EAST CHICAGO — With plans to increase the number of Chinook salmon being added to Lake Michigan this spring, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources has shared several potential stocking strategies with the public. However, one option has caught the eye of Lake County anglers.
After years of stocking 225,000 Chinook salmon annually in Lake Michigan, the Indiana DNR announced that 275,000 would be added in 2023. In Indiana, Chinook stocking is split between three locations: the East Chicago Marina; the Little Calumet River, which empties into Portage; and along Trail Creek, which empties into Michigan City.
The DNR held two public meetings this month at which four stocking strategies were proposed:
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- All three locations continue to stock the same number of salmon.
- Stocked the additional 50,000 fish at the Little Calumet River site while stocks in East Chicago and Trail Creek remain the same.
- Split the additional 50,000 fish between the Little Calumet and Trail Creek locations while keeping numbers in East Chicago.
- Split 275,000 fish between Little Calumet River and Trail Creek locations, eliminating stocking in East Chicago.
The fourth option would end Lake County’s only Chinook salmon stock, a scenario local anglers strongly oppose.
Protect the marina
The East Chicago Marina is one of the first places John Warren learned to fish as a high school student in 1978. The captain of the charter boat continues to fish in the marina. He said the firewall, pier and shore access make the site accessible to anglers of all skill levels. Families can walk or bike to the marina and “enjoy nature”.
“I’ve been doing this for a long time and we’re losing more and more of our public places to fish,” Warren said. “If you lose something, you very rarely get it back.”
If the DNR stops stocking East Chicago’s marina, local business could be affected, Warren said — anglers frequent nearby businesses for groceries and fuel.
Ben Dickinson, a Lake Michigan biologist for the Indiana DNR, emphasized that the elimination of East Chicago’s Chinook stocking is one possible scenario. He said the DNR considers several factors when planning stocking strategies, including use by anglers, fish survival and geographic diversity.
“We don’t want to implement anything very unpopular and polarizing,” Dickinson said.
To collect public input, the DNR will circulate a poll with the four options. The survey will be emailed to anyone who has purchased a trout or salmon fishing license online; those who did not purchase their license online can access the survey on the Indiana DNR Facebook page. Dickinson said the poll is expected to be posted to facebook.com/INdnr the week of Jan. 16.
A careful balance
In the 1960s, Howard Tanner had the idea of introducing salmon to Lake Michigan. Tanner, Michigan’s chief fishery at the time—he later became director of the Michigan DNR—wanted to curb the invasive aleweed population and create a sport fishery.
In the decades since Howard’s first experiment, DNRs from Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana have regularly stocked Lake Michigan with chinook and Pacific coho salmon. However, Dickinson said the DNR constantly adjusts population numbers to maintain a careful “predator-prey balance.”
If salmon weren’t added, the aleweib population would eventually “explode” and crowd out other native fish populations like yellowfish, he said.
“On the other hand, if we stock too many predatory fish, they will eat through most of the baitfish populations and then they will have nothing to feed themselves,” Dickinson said, explaining that the “predators” are almost exclusively chinook salmon Alewis consume: “Then we have no fishing at all.”
In the mid-2010s, beer wives populations began to decline, leading the DNR to reduce the number of Chinook salmon stocked. In recent years, the female ale population has recovered, so the DNR plans to increase the number of Chinooks this spring.
The 6-month-old seedlings are usually stored at the end of April; They then venture deeper into Lake Michigan to feed for a year or two, but not before imprinting. It’s called “homing back”: salmon remember the chemical information of the creek where they were stored and return when they are ready to spawn.
The DNR uses coded wire tags to track the fish and measure how many are returning and how many are born wild. It changes from year to year, but data shows that the survival rate for Chinook kept in the East Chicago Marina is lower than for fish kept in the Little Calumet River or Trail Creek. The main reason for the lower survival rate is that in East Chicago Chinook are stored directly in the harbor and not in a creek. In streams, fish have more food and are less vulnerable to predators.
While the East Chicago marina’s survival and angler utilization rates are lower than the Trail Creek and Little Calumet River locations, Dickinson said the DNR recognizes the marina’s value as Lake County’s only Chinook stocking site.
“It’s not just about maximizing survival, it’s also about maximizing opportunity for people in different fields,” he explained.
Warren wants the three storage locations to continue receiving equal amounts of fish.
“I hope everyone votes for the status quo,” Warren said. “We don’t want anything more than everyone else, we just want the same thing.”
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