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Recovery of Lake Erie Walleye a Success Story

June 8, 2006

Lake Erie is often the most maligned of the Great Lakes. Pollution problems have plagued the lake, which hosts several industrial centers on its shores. And the walleye fishery on the lake has gone bust and boom as well.

Man standing in a boat holding up two walleye.Walleye fishing on Lake Erie was booming in the late 1980s, but then began a bust period in the 1990s that extended into the early part of this decade. This prompted fishery managers from Michigan, Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania and Ontario to respond to the alarming decline in the abundance of walleye. The agencies ordered a reduced harvest in 2004 by over 30 percent in each jurisdiction.

Michigan is only responsible for 112 square miles of the 9,903 square miles of Lake Erie, but it is the western basin that Michigan is a part of that is considered the hot spot for walleye, along with the central basin.

Lake Erie and her fisheries have a long history of boom and bust. Industrialization of Lake Erie's shoreline in the early 20th century was clearly contaminating the waters. However, the declining environmental conditions didn't dissuade a growing commercial fishery for walleye into the 1950s. But by 1956, the increasing threat of over harvest and habitat destruction had reached its peak and in the early 1960s the bottom fell out of the commercial fishery. By 1970, fishery closures were common due to mercury contamination in walleye. The lake was considered dead by many who had relied on its abundance for years.

Several key events, though, were about to combine to help the lake recover. In 1975, the Lake Erie Committee (LEC), a bi-national committee of senior fisheries managers from each bordering state and Ontario, started working together to manage the lake's fisheries. Also, in the early 1970s, growing public awareness and concern in the United States for controlling water pollution would lead to the Clean Water Act of 1977. The Clean Water Act established basic structure for regulating the discharge of pollutants into the waters of the US, including the Great Lakes.

By the mid- to late-1970s, there were reports of not only cleaner water, but healthier fish. As the walleye population grew, so did the angler activity. By 1988, the sport catch was approaching the historical highs observed in the days of peak commercial fishing. Control of the fishing effort and harvest rates through the LEC wasn't working for a variety of social and political factors. Increased fishing efforts, sporadic hatching success, dwindling spawning stocks and newly discovered environmental and biological threats began to take their toll on the walleye population.

A walleye population that once was boasted at 70 million fish in the late 1980s was estimated to be only 16 million by 2000. In other words, where there used to be 7,000 fish per square mile, there were only 1,700.

As the final blow, in 2002, a complete year-class failure occurred during the hatching process. The failure ignited a debate between the bordering states and Ontario about whether or not harvest reductions were needed. Harvest reductions were agreed upon in 2003. In Michigan, the daily bag limit for walleye on Lake Erie was reduced from six to five fish, and the minimum size limit was increased from 13 inches to 15 inches. Also, the season was closed in April and May.

The 2003 year-class of walleye in Lake Erie hatched like gangbusters, mostly due to favorable weather conditions. Fishery managers called it the strongest hatch in 20 years. Survival of the new fish also was high due to the fact that there was a reduced population in the lake.

"The walleye spawning in 2003 was the best walleye year class in more than 20 years, and is primarily responsible for the improving strength of the walleye stocks in Lake Erie," said Kurt Newman, Lake Erie basin coordinator for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. "The bulk of these fish have matured to a harvestable age this year, and walleye fishing in the Michigan waters of Lake Erie should be outstanding."

While the bag limit reduction of five fish and the minimum size limit remains at 15 inches, the April and May closure were lifted for the 2006 fishing season. Michigan anglers have enjoyed some outstanding spring fishing in Lake Erie waters, Newman said.

"Walleye populations can fluctuate wildly from year to year epending upon weather conditions and other variables. The LEC decided we could safely increase harvest levels in 2006 because of the spawning that occurred three seasons ago," Newman said. "Below average year classes in 2004 and 2005 will require continued monitoring to ensure the sustainability of this world class fishery beyond the time when the 2003 year class is no longer available. But, for the foreseeable future, walleye fishing is likely to stay quite good."

Whether trolling with worm harnesses or fishing with downriggers sporting night spoons, walleye anglers are enjoying a good year on Lake Erie this year.

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