Stocking waterways with fish

May 1, 2016

One of the state’s most revered places to fish brown trout runs through Oakland County, namely the Paint Creek. The coldwater stream is a haven for anglers who seek out the spotted fish, accented with a square tail and a golden belly. Since the 1800s, the brown trout has been fished in Michigan, yet many an angler may be surprised to know that it first arrived by boat from Germany, and isn't a native species at all.

Released into the Pere Marquette River in 1884, the brown trout was one of many species stocked by the Michigan Fish Commission in response to depleted fish populations due to excessive harvest for commercial purposes, polluted waters from industrialization, and massive destruction of land and water habitat as the logging industry cleared debris from rivers to aid in the transport of fresh-cut logs to sawmills.

By 1900, the state operated six fish hatcheries, including Oakland County’s Drayton Plains hatchery, which was located on the site of today’s Drayton Plains Nature Center near Waterford. Implementing basic techniques and small-scale operations, when compared to current standards, early hatcheries cultured a variety of species including brown trout, brook trout, rainbow trout, walleye, lake whitefish, and largemouth and smallmouth bass. 

Early settlers who sought diversified species for food and recreation, took fish indigenous to some Michigan waters, and planted them in other lakes and streams, where the particular species was previously absent. Populations of walleye, brook trout, and largemouth and smallmouth bass were spread this way. Other species, such as Atlantic and Chinook salmon, common carp and rainbow smelt were imported from out of state, and stocked through 1920, according to a 2004 article published by Gary Whelan, current program manager for the fisheries division of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR).

“There’s a very long history of brown trout management, which relies heavily upon (fish) stocking,” said Kevin Kapuscinski, assistant professor and co-director of the aquatic research lab at Lake Superior State University. “The common carp has been here – also imported intentionally in the late 1800s – so both species have been here for a long time. They’ve been around such a long time that a lot of people may not think of them as non-native, but they are. It’s more of a value system. We look at the carp as a destructive invasive species, and most people don’t view brown trout that way, but they were both brought here intentionally. Value systems change through time, and most of fisheries management is based on these value systems.” 

Current and future generations of anglers are at the top of the food chain when it comes to making value-based decisions, including the establishment, improvement and diversification of fisheries – a term that refers to the selection of game or sport fish found in a given fish community. “If I had to make a rough estimate, I think 75 percent of what we stock is geared towards providing recreation and the other 25 percent, maybe, is to keep things in balance where things have gotten messed up,” said Jeff Braunscheidel, senior biologist at the Waterford fisheries station, part of the Lake Erie Management Unit, one of Michigan’s eight basin management units. 

In the 1920s, the first fishing restrictions were implemented in response to rampant overharvesting. Currently, the state enforces laws that dictate the size, number of fish, and when and where a particular species can legally be caught. 

“The limits, the regulations, we have in place (today) are designed to protect most of the fish species involved, but they’re sort of a one-size-fits-all regulation and they don’t always work as well in some lakes with different conditions,” said Braunscheidel. “But we’ve been pushed by the public to keep regulations simple. We don’t want 30 types of regulations for bluegills out there. People would be confused. So instead of having specific regulations for each lake, we try to have a general regulation (for a specific species) that would work in the majority of cases. We want people to go out fishing. There’s an economic basis behind some of this.”

The MDNR estimates that “40 percent of all recreational fishing in Michigan depends on stocked fish, including 70 percent of the Great Lakes trout and salmon fishery.” With a budget of just over $10 million, Michigan’s fish production program generates a hefty return on investment. The fishing industry contributed an estimated $2.4 billion boost to the state’s economy, according to a 2011 report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

In some lakes, streams and ponds the stocking efforts of a particular species have been discontinued because the population is successful at maintaining a presence without intervention. “If it survives, and does OK, it reproduces, then if that happens they won’t continue to need to stock,” said Dr. Wally Fusilier, consulting limnologist and former owner of Water Quality Investigators, out of Dexter. But in some cases, to maintain and keep recreational fishing alive, the DNR must repeatedly stock certain species in the same waterways. 

“We survey lakes and streams in the area on a regular basis, and when we do a survey of the fish community, we determine whether things are out of balance or we could provide more fishing opportunity without affecting the existing fish community,” said Jim Francis, head of the Lake Erie Management Unit.

