History of Michigan's Fish Production Systems

Why do we have a DNR Fisheries Division? 


The loss of many fish populations by 1870 throughout North America lead to the establishment of many fisheries agencies including the Michigan Fish Commission in 1873, the predecessor to today's DNR Fisheries Division.  Replenishing lost and establishing new fish populations using fish production was one of their primary functions.

What caused the collapse of Michigan's early fisheries?

By 1870, fish populations in the Great Lakes and inland waters were rapidly disappearing because of habitat destruction, dam construction (blocking fish movement), over harvest and pollution. 

Photo1. Early logging practices (from 1860 to 1900) destroyed Michigan's streams during the transport of logs to the sawmills.


Photo 2. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, there was little in the way of regulations on or the enforcement of regulations concerning the taking of fish and game. This lead to the loss of many fish and game species and the collapse of many populations.

former fishing efforts

Photo 3. The lack of effective harvest regulations also caused the collapse of many Great Lakes fish populations. This is a picture of a commercial fishing boat from Lake Erie with a massive catch of lake herring in the year 1918. By 1926, lake herring stocks in Lake Erie completely collapsed.

Great Lakes fishery collapse

Why the focus on fish production in the early days?

Hatcheries were the only technique available to fisheries managers of that time to stem the loss of rapidly diminishing fish populations. Because of the lack of political will at that time, fisheries managers were unable to have any effect on the massive loss of aquatic habitat or in curbing the massive overfishing at the time.


How has the use of hatchery fish changed?


The use of hatchery fish was evolved over time.  During the period from 1873 to 1929 (the Johnny Fishseed Era), hatchery products focused on food fish species (about 92% of the number of fish produced were lake whitefish) or moving fish, usually non-native, around the landscape.  Immigrants wanted fish they were accustomed to in their native lands in their new lands.  This brought our waters common carp, rainbow trout, brown trout and brook trout (not native to most of the Lower Peninsula of Michigan) along with the spreading of largemouth and smallmouth bass and a host of other species to nearly possible water.  Lake whitefish and lake herring were stocked across the landscape to provide new food fisheries in waters they did not exist before.  The hatchery technology at the time could not produce many larger fish so most of the fish were stocked as fry which greatly limited their success.


By the start of the Great Depression, sportfishing was well established as a leisure time activity.  As a result, fish production moved away from food fish and focused on sportfish species including brown, rainbow and brook trout along with many warmwater species.  Most DNR (then known as the Michigan Conservation Department) fisheries work on the Great Lakes was abandoned as this fisheries was dominated by commercial fishing.  Hatchery technology had improved by this time to allow the production of larger fish and the time period from 1930-1949 is considered the Fingerling Era.


After World War II and until the mid-1960s, the amount of leisure time increased with improved economic conditions and the amount of our waters badly polluted had also greatly increased, reducing the ability of our waters to self-sustain themselves with fish.  Society wanted "instant" items and fisheries management increasing focused on instant returns to anglers and generally ignored the badly fouled Great Lakes as a resource.  The era of instant fisheries using expensive legal-sized trout had arrived along with the images of anglers chasing hatchery trucks and the stocking of very marginal, often abused, waters.  The production of cool and warmwater fish was essentially terminated as these fish took too much time to produce fisheries of interest.  Hatchery technology had greatly improved to allow the use of high density rearing and the development of balanced artificial diets that allowed the wide use of large legal-sized fish.


By the mid-1960s, it was realized that producing legal-sized fish was very expensive with a low return on investment and there was a need to move some of the greatly expanding fishing pressure to other waters, in particular the Great Lakes.  Additionally, the public at this time wanted action to eliminate pollution and the environmental movement took root.  With large improvements in water quality, development of effective sea lamprey control measures, and increasing interest by anglers in both trophy and wild fish brought the Modern Era of Fisheries Management, which continues today.  Fisheries managers now view hatchery fish as one tool along with science based harvest regulations and habitat protection and rehabilitation.   We now aim to produce fish that have a good return on investment which are affordable sub-legal sized coldwater (trout and salmon) and a range of sizes for coolwater fish, ranging from 2 inch spring fingerling walleye to 8-12 inch muskellunge.  Hatchery fish are now used to restore lost fish populations (i.e. lake sturgeon in the Ontonagon River); rehabilitate formerly depressed fish populations (i.e. walleye in Saginaw Bay from the 1980s to the early 2000s); provide for ecosystem balance (i.e. the stocking of Chinook and coho salmon to control alewives in the Great Lakes); and to provide diverse fishing opportunities (i.e. channel catfish, walleye and muskellunge stocking in many inland waters).

Currently approximately 40% of all recreational fishing in Michigan depends on stocked fish, including 70% of the Great Lakes trout and salmon fishery. Developing and maintaining hatchery facilities that can readily produce the fish needed for fishery management is handled by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources' Fisheries Division-Fish Production Section.

For more information on the history of hatchery fish uses see "A Historical Perspective on the Philosophy behind the Use of Propagated Fish in Fisheries Management: Michigan's 130-Year Experience." 

History of Michigan's State Fish Hatcheries
Michigan currently has six state fish hatcheries located in both the upper and lower peninsulas.

Harrietta State Fish Hatchery was established in 1901.

Marquette State Fish Hatchery was established in 1920.

Oden State Fish Hatchery in Alanson was established in 1921.

Thompson State Fish Hatchery in Manistique was established in 1922.

Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery in Mattawan was established in 1927.

Platte River State Fish Hatchery in Beulah was established in 1928.