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Safeguarding Michigan’s ever-changing fisheries

Twice a year, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) waives fishing license fees for a Free Fishing Weekend. The first this year took place in February, and the second is June 8 and 9, coinciding with the annual recognition of Great Lakes and Fresh Water Week.

A lake sturgeon survey on Black Lake in Cheboygan County comes up with a specimen. Courtesy of Michigan DNR.

A lake sturgeon survey on Black Lake in Cheboygan County comes up with a specimen. Courtesy of Michigan DNR. 


Residents and out-of-state visitors may enjoy fishing on both inland and Great Lakes waters for all species of fish. A Recreation Passport will not be required for entry into state parks and boating access sites during Free Fishing Weekends. All fishing regulations will still apply.

Until relatively recently, fisheries management in Michigan was nonexistent and unnecessary. Indigenous fishers enjoyed plentiful resources, and these resources sustained European settlers until the 1800s.  

But better fishing gear, logging, dam building, industry, and invasive species transformed the landscape and led to a quick decline of most fish species throughout the Great Lakes. With this decline came a need for fisheries management regulations to limit harvest and assess populations. 

A grass carp is caught on the St. Joseph River in Berrien County during an invasive carp exercise. Photo courtesy of the DNR.

A grass carp is caught on the St. Joseph River in Berrien County during an invasive carp exercise. Courtesy of the Michigan DNR.  


The Bureau of Commercial Fisheries provided early Great Lakes management, later supplanted by the states, with the Department of Conservation – now the DNR – taking the lead in Michigan.

With the establishment of the Institute of Fisheries Research in 1930, our state became the hub for research and fisheries management. Many of today’s issues relate to changes that started in the 1800s, and many of the concepts of fisheries management still in use were developed in Michigan starting in the 1930s.  

Today, research and hatchery facilities, dams, bridges, culverts, seawalls, and piers have deteriorated. Funding for infrastructure makes this a great time to upgrade facilities and remove or replace infrastructure in rivers and coastal areas to improve ecosystem function.  

Contamination that leads to fish consumption advisories is being cleaned up, and researchers are learning about contaminants like per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and what they might mean for fish consumption.  

More than 187 aquatic invasive species continue to be a huge issue through the Great Lakes region. Quagga and zebra mussels have completely disrupted the lower food web dynamics in lakes Michigan and Huron and may be contributing to harmful algal blooms in inland lakes and Lake Erie.  

Climate change is making smaller inland lakes and streams warmer and less desirable for coldwater species. Although the Great Lakes may not see a drastic change soon due to their size, connecting waters and wetlands may see significant warming, impacting various life stages of fish.  

Despite these issues, there have been significant improvements and accomplishments due to investments of staff and funds by the State of Michigan, other states, tribal nations, the federal government, and nonprofit organizations: 

  • Creation and maintenance of a multibillion-dollar sport fishery. 
  • Funding in the 2023 state budget to build a new research vessel to assess Lake Michigan. 
  • Over $30 million budgeted to address maintenance needs in Michigan’s six hatcheries. 
  • The recovery of walleye in Saginaw Bay, and world-class walleye fishery in Lake Erie. 
  • Lake trout populations self-sustaining in Lake Superior and rehabilitated in Lake Huron. 
  • Increasing lake sturgeon populations through protection and stocking.  
  • Removal of hundreds of dams, including the Niles Dam on the Dowagiac River that opened 150 miles of coldwater tributaries to the St. Joseph River and Lake Michigan.
  • Initial progress to halt the spread of legacy mining waste threatening fish spawning on Buffalo Reef in Lake Superior. 
  • Improved technology to assess fish and lower levels in the food web and to develop catch-at-age models such as age and length that inform fishery management.   

Challenges remain, of course, including invasive species arrivals such as the algae species didymo that is now showing up in Michigan streams. Millions of dollars have been invested to keep invasive species like invasive carp out of the Great Lakes. We need to close pathways to prevent them from getting here and encourage citizens to be diligent with disinfection to prevent their movement once here.  