Opinions of fish stocking vary, and the answer to the question of whether or not fish stocking practices need to be reformed depends on the philosophical perspective of the individual. Yet, history shows that there’s been multiple paradigm shifts when it comes to propagating fish. The first wave, in the late 1800s, was characterized by a need to produce fish in large quantity to supplement agricultural yields, and was a period when exotic fish species were brought in from the native countries of many immigrants. The stocking paradigm shifted again as experience proved that larger fish had a higher survival rate. At the same time, recreational fishing gained popularity in the 1930s, and continued after World War II. The emphasis moved away from planting freshly-hatched fry fish, about a quarter-inch in length, to stocking the somewhat larger fingerlings, which measure over an inch. The late 1940s and 1950s marked the birth of sport fishing, when preferences for particular species developed among anglers, and caused a shift toward stocking larger, ready-to-catch trout. By the mid-1960s, science had shed light on the health concerns of stocked fish, including disease and inbreeding, and another shift took place, with a new concern for habitat restoration and catch limits. 

“There’s no category in the population beyond hunters and anglers, who have done more for environmental protection and resource conservation in Michigan. We’re the canary in the coal mine. If the condition of a resource is declining, that’s clearly evident to people using that resource on a regular basis. Over the 80-year history of the MUCC, we’ve been involved in effectively every important environmental advancement or policy issue,” said Dan Eichinger, executive director of the Michigan United Conservation Clubs (MUCC), a state branch of the nationwide organization. Representing the interests of anglers and hunters in Lansing, the MUCC played a role in the protection of wetlands and the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1979. “Anglers and hunters pay for wildlife and fisheries management. The funds used for the state, they come (in part) from fishing and hunting licenses. I’m not aware of any negative impacts of stocking fish. That would be a new one for me.”

On the other hand, the Center for Biological Diversity, a national non-profit out of Arizona, has linked fish stocking to the decline of native species of fish, including the golden trout and Lahontan cutthroat trout, as well as frogs and toads. 

“We found 39 endangered and threatened species where the state was stocking non-native fish into the waters,” said Jeff Miller, conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity. “There was quite a bit going on in the high Sierras (in California), stocking where native trout never got to. You have these species of frogs and toads that evolved without fish predators, and you had trout eating frogs, and there were concerns about hatchery fish spreading disease to fish and other organisms, and competing with other native fish.” In California in 2008, the Sacramento Superior Court ruled that department had to consult with the Center and Pacific Rivers Council for a review of stocking practices and investigation into the protection of native species from the impacts of fish stocking. 

“In California, they did stocking and never did an environmental review of stocking practices. We got that review. Now the state stopped stocking trout in the high Sierras and adopted a policy to not stock where endangered species are present. Our focus was on what harm the stocked fish did on the ecosystem and other aquatic life. The goal was to restore the ecosystem to native species, and get invasive species out,” Miller said.

However, the approach in Michigan has been more holistic, an aquatic ecologist asserted.

“In a lot of western states, there was a lot of put-and-take fisheries, where they just keep pumping them in and people take them out. The expectation is that people will catch them right away,” said Matt Herbert, aquatic ecologist at the Lansing branch of the Nature Conservancy. “Michigan’s approach is more to sustain populations and supplement populations. It’s more habitat-based. It’s a mixture of trying to create or maintain fisheries, but much of the stocking is also just about the ecosystem as well.”

Michigan’s fisheries practices are evaluated by professors at Michigan State University, and by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said Whelan, manager of the research section for the MDNR’s fisheries division. “They (MSU professors) review our practices and procedures. They look at our grants, and make sure the work is done in an appropriate fashion. We consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the species that are listed as federally threatened, endangered, or sensitive,” he said, noting that the state has a handful of mussel species that are on the watch list, in addition to the Eastern Massasauga, a rattlesnake that lives in wetlands. “But, the probability is darn close to zero that (the snake) will be affected by fish stocking.”

The DNR issues permits to individuals to stock a private body of water, which does not connect with public water bodies. However, the majority of fish that is stocked come from one of six state-run hatcheries.

“The majority of the (fish production) funding is spent at hatcheries, rearing the fish and preparing them for the water bodies,” said Dawn Fedewa, financial manager of the MDNR’s fisheries division, which is operating on a $32 million budget this year. 

In the Upper Peninsula, there is one hatchery near Lake Superior, located in Marquette County, and one near Lake Michigan in Schoolcraft County. In the Lower Peninsula there are four scattered along the west side of the state, in the counties of Emmet, near the tip of the mitt; Grand Traverse; Wexford, near the Manistee river; and Kalamazoo.

Currently, approximately 75 percent of Michigan’s $10 million fish production budget comes from a federal excise tax on fishing equipment, and 25 percent comes from Michigan’s game and fish fund, to which hunting, fishing and trapping licenses contribute, said Ed Eisch, fish production manager for the fisheries division. 

