Surveys shed light on steelhead harvest limit preference

Survey results suggest that catch-and-release anglers are in favor of a one-fish limit while those who keep their catch prefer a higher limit, but the biological impact of a harvest reduction is somewhat unclear.

On Dec. 9, 2021, the Natural Resources Commission voted in favor of an amendment to Fisheries Order 200.22. that will reduce the daily harvest limit for steelhead on certain rivers during the spring spawning season from three fish to one fish per day. In a November presentation to the NRC, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources gave an overview of steelhead research and concluded that we do not have definitive evidence that a harvest limit is necessary to protect steelhead populations at this time. Proponents of the reduced limit still see it as a measure that can be taken immediately to help the fishery in the face of increased fishing pressure and the lack of steelhead stocking in 2021.

Michigan Sea Grant does not advocate for or against specific regulation changes, but we do seek to better understand and communicate how and why anglers support or oppose management decisions. Although the specifics of this amendment were not addressed in any survey, I did conduct surveys related to steelhead harvest limit preferences and submitted the following comment to the NRC based on results:

“Michigan Sea Grant and MSU Extension conducted two surveys related to steelhead limits in 2021. One was a survey of inland fishing guides identified through an internet search for Michigan fishing guides. The other survey was sent to users of the Great Lakes Angler Diary reporting system. The Great Lakes Angler Diary program has been recruiting river steelhead anglers to report data on clipped and unclipped steelhead since October 2020 and also includes Great Lakes salmon and trout anglers.

Both surveys asked about preferred steelhead limits on Great Lakes waters, most Michigan streams, and home waters. Both the inland guide survey and the angler diary survey found that a one-fish limit was the most popular option overall, but that does not tell the whole story.

Surveys also asked about personal approaches to steelhead harvest. We found that Great Lakes Angler Diary users who described themselves as “catch-and-release only” preferred a one-fish limit, on average. Users who “mostly catch and release, but harvest a few” preferred a two-fish limit. Users who preferred to “keep most steelhead, but release a few” preferred a three-fish limit. Those who “keep all steelhead that are legal to harvest” preferred a three-fish limit on Great Lakes and home waters and a two-fish limit on most Michigan streams.

GLAD survey
Survey results from Michigan Sea Grant show that harvest limit preferences are closely linked to personal approaches to steelhead harvest.

In short, personal approaches to steelhead harvest or catch-and-release had a huge influence on preferred harvest limits for Great Lakes Angler Diary users. We found the same general trend among Michigan steelhead guides, although only a single guide preferred to keep most steelhead and no guides who took our survey preferred to “keep all steelhead that are legal to harvest.”

When interpreting data from these surveys, it is important to note the strengths and limitations of survey methods. The Great Lakes Angler Diary survey, in particular, was designed to collect a variety of social science data from diary users but was never intended to provide a representative sample of all Michigan steelhead anglers.

On the contrary, participation in the diary program is voluntary and we know that the survey included more anglers from upstream areas of the Manistee, Muskegon, Pere Marquette, and Grand rivers than downstream areas. We also expect that anglers in these upstream areas are more likely to prefer catch-and-release, which has a demonstrable effect on harvest limit preferences.

From a decision-making standpoint these surveys were not intended to provide a referendum on steelhead harvest policy. They were intended to provide social science data that can be interpreted in concert with biological and social science data from other sources to inform decisions.

The Natural Resources Commission (NRC) is tasked with management of natural resources based on sound science. Although this does not preclude the use of social science, the overwhelming support for Proposal G in 1996 demonstrated that Michigan voters expect NRC to avoid imposing one group’s idea of ethical hunting or fishing practices on another. Harvest restrictions should be based, first and foremost, on the need to sustain populations of fish and game.

In the case of steelhead limits, we do not have clear-cut answers regarding the impact of a reduced limit on long-term population trends. A 2005 dissertation from the University of Michigan suggested that a one-fish limit would reduce harvest more effectively than a two-fish harvest, but the Great Lakes and its tributaries have changed dramatically since that time and the projected 25% reduction in river harvest may not hold today. Even if it does hold true, a 25% harvest reduction may not be biologically necessary to sustain steelhead populations.

If the biological need is not clearly demonstrated at this time, then what does the social science tell us?

Anglers who practice catch-and-release are generally in favor of a one-fish limit, while those who prefer to keep most or all steelhead are not. If the biological need was more clearly indicated by the current science, then perhaps we would see more support from those who prefer to keep fish.

To be clear, I am neither advocating for nor against the proposed amendment to FO 200.22. My comment is intended to put survey data into the proper context. The Great Lakes Angler Diary program is still underway and the intent is to survey users at the end of each steelhead season for several years. The survey results mentioned here were the result of the first step in a multi-year program of education, engagement, and data collection on stocked and wild fish. We have been working closely with DNR to communicate regularly with steelhead anglers and expected the development of harvest limit proposals (if any) to go through a process of review and comment in a variety of public forums including DNR citizen’s advisory committees, Sea Grant workshops, and Zoom meetings with Great Lakes Angler Diary users.”

When the amendment was adopted on December 9, a sunset clause was added. The amendment will expire after a five-year trial period, during which the NRC will work with DNR and other organizations to understand the impacts of the reduced limit and explore options for future regulations. By participating in the Michigan River Steelhead Project, anglers can keep on top of developments and submit data through Great Lakes Angler Diary and annual electronic surveys.

Michigan Sea Grant helps to foster economic growth and protect Michigan’s coastal, Great Lakes resources through education, research and outreach. A collaborative effort of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University and its MSU Extension, Michigan Sea Grant is part of the NOAA-National Sea Grant network of 34 university-based programs.

This survey report was prepared by Michigan Sea Grant Extension Educator Daniel O’Keefe under award NA180AR4170102 and SUBK00013473 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce through the Regents of the University of Michigan. The statement, findings, conclusions, and recommendations are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of Commerce, or the Regents of the University of Michigan.

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