Walleye stocking this year up in air as motorized boat ban lifts

In pre-COVID-19 times, Mark Tonello, a fisheries biologist, poses with a 28.5-inch walleye found in a fish survey of Lake Missaukee on Tuesday, May 15, 2018.

CADILLAC — The temporary ban on motorized boats and broader "Stay Home" order could impact what goes on below the surface of inland lakes in Northern Michigan.

It's too early to know for sure.

But this week, the Cadillac News spoke to Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Biologist Mark Tonello about how the "Stay Home" and other COIVID-19 orders might impact fish populations.

WALLEYE EGG TAKE

DNR crews didn't do an "egg take" this year because it wouldn't have been possible to do so while maintaining social distancing.

The absence of a walleye "egg take" this year is unprecedented, according to Tonello.

"Not in my career, have we not taken walleye eggs," Tonello said. That could have impacts on lakes like Lake Cadillac and Lake Mitchell, which rely on walleye stocking to have walleye for fishing.

The egg takes are normally done on the Muskegon River near Croton Dam. DNR crews take an electrofishing boat onto the river, then "shock up the big spawning walleye." They harvest eggs from females and fertilize the eggs with sperm from the males. Then the eggs go to a DNR hatchery and then to a pond where the fish grow until mid-summer, when they fish then get stocked into lakes like Lake Cadillac or Lake Mitchell. From there, it's usually a couple of years before the fish are big enough for an angler to keep.

"For a lot of our in lakes around here, we don't get a lot of natural reproduction of walleye," Tonello said. "We basically have to stock."

Without this year's egg take, a year class of walleye could be missing from inland lakes.

But that's not been decided yet. When "Stay Home" restrictions are lifted, the DNR could look for eggs from other sources, such as other states or tribes.

But Tonello said he isn't aware of anyone else who took walleye eggs.

"At this point my best guess is we likely will not stock anywhere in Michigan with walleye this year," he said.

"Missing one year will not be catastrophic," Tonello said. Some lakes won't even miss the walleye this year because most walleye lakes are only stocked every other year.

"There will still be walleye out there, even if we're not able to stock this year," Tonello said.

It really comes down to next year.

If things are back to normal and an egg take is possible, "I would anticipate that we'll put a lot of effort into walleye rearing next year, and we'll try to rear as many as we can to make up for what we missed this year," Tonello said, stressing that that was just his guess and not an official policy. "If we can make up for it next year, then, then, you know, down the line anglers would probably not even notice."

MOTORIZED BOATS

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer temporarily banned the use of motorized boats during the COVID-19 "Stay Home" order.

The ban lasted about two weeks and was lifted Friday in a new executive order.

If it had lasted longer, it could have impacted fishing harvests, according to the interview with Tonello earlier this week, when it was still uncertain how long the motorized boat ban would last.

Motorized boats with electronic fish finders, are "incredibly efficient" at helping anglers catch fish.

If the motorized boat ban had lasted for another, say, two months, blue gills in particular could have been impacted, Tonello noted.

"There are some lakes where spawning blue gills get hit pretty hard on the beds," Tonello said. If motor boats don't fish those beds during spawning season,  "You could see an impact there."

The governor stressed during Friday's press conference that, if people don't observe social distancing and cases start rising again, restrictions could be reinstated.

If blue gill weren't harvested in significant numbers this year due to the motorized boat ban, the fish could be bigger next year.

If the motorized boat ban would have gone on for another month, "that would probably result in a very low harvest of of walleye and pan fish on on our lakes," Tonello said.

LAWSUIT

Some anglers and outdoors enthusiasts pushed back on Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's order. On April 19, Michigan United Conservation Clubs (MUCC) announced that the organization had filed a complaint in United States District Court for the Western District of Michigan challenging the criminal prohibition against motorboat use. The group then filed a motion for a preliminary injunction and a judge set a hearing date for next week.

“The MUCC lawsuit placed discernable pressure on the governor’s office and DNR to reconsider the unconstitutional and ambiguous language that was being enforced,‘ MUCC Executive Director Amy Trotter said. “The grassroots power of MUCC proved that individual anglers’ voices can be heard and that they do matter.‘

This weekend is the walleye and trout opener.

“The lakes, rivers and streams of Michigan will again be buzzing with anglers tomorrow thanks to MUCC and their concern for the rights of anglers and hunters in Michigan,‘ professional angler Mark Zona said in an MUCC news release. “Anglers need to be responsible and prove that they can properly follow all safety protocols related to social distancing.‘

Cadillac News