What's Happening to Our
 Lake Erie Fishery?

by

Dave Kelch

Ohio Sea Grant Extension, Elyria, Ohio

During the 1990s, we have experienced a number of changes to our Lake Erie fishery; some good, some bad, but changes none the less. Not a week goes by when Iím not asked, "whatís happened to the fishery?" by a disgruntled angler, who usually expects not only an answer, but also a "silver bullet" solution to the problem. Itís not that easy.

I try to explain that our Lake Erie fishery, both sport and commercial, is far better during the 1990s than it was during the 1960s and 1970s. Our smallmouth bass fishery is probably the best itís been in years. Our Lake Erie fishery during 1990s has been exceptionally good when compared to the past; yet not as good as during the 1980s. The reason? Changes occurring within the lakeís ecology, and the constant changing and unpredictable patterns of Mother Nature.

Over the past few years, anglers have pointed accusing fingers towards a number of Ďscape goats" to blame for our changing fishery. Those accused include zebra mussels, cormorants, commercial netting, pollution, angling tournaments, spring angling for egg-laden walleye and smallmouth, liberal bag limits, changing lake levels, the stocking of predator species (steelhead), and most recently, management agencies. A quick fix is demanded; "We want a Lake Erie sport fishery like we had during the mid-1980s!" is the battle cry being heard. Again, itís not that easy. Letís look logically, yet briefly, at the problem, beginning with Lake Erieís recent past.

Many of us have had the opportunity to see Lake Erie come from a so-called "dead lake" during the 1960s and early 1970s, to a tremendous fishery during the 1980s. Walleye, smallmouth bass, and yellow perch were abundant, and limit catches were the rule. Many years of successful walleye and perch spawnings were fueled by an abundant food system, taking the young fry to adulthood and into the anglers bag. Management agencies, basing their decisions on principles such as Maximum Sustainable Yield (fish are allowed to be caught, yet only in numbers which allow their populations to continue to thrive), allocated fish for both sport and commercial harvest.

Life was good, especially if you were a Lake Erie angler. Then came the 1990s. Lots of changes. In fact, more changes than Lake Erie had experienced for quite some time. Aquatic nuisance species, such as the zebra mussel and spiny European water flea, have made an impact to the lakeís ecological balance. Food chains have been altered. Water clarity has improved dramatically (due to both the filtering of the zebra mussel, and phosphorous reduction), and has impacted the behavior of fish such as the walleye. Another exotic invader, the round goby, has become a major nuisance to anglers. Cormorant populations, due to a number of reasons, have rebounded dramatically to record numbers, and are consuming large numbers of fish, not to mention destroying unique island habitats. Erratic weather patterns and changing lake levels have both caused changes to our fishery. Decreases in phosphorous inputs to the lake have resulted in increased levels of dissolved oxygen and reduced productivity at the base of the food chain. And toxic contaminants are still present, possibly impacting our fishery.

Spawning success and growth to adulthood has not been as good during the 1990s for a number of sport species, including the walleye. Mother Nature, not one of the aforementioned accused, can be blamed here. Wind, waves, water currents, and erratic spring weather patterns can dramatically impact spawning success. Predatory fish species (including walleye, yellow perch, white bass, white perch, smallmouth bass, sunfish species, catfish, and yes, the goby) can and will consume young fish fry, and may also consume fish eggs; everything in the lake must eat to survive. And after the eggs hatch, food must be abundant for growth of the young fry. In this instance, the potential impacts may be not only weather related, but also related to impacts by zebra mussels, spiny water fleas, and the reduction in phosphorous.

Conclusion:

There are numerous reasons our fishery is in a state of change and, historically, fluctuations in Lake Erie fish populations have been very common. Letís face the fact that we were spoiled during the 1980s, and now we want it back. But the lake is changing in many ways, and some of those changes we have little or no control over, e.g. Mother Nature.

My advice would be to let the management agencies do their jobs. Our Lake Erie fishery is managed cooperatively by a number of state and federal agencies, not just the Ohio Division of Wildlife, and involves lots of research and data collection. The individuals responsible for managing our Lake Erie resources are well- educated professionals. They have every reason to manage the resource properly and to the best of their ability for ALL user groups. Remember, the decisions our resource managers make are based upon historic data, research findings, annual assessments, knowledge of the lakeís ecological system, years of experience, and high levels of education- not on emotions and gut feelings, Our current fishery may not meet with the expectations of some. However, we can still be thankful for a sport fishery far superior to most other lakes, with room for a commercial fishery to supply Lake Erie fish to the non-angling public.

This article first appeared in the January/February issue of "Twine Line" is has been reprinted Courtesy of Ohio Sea Grant.