“Our funding is a combination of game and fish fund dollars, and federal money, the Dingell-Johnson money,” said Eisch, referring to the 1950 Dingell-Johnson Sport Fish Restoration Act. The act established a federal excise tax on fishing equipment, including “boats, outboard motors, tackle, gas and oil sold in the marina,” said Eisch. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service then distributes a portion of the funds generated to each state based on an equation that involves the number of fishing licenses sold in a given state and the amount of fishable water present, which accounts for lake acreage and stream mileage. 

The Michigan fisheries division received $11.4 million in Dingell-Johnson money for the current fiscal year. About two-thirds is used for fish production – hatcheries and stocking – and the other third goes to resource management, including research and other aspects needed to run a science-based program, said Fedewa, financial manager of the fisheries division. 

“We don’t want to stock fish that aren’t a size that they can live, or that aren’t healthy,” said Fedewa. 

Yet, biologists stock hundreds of thousands of fish annually that won’t survive into their first year. “Fisheries biologists tell me that 70 percent of fish stocked die, so only 30 percent survive at all,” said Fusilier. “People want these fish. I don’t think the DNR tells them, ‘you’ll have 70 percent die.’”

A total of 227,292 fingerling walleye, which measure just shy of one-and-a-half inches, were planted into four Oakland County lakes last year – Cass Lake, Lake Orion, Long Lake, and Union Lake. The year prior, just under 200,000 fingerling walleye were stocked into seven Oakland County lakes. 

Walleye is native to some waters in this part of the state, but not all. “They’re not naturally occurring in a lot of these lakes because they don’t have the right spawning habitat in most of the inland lakes here in southeast Michigan. They don’t have a river with rocky habitat for the spawning to succeed,” said Michael Thomas, a fisheries research biologist based the Lake St. Clair station. 

In 1882, walleye began to be stocked in Michigan waters where the species had previously been absent. Relying on eggs captured from wild walleye adults in various locations across the state, the MDNR consistently rears the species. Once walleye hatch, they’re transported as fry to a walleye rearing pond, where quarter-inch walleye are placed for about two months to grow to fingerlings, about the length of a finger. 

Rearing ponds, including one located in Oakland County’s Drayton Plains Nature Center, where walleye are raised from fry to fingerlings, have a limited amount of zooplankton, which is the primary feed for growing walleye. “When the zooplankton runs out, they eat each other, or starve. So you’re forced to get them out at a size where they’re still small, and you have to stock a lot of them to hope that a few make it through,” said Thomas. 

When it’s time to transfer them, “we drain the pond, or net them out, and harvest the fish. Usually it is a man-made pond designed to be drainable,” said Braunscheidel, of the Waterford fisheries station. 

The fingerlings depart the pond in cylindrical, water-filled tanks, transported on the bed of trucks to their destination. Upon arrival, a tube is attached from the tank, draped over the shoreline, and like turning on a faucet, the fish pour into the water. One species of fish may be stocked at various points in a single body of water, and stocking may occur over the course of multiple days. The Michigan Fish Stocking Guidelines, updated in 2004, states that 2.9 million fingerling walleye are placed annually into the Great Lakes, and roughly three to four million fingerling walleye are placed in inland lakes.

Noting that walleye are the primary species stocked in inland lakes, Thomas explained the science of why so many walleye fingerling have to be stocked. 

When walleye join the fish community, which may be characterized by bass, bluegill, northern pike, yellow perch and shiners, a minnow-type fish, those that survive will feed on select members of the already-established fish population.

“There are risks associated with stocking fish into the wild, whether they’re native or not,” said Kapuscinski, of Lake Superior State University. “One tool we use to prevent risk is disease testing before stocking.” Other factors considered include the presence of competitor species and available nutrient sources, the time of year when a body of water is stocked, and the characteristics of a particular species strain. 

While learning from mistakes of the past, and acting on guidance provided from scientific research studies, fisheries management is charged with the responsibility of balancing risk with reward. In 2013, the fisheries division released a five-year strategic plan, created with input from MDNR staff, conservation groups, anglers and members of the public. Carrying the department through 2017, the plan notes that goals typically remain static, but, as evidenced by history, “strategies are likely to evolve with changing agency resource levels and advanced technology.” 

A somewhat recently emerging area of research has led to an increased emphasis on genetic integrity. Using techniques to investigate fish gene complexes, research studies continue to shed light on the impacts of fish stocking. 

