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Measuring Tournament Fishing's Impact on Our Walleye Populations

July 5, 2007

Big water, big fish, big prizes, big names and big business. Modern walleye fishing tournaments have become the NASCAR of the fishing world.

But do they also have a big impact on our walleye populations?

The "live-release" tournament format developed by organizers over the past several years requires contestants to use a properly aerated live well and make every effort to keep the walleyes alive for release after the weigh-in. A weight deduction is taken for any fish that is unable to swim upright in the official bump tank.

But do these efforts really work? How many of these fish really survive once released?

This is the topic of a multistate research project being conducted in cooperation with FLW Outdoors, one of the premier walleye tournament organizers in North America. The impact study is being conducted by graduate students at the University of Minnesota and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources is one of five state partners.

According to Dave Fielder, DNR fisheries research biologist at the Alpena Great Lakes Fisheries Research Station who is Michigan's liaison on the project, the researchers visited several FLW Outdoors walleye tournament sites in Michigan last year and have been going out again this year to gather more data.

"The researchers collect 'reference fish' in advance by electrofishing which temporarily stuns the fish allowing for their capture without the stress of hook and line techniques," Fielder said. "These fish are marked and then put in floating net pens right alongside some of the tournament-caught fish."

The primary goal of the impact study, he said, is to compare survival between the control fish and the caught fish after five days.

Fielder said other elements of the research project include a laboratory analysis to determine indicators of how successful the release of a fish will be, and a study designed to assess the attitudes of the greater angling community on its views of competitive fishing on public waters.

"The inclusion of the angler attitudes portion of the study is to provide a complete look at the issue of tournament impacts," Fielder said, "so it is not just limited to the biological implications if any."

In Michigan, the project researchers gathered data from four walleye tournaments, including one in the Michigan waters of Green Bay out of Menominee, one in the Bays de Noc out of Escanaba, one in the Detroit River out of Trenton, and the last one, which will be July 11-14 at the Bays de Noc out of Escanaba.

Similar tournaments have been monitored in other participating states including Minnesota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Iowa and North Dakota. Funding for the study comes from the participating states and FLW Outdoors.

"The power of this study is the large sample size; that is the geographic coverage and large number of tournaments being monitored to determine the range of response," Fielder said.

As many as 24 walleye tournament events are expected to contribute data to the analysis.

Although not complete, Fielder said results thus far indicate that survival of released tournament fish depends on a variety of factors including how warm the water is and how rough the water was during the fishing day.

But other factors, he said, also may include the distance traveled to get back to the weigh-in and the conditions in the boat's live well.

"Some tournaments experienced a very high survival of the angler-caught fish while nearly all fish in other tournaments didn't survive," Fielder said. "In most tournaments, an intermediate loss of about 30% was common."

When the impact study is completed, each state will decide how best to apply the information to its own situation.

Lake Huron Basin Coordinator Tammy Newcomb, who along with Fielder initiated Michigan's participation in the project, said some states may opt to develop policies and regulations concerning live-release walleye tournaments and others may use the information to develop educational materials for tournament organizers and contestants.

"Here in Michigan, our current understanding is that most anglers don't have a big problem with tournament fishing if they can be assured the fish aren't being killed," Newcomb said.

However, some tournament sites, such as Saginaw Bay, which hosted a FLW Outdoors fishing event June 30 but was not part of the study, may continue to be held as catch-and-keep tournaments because the water in the bay is usually too warm and shallow for good live release, she said.

"In each case," Newcomb added, "the goal will be to find ways to accommodate competitive fishing opportunities and yet ensure protective measures for the fish population."

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