Unprecedented Lake Erie fishing restrictions, meant to provide long-term stability for the lake's internationally famous walleye and smallmouth bass populations, were proposed yesterday by the Ohio Division of Wildlife.
For walleyes the division is proposing a springtime creel limit of just three fish a day in March and April, down from four, plus a minimum size of 15 inches year-round. The creel limit the rest of the year would stay at six a day.
For smallmouth bass, the division is proposing to close the fishing season in May and June, when bass are spawning and guarding their nests.
The proposals were announced at the 25th annual Lake Erie Fish Ohio Day.
The new regulations would affect between 300,000 and 400,000 fishermen who ply Ohio waters of Lake Erie, and would become effective next March 1.
The restrictions have to be announced now to allow the required regulatory process to be completed in time for the 2004 fishing season. That means public hearings later this summer, consultation with anglers, and further review of the latest research.
Proposals then will be made final by September, in time for ultimate consideration in October by the Ohio Wildlife Council, the appointive body that oversees all fishing, hunting, and trapping rules in the state.
Based on the regulatory track record, however, such proposals typically are approved largely intact.
Initial reaction to the proposed changes was positive, at least with the leader of the Lake Erie Charter Boat Association, a fishing interest-group. “It's a good thing,” said Bob Collins, LECBA president. “The smallmouth thing, I'm in love with. A lot of people think that it's needed.”
Division of Wildlife administrators for years have maintained that keeper size-limits were unnecessary for Lake Erie walleye and that a closed season to protect spawning and nesting smallmouth bass, as is done widely elsewhere, including the Ontario side of the lake, was unnecessary.
However, the worst possible weather conditions - cold and windy - during recent springs have resulted in a string of bad walleye hatches. The 2002 hatch, for example, was the poorest on record; the 2000 hatch was marginally better and rated only as poor.
This year the fishery is relying on an excellent 1999 year-class and a good 2001 year-class, but those will not be enough to sustain the populations in the long run.
For smallmouth bass, the main culprit has been the invasion of the round goby, one of a dirty laundry-list of exotic “aquatic nuisance species.” These have plagued the Great Lakes in increasing numbers and diversity in the last 15 to 20 years.
Gobies are small, bug-eyed pest fish and are aggressive nest-predators of bass eggs and fry. Research has shown that when a bass is drawn off guard-duty on its nest, lurking gobies quickly pour in and devour the offspring.
The first official hints that problems were looming in the fisheries came in April from the Lake Erie Committee of the Ann Arbor-based Great Lakes Fishery Commission.
The GLFC is an international body that cooperates to design fish management strategies on each of the big lakes. The Lake Erie Committee comprises Ohio, Ontario, Michigan, Pennsylvania and New York.
In an announcement of cooperative lakewide catch-quotas, the committee warned of possible major reductions in allowable harvest in for walleye and yellow perch in 2004 and 2005, based on poor production in 2000 and 2002.
The committee's initial proposal was to reduce the lakewide annual walleye take by 40 to 60 percent from the current 3.4 million annual overall quota, which itself was a conservative reduction that is in place for a third and final year. Actual lakewide harvest in 2002 was just 2.5 million walleye.
An Ohio fisherman can't just move into Canadian waters or those of another state, since each Lake Erie agency has agreed to adjust its fishing regulations in some way to achieve the agreed-to 40 to 60-percent reduction in total annual walleye catch.