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Michigan's lake whitefish populations are declining "worse than projected"

Elizabeth LaPorte
Michigan Sea Grant archives / Creative Commons

Michigan's lake whitefish population is declining faster than experts anticipated.

"It is shocking to me how low it has gone," said Randy Claramunt, Lake Huron basin coordinator for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Division based at the Oden State Fish Hatchery. "The problems, especially in terms of recruitment of lake whitefish, have been so severe."

The lake whitefish population has been projected to decline for years and the state is coming off its lowest lake whitefish harvest on record in 2021.

Claramunt says the decline can be attributed to the zebra quagga mussel, an invasive species that's impacting the fishes' food systems.

"They completely rerouted the nutrient pathways and shifted the way that these ecosystems function," said Claramunt. "And when mussels came in, they re-routed nutrients to areas that gave some species an advantage."

The pace of this ecosystem's breakdown has gone at a pace the Michigan DNR did not see coming while monitoring the population. According to Claramunt, the speed is too quick to apply management strategies.

“The muscles literally changed the food web dynamics and the way the energy flows through the system, and that's a much more difficult problem to address," Claramunt said on a phone call with WCMU. "And we just don't have a lot of same approaches, traditional approaches, that would even be effective.”

The decline of the lake whitefish population has the greatest impact on the commercial fishing industry.

According to the state, 85% of the fish caught by commercial fisheries are Lake Whitefish and primarily come from Saginaw Bay and Lake Erie.

Over the past five years, there has bee a steady decline in the number of commercial fishermen due to the lack of lake whitefish and it's no incentivizing.

"It sounds like a lot of operations are just not even putting the effort in the lake," said Claramunt. "It's not financially feasible with gas prices."

Claramunt says it’s unclear how the decline will impact Lake Whitefish market prices and its supply in stores.

“But the changes have happened so fast that it's very hard to both predict but also fully comprehend how they're going to play out in terms of markets," said Claramunt.

Lake Superior's lake whitefish population is in much better shape than Lake Huron's, Claramunt added, and if you picked up whitefish at the market recently, it is likely from Lake Superior.

Editor's note: in the interest of transparency, we note the Michigan DNR is a financial supporter of WCMU

Rick Brewer has been news director at WCMU since February 2024.