Atlantic Salmon Slated for Stocking in Northern Michigan Rivers

After three years of experimentation to determine whether Atlantic salmon can be successfully reared in state hatcheries, Michigan DNR fishery biologists say it’s time to shift gears.

“We’ll have 60,000 to 80,000 Atlantic salmon yearlings available for planting in 2013,” said Todd Grischke, the Lake Huron basin coordinator for the Michigan DNR. “We are going into the stocking phase and will be evaluating the plants: where they go, where to best stock them and what to expect once we do.”

The decision to plant Atlantics in Lake Huron has been urged by anglers after the collapse of chinook salmon in the early 2000s. Many anglers know that Atlantic salmon stocked in the St. Mary’s River by Lake Superior State University thrive and return to be caught. LSSU stocks 25,000 yearling Atlantic salmon annually, with an average creel return rate of 6-8%.

“That rate of return is excellent,” Grischke said. “Anything above 2 percent is good.”

Angler Frank Krist is excited about the possibilities. He fishes Lake Huron four or five times weekly and targets a variety of species. Lake trout, steelhead and walleye have all exploded since Chinook salmon disappeared due to the collapse of the alewife forage base.

“We see a lot of potential,” said Krist, chairman of the Lake Huron Citizens Fishery Advisory Committee. His group recently reviewed the DNR’s proposed Atlantic salmon stocking strategy, which calls for plantings in the St. Mary’s and AuSable rivers, with added stocking in the Thunder Bay River if there are enough yearlings left.

“When we looked at the return rate for Atlantic salmon they were five to ten times better than steelhead,” Krist said. “The Atlantics are better able to adapt (to the changing food web).

Chinook salmon were not so adaptable. They eat alewives exclusively and when those disappeared in Lake Huron, Chinooks did too. Michigan stocked the lake with 1.5 million Chinooks in 2011, but “the returns to state weirs were abysmal,” Grischke said. “Quagga and zebra mussels changed that landscape forever.”

Atlantic salmon are opportunistic feeders, unlike Chinook salmon. Much like steelhead, they will feed on alewives, smelt, round gobies or any combination of baitfish and aquatic insects. Atlantics are not being raised to be a substitute for Chinooks, but they can add to the Lake Huron fishery and expand fishing opportunities, Grischke said. The bugs involved with rearing these yearlings not withstanding, planting 120,000 annually is not out of the question based on the available capacity at the Platte River hatchery.

“We’re still in the process of evaluating whether we can successfully raise Atlantics at our own facility,” Grischke said. “We’ve been through three rearing cycles with limited success. I understand that anglers are excited, but we are still learning. We don’t know that we can duplicate the success of LSSU.”

Disease has been an issue at the Platte River hatchery, which relies on surface water for its raceways. Atlantic salmon are susceptible to a variety of diseases like furunculosis and whirling disease. Platte hatchery managers spent $150,000 to install a ultraviolet (UV) filter to purify the water. The filter has helped, but there were still losses in 2011, the first year the DNR staff attempted to raise Atlantics from egg to yearling size.

The hatchery received 80,000 eggs that year and 35,000 yearlings were later stocked in St. Mary’s River. Fall fingerlings had been the starting point for two years prior. The 2010 batch ran into disease problems, Grischke said. The hatchery received 30,000 fall fingerlings and 21,000 were eventually stocked.

“We got them out the door as yearlings but at that point we didn’t know if we could take them as eggs and rear them.”

Michigan has a nearly 30-year history with Atlantic salmon. They are stocked in Torch Lake, and were first introduced to Gull Lake (near Kalamazoo) in 1986. The Torch Lake population still thrives, but the Gull Lake population dropped off due to disease problems at the hatcheries and predation problems by gulls which fed on the spring fingerlings that were planted in later years. Stocking was eventually discontinued. Torch Lake, which gets 35,000 Atlantic salmon fall fingerlings each year, will continue to be stocked under the new strategy.

“If fall fingerlings are not available, we will move yearlings into the lake and continue the program, “Grischke said adding that the lake is getting a full complement of fingerlings this fall.