Commercial fishermen have intensified their push to establish a commercial harvest of lake trout on the Wisconsin waters of Lake Michigan.
Though the idea has been discussed since 2016 and in February a formal request was made by commercial interests, Department of Natural Resources fisheries managers have not introduced a proposal to allow netting for the species.
As a result the Lake Michigan Commercial Fishing Board at two meetings this year reemphasized its strong desire for action on the topic.
In a statement released at its Sept. 22 meeting the board said "we now demand an immediate scope statement" to allow a commercial lake trout harvest.
The board also listed establishing a lake trout quota for commercial fishing as its No. 1 priority for the coming year.
"It's absolutely time (for a commercial lake trout rule to be implemented)," said Charlie Henriksen, a commercial fisherman from Sturgeon Bay and chairman of the board. "I mean there's just no reason that this isn't happening."
Lake trout population in Lake Michigan has increased in recent decades
After being decimated in the mid-20th century by invasive sea lampreys, the lake trout population in Lake Michigan has increased in recent decades through intensive stocking efforts of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, lamprey control efforts and protective sport fishing regulations.
Fishing is prohibited, for example, on and around key spawning reefs. And until recently the sport season was closed for several months during the lake trout spawning period and the bag limit was two fish per day.
Though the lake trout rehabilitation project has not been deemed complete by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, substantial natural reproduction of the species is now observed in Lake Michigan.
In recent years, in part due to the observed increase in lake trout natural reproduction and in part due to a DNR accommodation to anglers and business owners who prefer chinook salmon, the lake trout season was lengthened and daily bag limit increased. The season is now open year-round and the daily bag limit is five lake trout.
But the sport harvest is still well below an 82,000-fish annual limit set by the DNR. From 1969 through 2000, the sport harvest averaged 49,401 lake trout, according to DNR data. In 2020 (the most recent year data is available) it was about 38,000 fish.
So commercial netters would like to take advantage of what Henriksen calls a "harvestable surplus."
The LMCFB would like to see an annual commercial quota of 40,000 lake trout on Lake Michigan.
Administrative rule change takes about two years
To start a commercial lake trout season, the DNR would have to make a change in administrative rules. The process must start with a scope statement, essentially outlining the potential effect of the proposal.
Due to 2011 Act 21, which gave the Legislature more power and complicated and lengthened the rule making process, an administrative rule change takes about two years.
The DNR has not said whether or when it would introduce a scope statement.
In February, Todd Kalish, DNR deputy fisheries director, said the agency would look at models on the lake trout population and consider the commercial fishers' request.
At the time Kalish said the agency didn't have the information it needed and hadn't engaged in conservations with "all stakeholders."
Allowing commercial netters to target lake trout would be controversial among many in the sport fishing community.
Bob Wincek, president of the Wisconsin Federation of Great Lakes Sport Fishing Clubs, said his group was opposed to commercial fishing for lake trout in Lake Michigan "until it can be proven by DNR and USFWS that it can be viable to allow a small, commercial harvest."
Bycatch in the commercial nets, including of salmon and other trout species, is among the concerns of sport anglers.
Researchers at the Qualitative Fisheries Center at Michigan State University have developed two models for Lake Michigan lake trout, including one that forecasts the population under various harvest and stocking scenarios.
The work by QFC is expected to inform decisions about potential commercial harvest rules.
In a statement, the LMCFB said the sport harvest of lake trout is less than half of the annual quota and "a reasonable commercial harvest will not jeopardize lake trout rehabilitation."
But with no action on their request, members of the commercial board said they may turn to legislators for a solution. It would also be possible, though less common, to establish a commercial harvest by changing state statute.
"We're kind of at the end of our rope," Henriksen said. "If we have to go to lawmakers to get it done, that's what we'll do."
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Commercial fishermen want to start netting lake trout on Lake Michigan