While programs like the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) and the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law have provided significant investments to address many invasive species and habitat issues, some of this funding is short-lived and dedicated to specific problems.  

Ongoing fisheries management of Michigan’s four Great Lakes, 10,899 lakes of five acres or more, and 52,053 miles of streams are funded mostly through user fees like fishing licenses. A new funding structure is necessary to protect and manage our water and fishery resources for the enjoyment of all Michiganders.  

Adapted from an article by Jay Wesley, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, in the 2023 Michigan State of the Great Lakes Report.

A fish-tory of Great Lakes fisheries management

  • Pre-1600: Indigenous people sustainably use aquatic resources.  
  • 1600s: European settlers begin to explore the Great Lakes and find fish plentiful. 
  • 1800s: Overharvesting, logging, wetland fill, dam building, industry, and other human activity decrease fish habitat and connectivity, causing declines in many fish populations throughout the Great Lakes. 
  • 1825: Erie Canal connects the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Erie.  
  • 1829: Welland Canal allows ships to travel around Niagara Falls into the upper Great Lakes. 
  • 1873: State of Michigan builds its first fish hatchery in Pokagon to raise lake whitefish, Pacific salmon, and other species.  
  • 1905: Governments in region adopt commercial fish regulations with catch limits, gear restrictions, and seasons. 
  • 1920s: Six out of seven cisco fish species are wiped out from Lake Michigan. Sea lamprey migrate through the Erie Canal into Lake Erie.  
  • 1930: Michigan Department of Conservation establishes the Institute for Fisheries Research in Ann Arbor. Most modern concepts of fishery management are put into practice, including lake, stream, and creel surveys; fish population manipulation; regulation analyses; and habitat improvement. 
  • 1940s: Commercial fishing increases during World War II, but fishers catch less fish. Sea lamprey range expands throughout the Great Lakes, causing major fish mortality.  
  • 1950s: Populations of alewife from the Atlantic Ocean explode, and die offs occur along beaches. The chemical TFM is used in streams to combat sea lamprey. St. Lawrence Seaway allows international oceangoing vessels access to the Great Lakes.  
  • 1954: Convention on Great Lakes Fisheries establishes a U.S.-Canada effort to combat sea lamprey.  
  • 1965: Lake Committees begin exchanging data and ideas for Great Lakes fishery management.  
  • 1966: Michigan stocks coho and chinook salmon for a new recreational fishery and a predator for alewife after the collapse of lake trout.
  • 1970s: Salmon and trout recreational fishery supports development of marinas and tourism at formerly all-industrialized ports.  
  • 1981: Joint Strategic Plan for Management of Great Lakes Fisheries provides shared management goals.  
  • 1987: Lake Michigan Task Force addresses salmon fishing declines – a first step in citizen engagement and the first sign of over-predation of salmon on alewife.  
  • 1990s: Alewife populations continue to decline, with lower productivity in the lakes and high population of salmon. Lakes receive more invasive species, including spiny water flea and zebra mussels. Salmon stocking is reduced, and commercial harvest lake whitefish stabilizes, contributing to 105 million pounds of Great Lakes catch.
  • 2000s: More than 180 aquatic invasive species in the Great Lakes impact food chains and create challenge to ecosystem stability. The GLRI provides needed funding to address legacy contaminated sites, invasive species, and habitat improvement.  

Historical timeline information is adapted from “Review of Salmon and Trout Management in Lake Michigan,” Michigan Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Special Report 14. M. Keller, K.D. Smith, and R.W. Rybicki, 1990; “The Early History of Fisheries Management in Michigan,” W.C. Latta, 2006; and “The Life of the Lakes: A Guide to Great Lakes Fishery,” Michigan Sea Grant, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, B.C. Schroeder, D.M. O’Keefe, and S.L. Dann, 2019.