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Published: Sunday, 8/2/2009

Walleye hatch doesn't bode well for future

Lake Erie's coveted walleye apparently have produced another lackluster hatch that promises to keep the species' stocks in the doldrums for at least several more years.

The number-crunching on telltale July survey trawls by Ohio Division of Wildlife fisheries crews showed well below-average numbers of young-of-year fry in the test nets, according to Jeff

Tyson, supervisor of the state's Lake Erie Fisheries Research

Station at Sandusky.

"The hatch didn't look too terribly hot," he stated.

"It's not a complete bust, we did see some fish...."

In an average hatch, such as 2007, test-trawls turn up about 10 walleye fry per hectare, or about 2 1/2 acres of water on the survey sites. This July's trawls netted about 3 fish per hectare, continuing a too-familiar low-production trend that has plagued the fishery for six years.

Further trawls will be done this month, but most of the time August trawls simply confirm indications seen in July for a given year-class. So don't expect magic.

The news doesn't necessarily mean that the fishery is in crisis, only that it is in the low end of what may be a long-term cycle. Tyson acknowledged the status of the walleye stock is difficult to predict. Just two or three good hatches in close proximity and the lake's walleye stock could rocket to 60 million or 70 million, he added. "These stocks do cycle."

Tyson also noted that the 2003 mega-class was produced from a standing stock of 23 million, which included 12 million spawners. So it does not take 50 million fish to produce a mega-year.

The 2009 stock of 18 million fish includes about nine million spawners.

The biologist noted that from a sport-fishing perspective, total stock is not nearly as important as good fishing weather and the fish being in locations that anglers can access. At least, he added, Ontario with its commercial gillnet fleet has been "on board" with the LEC harvest strategy and the crisis-level quota trigger for five years already.

He does not think Ohio will land its 2009 quota of 1.2 million walleye, given off-and-on weather conditions, reduced feeding activity during the mayfly hatch in June, and fishing pressure this spring and summer.

The fishery has been living off the 2003 mega-class, which produced fry numbers that were off the charts. But from 2004 to present, only 2007 produced an average number of fish. The 2006 year-class is all but missing in action and the rest in the poor to fair range.

The 2007 fish are now 13 to 16 inches in length and turning up on anglers' hooks in big numbers - some observers think in bigger numbers than fisheries managers have estimated. Be sure to release sub-legals, carefully measured, if they are under the legal 15 inches. Some 2008 fish, 7 to 9 inches, also are turning up, though in fewer numbers.

In any case the lake's standing walleye stock is not expected to change much for the better in the near term. For 2009 it was estimated at 18 million fish, still above what is pegged as crisis level - 15 million walleye - by the Lake Erie Committee of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission.

The LEC will determine the 2010 standing stock and catch-quotas next March. The committee includes biologists and fishery managers from Ohio, Ontario, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and New York.

It annually examines data on walleye and yellow perch, among other things, and sets conservative quotas on annual total allowable catches of both species. With walleye, the LEC has determined that 15 million is the trigger for cutting commercial catch-quotas for Ontario and, for Ohio waters, the sport-angling quota and possibly, in turn, the daily creel limit.

In conjunction with all of the foregoing is a proposal to allow the chief of wildlife to set creel limits for perch and walleye after the March LEC catch-quota meetings. As it stands now, Tyson explained, fisheries managers have to guess each late summer what the next year's quota will be in order to set rules ahead of time.

By being able to wait till after quotas are set, the chief can establish rules effective May 1 any given year, a much more reliable process.

The plan has preliminary approval of the Ohio Wildlife Council, but is subject to public comment and scrutiny of the Joint Committee for Agency Rule Review before final Council consideration.

A series of open houses on the plan is set for Aug. 29, noon to 3 p.m., at the five district wildlife offices and the Lake Erie Shores and Islands Welcome Center-West in Port Clinton. In northwest Ohio an open house also is set at Wildlife District 2, 952 Lima Ave., Findlay.

The basic concept of the proposal is to keep intact a daily four-walleye limit in March and April, the spawning season, and a six-limit the rest of the calendar. Only when the LEC determines that the standing stock has fallen below the 15 million crisis-level would more severe creel limits be considered.

Tyson said the four-and-six limits usually will result in about 1.5 million walleye caught, given good stocks and good weather in a given year. Such limits assure that Ohio would not exceed its annual quota and are acceptable with the fishing public.

He said eight years' worth of creel surveys have gone into the data pool that is being used to create a still-to-be-set table of action-levels for setting limits.

"It gets past the business of having to look into a crystal ball and guess what the quotas are going to be."

As for the yellow perch side of things, Tyson said their stocks are in much better shape compared to those of walleye. They are "pretty stable" in the central basin and "rebuilding" in the western basin, he said, adding he expects the daily creel limit for perch to return to 30 lakewide next year. It currently is at 25 in the western basin. "We'll know for sure next March."

For perch, a total annual catch-quota for Ohio of two million pounds, set by the LEC, would be a standard cut-off for the 30-perch sport limits, divided according to the three fishing districts. The western quota would be 800,000 pounds, and the west-central and east-central district each 600,000 pounds.

If the predetermined crisis level was reached in any given district, the creel limit therein would be appropriately reduced.

Contact Steve Pollick at:

spollick@theblade.com

or 419-724-6068.



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