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In an 'unprecedented' move, DNR cancels sturgeon season

After taking its measurements, MDNR employees inspect a sturgeon for any fisheries tags or microchips Feb. 4 on Black Lake during the limited season.
Teresa Homsi
After taking its measurements, MDNR employees inspect a sturgeon for any fisheries tags or microchips Feb. 4, 2023 on Black Lake during the limited season.

WCMU reported earlier this week the sturgeon season in Cheboygan County could not be canceled due to low ice cover, and officials were warning anglers to go out on Black Lake at their own risk.

That all changed this morning, when the Michigan Department of Natural Resources announced it was calling off the season, which was originally scheduled for tomorrow, Feb. 3.

David Nicholas spoke with WCMU's environmental reporter Teresa Homsi about the last-minute decision.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

David Nicholas: Teresa, you've been following ice cover pretty closely. What led up to this, and what did the DNR tell you last week?

Teresa Homsi: Ice cover has been low across the board.We've been following how the Great Lakes ice coverage is below the historical average, and I also cover sturgeon a bit, so I was curious what ice fishing would look like this year.

In mid-January, the National Weather Service told me, there was still time for ice to develop. Sure enough, it did when temperatures dropped, but then we had several consecutive days in Cheboygan above freezing, and everything started melting.

Last week, Sturgeon For Tomorrow, a local non-profit that hosts the annual shivaree on Black Lake, canceled its fishing contest. The Cheboygan County Sheriff also put out a statement warning anglers about the risk, ahead of the season.

So, I called up Tim Cwalinski, a fisheries manager with the DNR, to see if there was any chance the season would be canceled. He told me on Jan. 26 that was just not something the DNR did because the season is in the books.

He likened it to the firearm deer hunting season, which starts on Nov. 15. It wouldn't be canceled or delayed if there were thunderstorms.

Just as its the prerogative of hunters to not go out if the weather's bad, he said that's the same with anglers and ice, and that's what we reported earlier this week.

DN: Given what was said previously about not canceling the season, what changed?

TH: When I spoke with Cwalinski this morning, I asked him that same question, 'I thought a season couldn't be canceled.' And here's what he had to say:

"We didn't think it could be. [It's] unprecedented," Cwalinski said.

He said the DNR essentially scrambled to make this emergency order. Cwalinski said orders are typically made in advance while developing the regulation book, like adjusting lake trout regulations in Lake Huron, year-to-year.

"By Tuesday, when the chief called me and asked me for the conditions, I said 'they're horrible, this season will be more of a life-saving operation than a sturgeon-quota management operation,'" Cwalinski said. "48 hours later, this is where we're at."

With the low ice cover, Cwalinski said they didn't feel like they could safely and adequately prevent over-harvesting, above the six fish limit.

"In order to do that, we have to have our own personnel on the ice," Cwalinski said. "We're not going to put our own people at risk over a few fish to be harvested."

In the announcement, the DNR said they're not sure how canceling this season will affect next year's quota.

Black Lake is quiet ten minutes before the limited sturgeon season begins Feb. 4 in Cheboygan County.
Teresa Homsi
Black Lake is quiet ten minutes before the limited sturgeon season begins Feb. 4, 2023 in Cheboygan County.

DN: What does the sturgeon season typically look like, for those who may not be familiar with it?

TH: The sturgeon season is famously known as the "shortest fishing season" in Michigan.

It typically starts at 8 a.m. on a Saturday in early February, and ends when the sixth fish is harvested. It's also written in the rules that it ends when five fish have been harvested at the end of any fishing day (8 a.m. to 2 p.m.), and the last day this year was scheduled for Wednesday, Feb. 7.

But two years ago, the six fish were caught within 36 minutes of that 8 a.m start time. Last year, when I covered it, the 2023 season took an hour and five minutes.

When I was out there last year, you had DNR staff on the lake zipping around on snowmobiles. They were supervising the harvest and 630 registered anglers.

There was this instant messaging system in place, so when a fish is caught, it alerts the DNR and all the other anglers.

Given that it's a very small, six-fish quota, and it's a sensitive species — lake sturgeon are threatened in Michigan — it requires a lot of management to prevent overfishing.

Jay Woiderski, the president of Sturgeon for Tomorrow, said safety was obviously a concern this year. But if overharvesting were to happen, he said, that would jeopardize the sturgeon population and the ability to have a sturgeon season.

"I can't imagine what would happen if this went before the endangered species people, and they realized, 'look, you guys put on a season, you harvested ten fish over your limit, you can't control your season,'" Woiderski said. "That would be a great harm for us, looking to keep sturgeon off [the endangered species] list."

Michigan Department of Natural Resources

In his 50 years of ice fishing in Cheboygan, Woiderski said he's never seen such poor ice conditions this time of year.

He said some parts of Black Lake are open water while others sections have "honeycomb" ice, that's anywhere between 1-6 inches. Typically, he expects to see 8-14 inches on the inland lake at the time of the season.

"It is absolutely unsafe," Woiderski said. "I know that a couple of people have fallen through, walking out already. It's just not fit to be out there."

DN: So what now? Will the season be rescheduled?

TH: Cwalinski said no — we'll just have to wait until next year and hope the same thing doesn't happen again.

Five tribes are also allocated a quota of seven fish, which are managed separately and take place later in the year. The tribal season is not affected by today's decision.

Despite the cancellation, the party in Cheboygan is still on and happening as we speak. It will go into the night, and there will be more festivities tomorrow.

Woiderski said the cancellation won't put a big damper on the celebration of the iconic "dinosaur fish."

"I think the only thing holding me from being there is my conversation with you," he said this morning, laughing over the phone.

Teresa Homsi is an environmental reporter and Report for America Corps Member based in northern Michigan for WCMU. She covers rural environmental issues, focused on contamination, conservation, and climate change.
David Nicholas is WCMU's local host of All Things Considered.
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