting industry and sport fishing and bait-dealer representatives this month.
Virtually no one so far is challenging the announced need to conserve walleye stocks. It is a matter of how the reductions are to be achieved.
Cleveland's Tom Mayher, Ohio director of the Great Lakes Sportfishing Council, just shrugs at the walleye proposals and contends that they do not go nearly far enough to conserve walleye stocks, the Associated Press reported. He thinks that the fishery should be shut down altogether in the spring spawning season.
Russ Merrihew, president of the 45-member Western Lake Erie Charter Boat Association, is among charter skippers who think the spring cuts will ruin business.
He instead proposes a four-fish limit from Sept. 1 through April 30, and a six-fish limit the rest of the year, with a 14-inch, not 15-inch, minimum size.
Paul Pacholski, a WLECBA member and vice president of the 780-member Lake Erie Charter Boat Association, also contends that a three-limit in March and April “is shortsighted at best.”
Stressing that he speaks only for himself, he prefers a four-fish limit September through March, six the rest of the year, and says he would “reluctantly agree with the 15-inch minimum for walleyes.''
To all of which Roger Knight, Lake Erie program coordinator for the Ohio Division of Wildlife, states: “We'll give it some thought. We'll run the numbers.”
Knight also is somewhat surprised by a lack of response from river fishermen. He added that all fisheries managers can assume is that lack of formal opposition to the reduced creel and the 15-inch minimum means that river anglers can live with the plan.
The spring spawning runs in the Maumee and Sandusky rivers are immensely popular, drawing thousands of anglers, many of whom do not have access to lake fishing.
River anglers, according to catch figures supplied by Knight, clearly have the most clout when it comes to spring catch.
Of some 62,700 fish taken in March and April - the figure is an average for those months in 2001 and 2002 - 33,000 came from the Maumee River and 4,300 from the Sandusky River. The rest came from private boat-anglers, 16,000, and charter guides, 6,500, on Maumee Bay and the near-shore reefs off Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station.
So, he added, “most of the harvest is coming out of the rivers.”
The goal, he added, is to protect discreet fish stocks - the individual river runs, the reef fish, Canadian fish, and so on. It is not just a matter of a head-count savings of so many female fish for a lot of reasons.
In any case, six public open houses are set for Aug. 14 around the state to solicit public comments on the proposed Lake Erie regulations.
Two of the open houses, from 7 to 9 p.m., are in northwest Ohio: At Ohio Wildlife District 2 headquarters, 952 Lima Ave., Findlay, and at the state's Lake Erie Fisheries Research Station, 305 East Shoreline Dr., Sandusky. The other meetings are at district offices in Akron, Athens, Columbus, and Xenia.
A statewide administrative hearing is set for Sept. 18 in Columbus, and the Ohio Wildlife Council is set to make a final decision Oct. 15 in Columbus.
“We're going to hold off till after Aug. 14,” said Steve Gray, state wildlife chief, about whether he will consider modifying the walleye proposals.
In the meantime the division will stay in the listening mode. He said fisheries managers met twice just last week with LECBA members, once at an LECBA meeting in Port Clinton and once at the Ohio Wildlife Council meeting in Columbus.
”We're doing a lot of research and answering their questions as they come up.”
In the end, Knight points out that a decade ago fisheries managers applied the same logical, cooperative path toward conserving and rebuilding yellow perch stocks, despite heated opposition to, for instance, Ohio's reduced daily sport limit of 30 yellow perch, which still is in effect.
But the plan worked very well and perch again are a year-round fishing mainstay.
“That's what we're trying to do with walleye. Rebuilding.”