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DNR trying to boost dwindling perch numbers in Saginaw Bay

A yellow perch from Saginaw Bay is shown in a Michigan DNR survey net.
Courtesy Photo
Michigan Department of Natural Resources
A yellow perch from Saginaw Bay is shown in a Michigan Department of Natural Resources survey net.

Lakon Williams remembers her Bay Port Fish Company booming. People used to come to the Thumb community on Saginaw Bay from all over Michigan for different fish species, one of them being native yellow perch.

But a couple of decades ago, everything changed.

Williams stopped fishing in Saginaw Bay altogether, staying in business only thanks to her success out in Lake Huron. The reason was a rapid decline of yellow perch, a species popular in commercial fishing.

“We noticed in the late '90s, something was changing out there,” she said. “And then in the early 2000s, the perch was just ‘poof’ and gone. And all we were left with was walleye.”

Department of Natural Resources fisheries manager Jeffrey Jolley said the walleye is a predator fish that feeds on yellow perch. So, the walleye's increase led to the perch’s decline.

“The adults (of yellow perch) are not abundant,” he said. “But the ones that are the adults ... they’re producing many offspring, and we see that in our data. The problem is those little offspring are just hardly surviving the army of walleye that are eating them.

"And so, there’s still some good fishing that we had, but it was not at all like the days people remember many years ago.”

The Michigan DNR is trying to boost the population of Saginaw Bay yellow perch, which are being eaten in large numbers by walleye such as the one pictured here.
Courtesy Photo
Michigan Department of Natural Resources
The Michigan DNR is trying to boost the population of Saginaw Bay yellow perch, which are being eaten in large numbers by walleye such as the one pictured here.

Jolley said there is no research that shows how many yellow perch are in Saginaw Bay, but there are about 10 million walleye.

DNR fisheries research biologist David Fielder said 100,000 yellow perch have been caught in Saginaw Bay so far this year. But he also said the mortality rate of yellow perch from predation by other fish ranges each year from 85% to 99%.

“We believe that they are heavily predated by the (walleye) population,” he said. “So, if you're going to have a problem, it's better to have that problem, as opposed to them not reproducing.”

However, Williams said that isn’t a good sign.

“They reach age 2 because there’s no competition from other yellow perch, because they’ve all been eaten,” she said. “That’s not good. That’s a bad thing. If the growth rate is fast, that means the species is hardly surviving.”

In 1970, the Michigan DNR prohibited the commercial fishing of walleye. Williams said she has been asking DNR to reverse that decision for a few decades now.

“Trade us species; take yellow perch away and give us something that’s abundant,” she said. “We want to focus on what needs to be fished out of the water.”

Now Williams is buying perch from Canada, but she said many of her customers ask why she doesn’t have any fresh local perch and walleye.

“It’s all messed up right now,” she said. “It's been messed up ... this is nothing new for us. We've known this for decades. And nobody is listening.

“We made our business go from a successful fishery to a struggling fishery.”

For his part, Jolley said the abundance of walleye is a success story, and he noted that recreational walleye fishing is still allowed.

“Walleye population brings tremendous excitement, brings tremendous value,” he said. “It brings attention to the area. People are attracted over here to fish.”

However, he acknowledges that fishing yellow perch is also important for the community because, among other reasons, it has often been the first type of fish that children catch because it has been relatively easy to catch.

To stabilize the populations of both perch and walleye, DNR has been working on several efforts throughout the years.

Jolley said the DNR increased the recreational fishing limits of walleye from five fish to eight fish per day and reduced the daily perch limit from 50 to 25.

But Fielder said that change didn’t improve the yellow perch's survival rate, while the walleye population continued to grow.

That’s why in 2018, Jolley said, the DNR launched a 10-year cisco reintroduction project. Cisco is a lake herring that walleyes also prey on. The DNR is now in the middle of that project.

“We're probably going to stay where we're at with yellow perch,” Jolley said. “So, I don’t want to give the false hope ... I think the best hope for me is (that) the walleye population stabilizes, because it's still kind of been growing.”

Jolley hopes the cisco project will take some pressure off of the yellow perch and help it see some recovery.

Meanwhile, Williams isn’t that optimistic.

“I have a real big problem with that,” she said. “Because (there is) no way this biological reasoning makes sense. You’re putting 1 million small fish to assist them with 10 million huge predators ... Those (cisco) fish are an appetite meal; they're a snack. And that's what's disappointing ... They're throwing a band-aid at a bomb situation.

“And as a commercial fishery, I am tired of that. I am tired of (the DNR) saying they can't do anything, when frankly, to be honest, they're the only ones that can.”

Fielder said he hopes the cisco reintroduction will have the desired effect and that yellow perch will have conditions that will help its population to survive.

“What’s the hardest part in our profession is when we don't have any immediate answers to turn things around,” he said. “But I've been at this long enough to know that these situations never are permanent, and things will change again. These are very dynamic systems, and so I'm optimistic we will see a strong perch (population) someday again.”

Editor's note: The Michigan Department of Natural Resources is a sponsor of WCMU. We report on them as we do with any other organization.

Masha Smahliuk is a newsroom intern for WCMU based at the Midland Daily News.
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