ALPENA - The research vessel for the Department of Natural Resources Alpena Fisheries Research Station could be replaced if Michigan lawmakers agree to fund it.
Both the state Senate's and House of Representatives' DNR budgets contain $2 million to replace the Chinook, station Supervisor Jim Johnson said. A few other differences in the two budgets remain, but he's optimistic the funding for the boat will remain intact.
This season marks the 67th year the Chinook has served the DNR, Johnson said. The boat was launched in 1947 for the DNR's law enforcement division. It was transferred in 1966 to serve as a survey vessel to monitor the success of the state's Pacific salmon program.
"It was cut in two, and they added 8 feet to the length of the boat," he said. "They equipped it for fishing, and it's been our survey boat ever since."
The Chinook has had rusted pieces of its hull replaced over the years, Johnson said. Two years ago when crews were replacing steel plates, they discovered the rudder shaft was rusting through and the propeller drive shaft was badly worn, among other issues.
There's more: the engine dates from 1966, Capt. Jeff Diemond said, and it burns a gallon of oil between changes. On Monday, he and Assistant Capt. Bill Wellenkamp were working on the boat to ready it for the spring lake trout survey. Despite putting around $110,000 into the boat over the past eight years, there are questions about how well the hull is holding up, Diemond said.
"This year, we'll try to minimize the amount of adverse weather we get into, and just try to get as much work done as possible," he said.
The Chinook is critical to the research station's work, Johnson said, so much so that he doubts the station would be here if the boat wasn't. It allows researchers to collect data on the actual fish populations and provide managers the information they need to make decisions on stocking and lamprey control.
Each spring, the Chinook catches lake trout and whitefish to assess sea lamprey wounding, Johnson said. They need to collect enough fish from each of the lake's management units at the same time each year to monitor lamprey control efforts. The boat will work at points all the way from the Straits of Mackinac to south of Harbor Beach.
Lake trout population data gathered with the Chinook helps determine how many fish recreational and commercial anglers can catch without hurting the population, Johnson said. This data goes into a population model developed by Fisheries biologist Ji He, and a 2000 consent decree determines how the catch is allocated between tribal commercial and recreational anglers.
If replaced, the Chinook could get a new home as a museum piece in the William G. Milliken State Park in Detroit, Johnson said. Another possible location is Belle Isle. The idea is to leave it equipped like it's about to head out for a day of surveying, rain gear and all.
"It'll be a relic of, really, a bygone era when our old GM 671 diesel was one of the more popular diesel engines of the time, and when boats were made with a displacement hull of steel," he said.
This isn't the first time the research station wanted the boat replaced, Johnson said. A 2003 proposal suggested replacing the Chinook, along with the vessel used by the Lake Superior research station crew, which was in even worse shape. There was only enough money for one, so Lake Superior got a new boat: the R/V Lake Char.
It's a 56-foot aluminum alloy boat with twin screws and engines, and an enclosed work space, according to the DNR. It has a cruising speed of 22 miles per hour, and Johnson said it has worked out well so far. The Chinook's replacement would be very similar, and the higher speed would provide access to more far-flung reefs.
This also isn't the first time replacing the boat had been included in proposed state budgets. State Rep. Peter Pettalia, R-Presque Isle, said funding had been written into last year's budget, but was removed at the last minute.
"The majority of the money was coming from the general fund budget," he said.
This time, $1 million will be from the general fund, with the rest coming from the DNR, Pettalia said. A change in the state's fishing license structure is putting more money into the department's budget.
Even if the funding stays in the budget, it'll be a few years before the new boat arrives, Diemond said. He's hoping to squeeze a little more life out of the Chinook until it's replaced.
"It's been a good, reliable boat up to this point," he said. "It's never had a problem getting us home."