CADILLAC — As a fishery biologist for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources you could say Mark Tonello's job can be a little fishy.
So when Tonello sees pictures of people holding monstrous salmon like the one Larry Raney caught on Monday — It brings a smile to his face. For those who haven't seen the picture, Raney is holding a giant-sized chinook that was estimated to weigh 40 pounds after he battled to land the salmon while float fishing on the Big Manistee River. The fish also measured in at 3.5 feet long.
Reports of larger fish being caught have been part of the conversation of the fall salmon run in 2019 and Tonello said the increased fish size is due to better balance between predator and prey. To achieve that balance, however, Tonello said it took hard work and sacrifice that was shared by many.
Tonello said since the late 1980s, the amount of alewives in the Great Lakes has been shrinking. In Lake Michigan, alewives hit record lows between 2013-15. As a result, Tonello said there was real concern about chinook's forage base — i.e. alewives — crashing. He said the DNR didn't want to repeat what happened in Lake Huron. During the early 2000s, the alewives population crashed, which led to the chinook fisheries also crashing.
Tonello said a chinook can be caught on the lake but it is very rare.
"The reason there are fewer alewives is there is less food for them to eat. The zebra mussels were the reason initially and then the quagga mussels came. They outperform the zebra mussels," he said. "(The mussels) filter the same plankton the alewives eat."
Tonello said the DNR didn't want a similar thing to happen in Lake Michigan. The DNR opted to cut back stocking chinooks in Lake Michigan to try and boost the alewives population. Before the cutback, Tonello said the DNR was stocking 7 million of the non-native fish into Lake Michigan annually. In recent years, that number was closer to 2 million.
"The reason you are seeing bigger salmon is our chinook cuts were successful. We are at the point now where there are more alewives around (in Lake Michigan) and we may increase the chinook stocking modestly," he said. "We are not on the brink of collapse like we were a few years ago."
He said the hope is for a huge year of reproduction for alewives but so far that hasn't happened.
The success took the collaboration and cooperation of many agencies from around Michigan, surrounding states and the public, Tonello said. Because of the understanding and cooperation from all those people and entities, Tonello said Lake Michigan still has chinook fisheries.
"Quite frankly, the fact we have a chinook fishery and Larry (Raney) caught that monster is one of the things I'm most proud of. If we hadn't (cut stocking numbers) we would have wiped it out," Tonello said. "That was a huge group effort."
While numbers of alewives are not anywhere close to 1980s levels, the salmon fisheries on Lake Michigan have turned the proverbial corner, according to Tonello. If, however, alewives have a bad reproduction year or some other factors impact their numbers, the chinook fisheries in Lake Michigan could potentially crash.
"We don't feel it as much up here but downstate they don't get natural reproduction as we get. The chinook fisheries (downstate) is not good, but they also understand why we did what we did."