Efforts by government agencies around Lake Erie to conserve and boost the lake's walleye stocks via three years of very strict sport and commercial catch-rules, plus a big smile from Mother Nature in 2003, are paying off with the brightest fishery status since 1990.
That, in a nutshell, is the proverbial rest-of-the-story behind this month's announcement of substantially larger Erie walleye catch-allotments for 2005 by the Lake Erie Committee of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission.
The LEC, using a new modeling approach and harvest policy developed in response to once-falling walleye stocks, has boosted the lakewide walleye fishery's total allowable catch or TAC to 5.8 million fish for 2005.
Ohio receives a lion's share of that at about 3 million fish and Ontario receives about 2.5 million. Michigan, Pennsylvania, and New York receive relatively small allocations based on their limited ownership of the lake.
"It's not a political thing," stressed Ohio's Roger Knight. "It's a scientific estimate of what the TAC ought to be."
The new TAC, he explained, still is below the 6.6 million average compiled since 1979 though it is more than double the TAC of the 2.4 million that was in place during the lean years of 2001 to 2004.
The magnitude of changes in the TAC from here on likely will not be so dramatic, especially under an LEC harvest policy aimed at trying to keep harvests at sustainable levels.
For Lake Erie sport fishermen, the new TAC does not mean that the fish will be jumping into the boat this summer.
That depends on favorable weather for fishing, especially on weekends when most anglers have time to get out, and on the fish staying where anglers can get to them.
Nor does the new, larger TAC mean that conservative fishing rules suddenly will evaporate. But state fisheries managers are not ruling out easing at least some restrictions for 2006.
"Any changes will hinge on the forecast [for the walleye stocks] and early signs of the status of the '05 hatch," said Knight, who is Lake Erie programs coordinator for the Ohio Division of Wildlife.
Because of the time-consuming path built into changing fishing regulations, wildlife division managers will have to decide roughly by late summer whether to make changes for 2006, and that allows only a preliminary assessment of the 2005 hatch. Spawning is under way now, and, as Knight so well notes, "weather trumps everything."
Last week's unrelenting northeast winds did nothing to buoy up enthusiasm for 2005, given that such prolonged blows push cold central-basin waters into the western-basin spawning reefs and fish-nursery areas. Such blows also stir up spawn-choking silt from the shallow western-basin
bottom. Still, the spring of 2003 witnessed some questionable weather and yet that year-class of walleye was the best in 20-plus years and it forms the bulk for the renewed stocks today followed by 2001 and 1999 fish. The 2000, 2002, and 2004 year-classes were rated poor, or worse.
Knight declared it "a possibility" that Ohio will return to a daily creel limit of four walleye in March and April, up from the severe limit of three implemented last year for those months along with a 15-inch year-round minimum length. The cut from four to three was met with strong protests especially from the charter-
sportfishing community, guides contending that they could attract early-season customers with a four-fish limit but not with three.
The daily creel limit in Ohio waters is six walleye May through February. In Michigan waters it is five fish June through March, but the fishery is closed altogether in April and May. In Ontario the sport fishery is closed March 15 to May 13, with the daily limit otherwise being six walleye, no size minimum.
It is less likely that Ohio will give up the 15-inch minimum as it continues to aim at protecting younger fish in its waters.
Most male walleye are not mature enough to spawn until age three and females at age four.
Moreover, managers are not prone to making annual changes given the vagaries of hatch success from year to year. So doing could create a roller-coaster effect in which rules rarely seem in synch with stock size.
For instance, the pool of catchable walleye this year is 42 million fish, including about 30 million 2003 fish, most of which will be legal size in Ohio and Michigan waters by mid to late summer and some of which already are legal. It is the biggest pool of walleye since 1990 and stands in stark contrast to the mere 16.3 million fish in 2000, the lowest stock noted since 1978.
But next year's walleye pool is forecast at just 31 million because of a poor hatch in 2004, and thus relatively few two-year-olds will be entering the fishery. Knight said that the LEC's model forecasts that about 2.7 million of the 30 million 2003 fish available this year will be caught lakewide. That will leave a sizable pool of '03s for 2006 and beyond, natural attrition aside.
The whole TAC system and quotas for each governmental jurisdiction has evolved essentially because of Ontario's commercial gillnet fishery, which has tremendous catching power.
Rest assured that Ontario gillnetters will get their 2.5 million fish this year. Large, toughly-built gillnet tugs run in all weather. Northeasters and even monstrous 15 to 18-foot seas do not stop them from "pulling twine," unlike sport- fishing boats that typically are pinned down for safety's sake by four to six-foot or larger seas.
"We won't even come close to the quota," acknowledged Knight of Ohio's allotment of nearly 3 million walleye. Last year Ohio sport anglers took just 859,000 walleye when the state quota was 1.23 million. But if the fishing this year is good, especially with lots of 2003 fish available, and word get around and interest surges, that catch possibly could
double this year.
"It's a cap," Knight said of the annual TAC. It does not mean that the total should be met
every year. Commercial walleye fishing in Ohio waters has been banned by law for more than 20 years.
"Quality fishing is the goal," Knight added about Ohio's strategy in regard to its quota and regulations. For instance, the 15-inch length minimum is expected to eventually help boost the number of larger walleye in the overall stocks, and larger walleye in turn are known to prefer the central-
basin haunts in summertime. The central-basin walleye fishery, it is noted, has suffered for lack of fish in recent summers.
Knight noted that during the last several years of conservative catch restrictions and a very low TAC, about 15 percent of the lake's walleye stock was taken each year. Under the new TAC policy and models developed by the LEC, about 14 per cent of the lake's walleye stock will be taken in 2005, "if we hit it." So while the TAC seems so much higher, the percentage of the stock targeted to be taken is essentially the same. And even low stocks can produce bumper crops of fish, as witnessed by the super 2003 year-class.
The newly developed LEC approach, moreover, will react quickly to "droughts" or series of poor hatches, Knight said. "Hopefully with this [harvest] policy we'll avoid getting as low as we did."
In related news, the LEC set the yellow perch quota for Ohio at 5.4 million pounds out of a lakewide total TAC of 11.8 million pounds. That is a slight increase of the state's 2004 quota of 5.1 million pounds. Ohio's daily sport-creel limit of 30 perch remains in place.
The lake's perch stocks continue to show improvement, this after declines in the early to mid 1990s led to conservation restrictions for that species. Those measures, too, have worked.