What does it take to keep our state a world-class fishery?

Sponsored by the Michigan Wildlife Council

Michigan is known as one of the best freshwater fisheries and angler destinations in North America. Within the state, each area has it’s own unique fishery to boast. Unfortunately, there have been times when human activity has put that special designation at risk. By the late 19th century, fish had begun disappearing due to habitat destruction, overfishing, dam construction and pollution. Intensive management practices then became necessary to stop the losses and restore fish populations.

For more than a century, fish hatcheries have played a key role in those efforts.

In 2021, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources put more than 17.6 million fish, weighing a total of 414,000 pounds, into Michigan’s waters. Stocked fish make up 25%-35% of all Michigan recreational fishing, including a large percentage of the Great Lakes trout and salmon fishery. For example, 100% of the Great Lakes’ Atlantic salmon population is stocked

One of DNR’s trucks used to plant fish stock in rivers and lakes

“Michigan’s fish-stocking program has enabled our state to remain a world-class fishery, not only for species native to the Great Lakes, but for those that have been introduced like Chinook, Coho, steelhead, Atlantic salmon and brown trout,” said Ed Eisch, DNR fish production manager. “In fact, catch rates for chinook and coho — two of the top sportfish in North America — exceed those on the West Coast.”

Fish stocking is a critical activity of the DNR. Not only does it help provide diverse fishing opportunities, but it also supports Michigan’s economy. 

Eisch said recreational fishing in Michigan is a $2.7 billion industry directly supporting 38,000 jobs.

In West Michigan, the Mason County Walleye Association (MCWA) supports the DNR in its stocking efforts by operating a rearing pond on 7 acres near Ludington. The group also has three auxiliary ponds where it raises daphnia (also known as water fleas) used to feed the young fish.

Every spring, the DNR releases 400,000 walleye fry in the association’s pond. They feed and monitor the fish for six to eight weeks before the DNR harvests them for stocking.

Students visit Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery to learn more about Michigan’s fish stocking efforts.

Since 1990, MCWA has successfully reared more than 5 million walleyes. Last year, the DNR stocked over 324,000 MCWA-raised walleyes in lakes throughout the state. Over the past 11 years, 80% of the fish raised by MCWA have been returned to the wild.

The MCWA’s Moe Mowbray grew up in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York and saw firsthand how the effects of acid rain decimated the brook trout population.

“Let’s be honest, we haven’t always been the best stewards of our environment or natural resources, and we have a lot of work to do to make up for the sins of our past,” Mowbray said. “We formed our group to make a difference in our community and our state. The local residents and businesses and people who come here to fish have been pretty happy with our efforts.”

Fisheries management is key

In Michigan, there are six state hatcheries that work together to produce the species, strain and size of fish needed by fisheries managers. These fish are then delivered at a specific time and location for stocking to ensure their success. Most fish in Michigan are stocked in the spring.
Michigan’s world-renowned fishing is a great example of the power of fisheries management. Along with harvest regulations and habitat protection and rehabilitation, production of hatchery fish is another important management tool used to:
• Restore lost fish populations, such as lake sturgeon in the Ontonagon River.
• Rehabilitate formerly depressed fish populations, such as walleye in Saginaw Bay.
• Provide ecosystem balance, such as stocking chinook and coho salmon to control alewives in the Great Lakes.
• Offer diverse fishing opportunities, such as stocking channel catfish, walleye and muskellunge in many inland waters.
Michigan’s fish production is possible through the work at its six fish hatcheries, three permanent egg-take stations and numerous rearing ponds.
Last spring, Platte River State Fish Hatchery near Beulah, for example, stocked more than 2.2 million fish, including steelhead, walleye and Atlantic, Chinook and Coho salmon. Those fish were then planted at 49 sites statewide, most on the Great Lakes.

Fishing benefits the entire state

Fishing plays a vital role in Michigan’s conservation efforts like keeping wildlife populations in balance, protecting Michigan waters from habitat degradation and invasive species and safeguarding the state’s forests.

Activities like fish stocking are primarily funded by hunting and fishing license sales and federal Sport Fish Restoration funds, not state tax dollars.

Last year, licenses purchased by anglers and hunters generated over $66 million for the Michigan Game and Fish Protection Fund. The fund is the DNR’s largest revenue source and is critical to its conservation work. Fishing and hunting equipment sales raised an additional $32 million to support wildlife and natural resource management.

“A lot of time, energy and money go into restoring, managing and protecting Michigan’s important natural resources, and sportsmen and sportswomen are the driving force behind those efforts,” Michigan Wildlife Council Chair Nick Buggia said. “I want to thank all of the state and local conservationists who ensure everyone can enjoy our great outdoors and the anglers and hunters who support their work.”