Lake Erie's walleye and yellow perch need to catch a break this spring when it comes to weather during spawning time, or some years of leaner fishing limits may be in store after 2007.
That is the message behind the annual setting of the total allowable catch (TAC), for each species by the Lake Erie Committee of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission. The GLFC oversees sport and commercial fish management, harvest, and conservation on the lakes.
Last week the committee lowered the Lake Erie walleye TAC to 5.36 million fish, to be shared among Ohio, Ontario, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and New York, the jurisdictions that control the lake. That is down dramatically from the 9.886 million fish allowed in 2006 and reflects poor hatches and recruitment in 2002, 2004 and 2006.
The yellow perch fishery has not fared as poorly as walleye in terms of production. But less than robust year-classes in the same years when walleyes fared poorly are reflected in 2007 TAC of 11.389 million pounds, down from a whopping 16.48 million pounds allowed in 2006.
In both cases that news is not as bad as it may seem, inasmuch as the 2006 TACs were not met and in fact the 2007 TACs would have sufficed even a year ago. The falling TACS, expected to continue in 2008 as well, instead reflect slowly declining fish stock in both species because of too many years of poor production.
Currently the monster 2003 year-class is carrying the fishery, but its influence continues to wash out of the system. In general for Lake Erie's walleye, the two-year-olds typically are the most numerous class in the fishery, and since 2006 was a bust, don't expect much help for walleye stocks in 2008. Even a terrific year-class this year would not be felt until it enters the fishery at catchable size in 2009.
"The science is telling us the populations are going to fall," summed Roger Knight, Lake Erie program coordinator for the Ohio Division of Wildlife and current chairman of the lake committee.
Be aware that a year-class of fish, such as the 2003 blockbuster, can be "stockpiled" for the future only to a degree. Sooner or later natural losses and fishing harvests pare it. A year-class tends to decline in size over time even in the absence of fishing - that's basic biology.
In any case conservative walleye fishing rules, such as the 15-inch keeper minimum and four-fish daily limit in March and April and six-limit the rest of the year will remain in place at least for this year, according to Knight.
But, he added, "I'm optimistic things will improve.Typically we've not gone more than three or four years without at least a moderate or good hatch. We're kind of due."
One thing in favor of a good hatch this year is that the female walleye of 2003 will begin dropping eggs en masse for the first time.
"There will be a huge increase in the number of eggs," Knight noted. "Whether that translates into a good hatch depends on the conditions set by Mother Nature."
That typically means steady warming weather with a minimum of fierce northeast storms that drive cold central-basin water on western basin spawning reefs and which muddy the water and the rockpiles with spawn-choking sediment.
Knight said he expects great things from the catching side of the walleye sport fishery this year, weather permitting. The 2003 year-class now has grown well beyond the 15-inch legal keeper minimum, averaging 19 to 22 inches. Last year anglers feasted, but took only 1.9 million walleye, this against an allowable Ohio take of almost 5.1 million.
This year Ohio's share is 2.75 million fish, a 54 percent decrease from 2006 but likely still far more than sport anglers will take. Commercial netting of walleye has been banned for 25 years. Ontario's share is 2.32 million fish. Michigan's share is 284,000.
"I expect to see a bit of an increase in fishing pressure, given the stellar year we had last year," said Knight. "But it would take a phenomenal increase in pressure to take the allowable catch."
The challenge for biologists under such agencies as the GLFC is to come up with annual catch quotas that allow for cropping of fish while conserving stocks for the future.
That applies especially for regulating commercial netting, especially Ontario's powerful gillnet fishery, and to a lesser but still important extent for Ohio's remnant commercial trapnet fishery, which is a limited-entry, closed fraternity that is maxed at the current 18 licenses.
Note that Canadian gillnet tugs fish almost every day in season, even in storm-tossed 10 to 15-foot seas that keep sport anglers ashore. So you can count on the commercial netters taking all or most of their annual quotas, whereas the sport fisheries do so inconsistently - almost never with walleye and just occasionally with perch.
The idea behind quotas and TACs is to try to achieve some stability from year to year rather than wild boom and bust swings in fish stocks and catch rules. Knight noted all five agencies on the Lake Erie Committee were cooperating and working well together, and that Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources authorities "absolutely on board" with the catch decisions, even though the Canadian gillnet industry remains upset with its quota levels.
On the other hand, Knight noted, the OMNR only allocated 70 percent of the province's walleye quota last year, allowing netters to take 3.5 million out of a possible 4.3 million allowed walleye. That was as much an economic decision as a conservation move, however, Knight noted. He explained if netters flooded the market with too many walleye the price would go down, so in effect they could make as much money netting a lower tonnage of fish.
In any case, a statement by the Lake Erie Committee acknowledges the "highly variable [fish] recruitment patterns in recent years, as well as uncertain future recruitment for both walleye and yellow perch." It added that such realities "pose tremendous hardships on both commercial and recreational fisheries.
"The committee will continue to explore management options to minimize these hardships while still recognizing our resource stewardship responsibilties in achieving both biologically and sociologically sound objectives for lakewide fisheries."
The yellow perch fishery has not fared as poorly as walleye in terms of production, but less than robust year-classes in the same years when walleyes fared poorly are reflected in 2007 TAC of 11.389 million pounds, down from a whopping 16.48 million pounds allowed in 2006.
On the yellow perch front, the Ohio quota is 4.92 million pounds, down 34 percent from the 2006 quota of 7.48 million pounds. Ontario's share is 5.58 million pounds and Michigan's is 136,000.
But last year the actual lakewide perch take of 11.1 million pounds, though the highest in more than a decade, did not come close to the 16.48 million-pound quota and would be under even this year's lower lakewide quota.
Last year Ohio took 2.7 million pounds of perch - 1.7 million by sport anglers and 1 million pounds by netters, out of a 7.5-million-pound allowance. This year Ohio sport anglers are allowed 2.8 million pounds and netters 2.1 million pounds.
Ontario in 2006 took slightly more than its quota of perch, 8.1 million pounds versus a 7.9-million-pound quota, which is not considered too far out of bounds. Its quota this year is just 5.58 million pounds, so the gillnetters will not be working as long on perch.
"We were really low in the central basin," said Knight about Ohio in 2006. "The [perch] fisheries didn't perform anywhere near where we thought they would." As with walleye, the lowered perch TACs this year reflect slowly declining stocks that reflect poor hatches.
The Blade's weekly "Follow the Fish" page begins this Friday and will continue through spring and summer.