Fishing for answers: Here's how you can help Great Lakes fisheries

Michigan Sea Grant is offering anglers a variety of ways to contribute information to scientists in 2017.

This Chinook salmon “jack” caught near Grand Haven had all of its fins, so anglers can easily determine that it was born in the wild.
This Chinook salmon “jack” caught near Grand Haven had all of its fins, so anglers can easily determine that it was born in the wild.

Anyone who fishes the Great Lakes regularly can tell you that the only constant is change. Fish are here today and gone tomorrow. Being successful requires adaptability, patience, and the ability to anticipate how fish will react to changes in their environment.

To make things even more complicated, a long list of non-native species has invaded the lakes. Quagga mussels filter the water, leaving open water clear and sterile while fouling the bottom of the lakes with their waste. Round gobies eat the quagga mussels and are, in turn, eaten by predatory fish. Spiny water fleas kill and consume native plankton, but are also eaten by some plankton-eating fish.

Scientists are working hard to understand how economically valuable salmon, trout, walleye, and other species are adapting to these conditions and anglers can also pitch in to do their part. Michigan Sea Grant and partner groups including Wisconsin Sea Grant and Michigan State University Extension are offering a variety of citizen science programs that anglers can contribute to during the 2017 fishing season.

The Great Lakes Angler Diary App

The Great Lakes Angler Diary is a web-based app that can be accessed from any computer or mobile device at The app can be used to record information from fishing trips and share that information with Michigan Sea Grant. You can participate by taking the following steps.

  • Sign-up for the program by e-mailing
  • Receive a unique Volunteer Number via e-mail.
  • Register online at using your Volunteer Number.
  • Record as much, or as little, information as you would like during the fishing season.
  • Answer a short survey at the end of the year.

The survey will be used to help scientists determine how your information will be used. The more information you record, the more useful your data set will be. The app allows you to record data on all salmon and trout species, cisco, walleye, musky, and lake sturgeon.

Salmon Ambassadors: Where are the wild salmon?

Since 2013, volunteers have been measuring Chinook salmon and checking for adipose fin clips that indicate stocked fish. These Salmon Ambassadors have committed to collecting data on each and every Chinook salmon caught from their boat during the fishing season. Data sheets for pen-and-paper recording, along with full instructions, are available at

To date, more than 8,000 Chinook salmon have been logged by Salmon Ambassadors around Lake Michigan and in northern Lake Huron. Data on angler satisfaction and the prevalence of wild and stocked salmon are shared with partner groups including U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Departments of Natural Resources in Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana. In 2017, anglers will be able to use the Great Lakes Angler Diary to enter all of the data required on Chinook salmon for the Salmon Ambassadors program.

Huron-Michigan Diet Study: What are fish eating?

With all of the changes due to invasive species, predatory are changing their feeding habits. Following the success of a similar project in Lake Huron in 2009-2011, this project enlists anglers to contribute stomachs from all types of predatory fish in Lake Huron and Lake Michigan.

Many stomachs will be collected by technicians working for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service or state agencies, but anglers are also able to collect stomachs on their own. This is particularly important because technicians typically focus on collection of fish at tournaments and peak seasons for each port. If you fish early or late in the year, late at night, or in places that are away from the crowds your contribution may be especially useful.

To avoid bias, it is important to collect stomachs from all fish caught during the trip. Even empty stomachs are very important because a high percentage of empty stomachs means that fish are having trouble finding food. If you decide not to collect fish stomachs after a trip that is fine, but if you collect one stomach you should collect all of them by doing the following.

  • Cut the esophagus and cut the intestine to remove stomach.
  • Place stomach and all contents into plastic freezer bag.
  • Write all required data on a data tag.
  • Place the tag into the bag with the corresponding stomach.
  • Seal the bag carefully to prevent spilling.
  • Place the bag in one of the freezers located at access sites in Michigan and Wisconsin.

Lists of freezer locations are available from Michigan DNR and Wisconsin DNR, and volunteers from Michigan Steelheaders will be maintaining stomach collection supplies at many Michigan ports. Other partner groups include Michigan State University and U.S. Geological Survey.

Fish Finders: Where’s the bait?

Long-term monitoring of baitfish in Lake Michigan has shown dramatic declines in overall availability of baitfish in open water. The decline of alewife has been particularly important to the salmon fishery because Chinook salmon rely almost entirely on alewife for food. Anglers who fish for salmon are very good at finding alewife. Find the alewife and you find the salmon.

Biologists with U.S. Geological Survey and other agencies monitor baitfish using trawls and very sophisticated hydroacoustic “fish finders.” Anglers can now submit bait ball images from their own fish finders by e-mailing them to or recording them using the Great Lakes Angler Diary app. Just be sure to include the following on your screen display in each bait ball image.

  • Date
  • Time
  • Depth
  • Latitude and longitude

Fish finder sensitivity should be set so that you are certain marks do not represent clouds of plankton or suspended debris. Images should clearly depict large schools of bait fish, as opposed to images of scattered bait or individual large fish. These images may be useful in helping biologists determine where and when alewife and other baitfish are most abundant.

Support for citizen science on the Great Lakes

In addition to all of the agency and fishing organizations mentioned above, two additional groups have been tremendously supportive of citizen science. Programming for the Great Lakes Angler Diary app was funded exclusively by Detroit Area Steelheaders donations and in-kind support from Brenton Consulting, LLC. Citizen science would not be possible without the contributions of anglers at every step of the way.

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 33 university-based programs.

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