Muskellunge, affectionately known as “muskies,” were only found in fifteen lakes by the 1950s, according to the Fish Stocking Guide, but with consistent hatchery and stocking efforts, their presence in Michigan lakes has increased significantly. A muskellunge management draft report, written within the last decade, stated that muskies could be found in 112 water bodies throughout the state. “There are cases where muskellunge, from a different source population, have been stocked on top of a native population. Now we have genetic tools to examine the composition of these populations and see where, potentially, we have a pure native population or one where we see the influence of stocked population. It’s the whole idea of disrupting the locally adapted genes, gene complexes,” said Kapuscinski. 

In addition to providing pleasure to many outdoor enthusiasts, fish stocking may be used to curb an out-of-balance ecosystem, as was the case with alewife. Fisheries managers witnessed an escalating number of alewife, a variety of lake herring, swimming in Lake Huron in the 1960s. They began stocking Chinook salmon, an alewife predator and the largest of the Pacific salmon, which was successful in decreasing the alewife population. As it turned out, anglers had a frenzy over the newly formed salmon fisheries, creating a new booming market. Like most things in nature, it didn’t last forever. 

“When the alewife (population) crashed, over a long period of time, (fisheries management) were scaling back the stocking of the Pacific salmon,” said Kapuscinski. “That is not a popular thing to do, because people’s livelihood depends on it, but in the end, the ecosystem changed and they adjusted the stocking rates in response. It doesn’t make sense to stock the salmon because they’d starve to death. It’s unpopular, but the reality of it was that it was necessary.”

Another method of population control, which was used more frequently in the past than currently, is a chemical treatment. The DNR has treated lakes with rotenone as a means of conducting intentional fish kills. Targeting waters that had become overrun with a non-sport species, one that anglers weren’t excited about catching, the DNR has reacted by eliminating a species, which enabled the department to re-stock it with an adored fish. 

“It’s been a while since we’ve done reclamation treatments,” said the DNR's Eisch. When a lake was dominated “with rough or undesirables, like carp or suckers, managers wanted to eliminate and restock with species people wanted. It’s not done a lot anymore because it’s proven to be a temporary measure. You don’t get them all, and the odds are, they will swamp desirable fish populations again. It’s a repetitive thing that’s needed to be done on cyclic basis. You have to collect all those dead fish, which is not a pleasant thing to be around, so it’s not viewed as effective for population management.”

Limnologist Fusilier noted, “They did that to the Huron River and 95 percent of what they killed were carp, (imported) by Germans. It was a food fish for them. I guess the DNR was trying to give more food to the fish in the river that they wanted, like trout, and the carp were probably taking a lot of that biomass, the food.”

Looking forward towards best practices, the state continues to move with regard to fishing opportunity, financial investment, and environmental impact. Established in 2013, the DNR’s aquatic habitat grant program provides non-profits with the resources to conduct habitat restoration projects in partnership with the state. Grants are awarded to “non-profits so they can assist us in doing habitat work out there,” said Fedewa, financial manager of the fisheries division. “It enhances habitat so we are more successful when we do stocking, or so maybe we don’t have to stock.” With the 2015 round of funding, the program made $1.25 million available to partner organizations. A large portion of that money came as a result of the increased rates on fishing licenses, which went into effect two years ago.

In addition to the increased attention placed on improving habitat and protecting non-game and rare species, the division’s five-year plan has stated as its goal to increase fish production through cooperative partnership; use stocking to create new fisheries; and spread awareness to the public about local fisheries. To that end, Governor Rick Snyder’s budget for the 2016-2017 fiscal year included $12.2 million for “fish production infrastructure improvements that would boost steelhead and coolwater fish production,” stated a release by the MDNR fisheries division. The improvements are intended to result in increased production of walleye, muskellunge, and smolting-sized steelhead, as well as replacing forty-year-old raceway fish feeders and improving measures to safeguard against avian predation. 

“In southeast Michigan, we have large concentrations of people. There’s so much fishing pressure that we have to stock for years and years,” said Eisch, of the DNR. “We’re fine with that. We want people out there fishing, so if we can provide trout fishing opportunities that’s a cool thing, and if we have to stock fish to do so, there’s nothing wrong with that. Recreational fishing is incredibly important to a lot of people. It’s a tremendous stress reliever, and it has a history in our state. It’s like a balm to the soul for a lot of people. Everybody has to have a place to go for a happy place, and for some it’s the garden, and some it’s the trout stream. From my perspective, being in this field, it’s great to be able to make that a possibility for people.” ­

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