New study sheds light on the decline of Lake Huron charter fishing

Changes in fishing success are often blamed on the drop in Lake Huron charter trips. Recent research reveals which fish species were most important and also suggests that fishing success was not the only reason for the decline.

Chinook Salmon can still be caught in Lake Huron but the fishery has shifted to Wallleye in some areas and a mix of salmon and trout species in others.
Chinook Salmon can still be caught in Lake Huron but the fishery has shifted to Wallleye in some areas and a mix of salmon and trout species in others.

The decline of Lake Huron’s charter fishery is well-documented. From 2002-2011, the number of trips taken from ports along Michigan’s sunrise side dropped by 51 percent. The loss of tourism was devastating for some lakeside communities.

In 2009, I was involved in a charter economics project that calculated a loss of 51,531 employment hours per year to Lake Huron coastal communities in Michigan. This loss was attributed directly to the drop in charter fishing, but why did fishing effort decline in the first place?

A research paper published in the May issue of Fisheries magazine seeks to provide an answer.  Collaborators from Michigan State University Extension, Michigan Sea Grant, Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Chonnam National University used long-term data sets to explore the reasons behind the fall of charter fishing efforts.

Factors such as the rise in gas prices, the economic recession, and trouble in the auto industry have been suggested as potential reasons for the decline in the charter industry. However, the collapse of an invasive baitfish (Alewife) and resulting changes in predatory gamefish usually take the blame. 

Our first step was to determine which species of gamefish (or combination of species) were most closely linked to charter fishing efforts. Charter efforts were closely linked to catch rates for Chinook and Coho Salmon combined and Salmon and Trout combined. However, the best predictor of charter efforts was Chinook Salmon alone.

Chinook Salmon rely heavily on Alewife and nearly disappeared from many areas of the lake when Alewife collapsed. Two other gamefish actually benefitted from the loss of Alewife. Natural reproduction of Lake Trout and Walleye increased when Alewife disappeared. 

Unfortunately, neither Lake Trout nor Walleye catch rate had a direct relationship to lake wide charter fishing efforts. Increasing Walleye catch rates actually corresponded to decreasing lake wide effort, which seems very strange when you consider that Walleye are one of the best-eating freshwater fish around. 

 One exception to this is that one area of Lake Huron (Saginaw Bay) actually experienced big increases in charter fishing while most of the lake suffered.  Saginaw Bay now offers charter anglers the highest Walleye catch rates in the state, but even this localized boom in Walleye charters was not enough to offset the loss of Chinook Salmon from a lakewide perspective.

The decline of Alewife and Chinook Salmon was not the only concern in the mid-2000s, though.  Unemployment rates were high, the auto industry was in crisis mode, and gas prices skyrocketed. The research team looked for the single best indicator of economic well-being to find out if the economy might share some of the blame for Lake Huron’s charter fishing decline.

Both unemployment rate and total non-farm employment statistics that were available from the U.S. Department of Labor showed a direct relationship to charter fishing decline. However, the price of gasoline was the single most important economic factor.

The next step was to determine if fishing success (as measured by Chinook Salmon catch rate) or economic conditions (as measured by gasoline price) acted alone or together to drive trends in Lake Huron’s charter fishery. The results strongly suggested that both fishing success and economic factors were important.

In fact, mathematical models that included both Chinook Salmon catch rate and gas prices had an 84.2 percent likelihood of being correct in the context of all models tested. Models that included Chinook Salmon catch rates without including gas price had a 14.5 percent likelihood of being correct, while models that only included gas prices had a 1.3 percent.

In short, the collapse of Chinook Salmon was the single most important factor in the decline of Lake Huron charter fishing, but it was not the only cause. Economic factors beyond the control of fishery managers and conservationists also played a part. 

The story of Lake Huron charter fishing is not all glum. Saginaw Bay offers world-class fishing for Walleye. Mixed bags of trout, salmon and walleye contribute to quality fishing in other parts of the lake. Northern Lake Huron still produces good catches of Chinook Salmon at times, and also offers unique species like Atlantic Salmon and Pink Salmon.

Lake Huron has had its ups and downs but, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the lake’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

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